Transfer of Learning –
How Juggling, Bulldozer
Driving and Savvy Instructors Can Build Flight Skills
By Jason Catanzariti, CFI / CFII / MEI
Originally published in AOPA
Flight Training Magazine – March 2013
I have a dirty
little secret: I used to be a professional juggler. There, I said
it. I made my living tossing balls and flaming torches up and down
before I started make airplanes go up and down. Years ago I performed
on stages all over the world, and even won a national unicycle competition.
People often say, “Well, learning to fly must have been easy
after that!” Although I’m skeptical of a direct connection,
it is interesting to consider whether juggling had any impact on
my flight training. For that matter, could any other experiences
outside aviation help, or hinder, flight students?
The technical term for this idea is “transfer
of learning”, and it occurs when a person’s past experience
affects new learning. For example, Little Leaguers practice hitting
from stationary batting tees. If that exercise proves helpful when
they face pitched balls later on, it is considered positive transfer.
Transfer is the bedrock of all learning because people interpret
new things in terms of what they have experienced before. The FAA
emphasizes this point in the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook.
“Near transfer” happens when
the skills involved are very similar or share critical elements,
such as rehearsing an approach and landing up at altitude before
trying it in the airport pattern. When the skills or contexts differ
significantly the effect is called “far transfer”, and
is considered much less likely. Michael Jordan famously attempted
to play professional baseball, but it would appear his prodigious
basketball skills did not transfer. Basketball and baseball just
aren’t very similar. For this reason, I will not recommend
that all flight students take juggling lessons. The skills necessary
for flying a plane are so specific that most people wouldn’t
benefit at all from juggling. But at the individual level, who knows?
There’s no telling what students may find in their backgrounds
that connects with new learning. CFIs can tap into their students’
often considerable life experience to find prior knowledge that
If there was any transfer from my juggling
career to flying, I believe it involved experience in managing a
complex environment. During performances I had to juggle while also
coordinating musical cues, stage lighting, audience feedback and
interactions with partners. When I later learned to control an airplane
while simultaneously talking on the radio, completing checklists,
navigating and judging weather, it all felt strangely familiar.
With this in mind, instructors can try
to draw on experiences in a student’s background that help
them relate to flying. Everyone has taken a shower, and adjusting
the water temperature is a lot like throttle movement during cruise
– a little at a time, and wait to see the effect before making
another move. A fish tank can conceptually illustrate principles
of weather. Turn off the filter and the water will stagnate and
get murky – just like classic warm front weather with little
atmospheric movement. Turn the filter back on and you’ve got
a cold front cleaning everything out. People who enjoy athletics
and physicality may benefit from using movement as a teaching tool.
One drill for learning airport traffic pattern entries is to place
a board on the ground as a runway. The student then becomes the
airplane, walking downwind or base leg entries at the direction
of air traffic control as portrayed by the instructor.
I began asking pilots what experiences
outside aviation they felt gave them a leg up in flight training.
Naturally, the answers were highly subjective, and it’s impossible
to separate what actually affected new learning from merely increasing
motivation. Sports came up often. A number of pilots cited motorcycling
as having influenced their thinking on maneuvering airplanes, particularly
in turns. Paramedic and private pilot Chuck Atwell suffered none
of the “mic fright” common to flight students. He spends
much of his time talking on radios to emergency and hospital personnel,
and found that experience transferred directly to flying. But others
drew from more esoteric experiences. Stan Brobston was a naval aviator
and later became a professor of music. He feels his musical ability
helped him fly A-4 jets. “I use sound to help me determine
a lot of factors in what my plane is doing and how well it is doing
it.” He may be on to something, because there is an organization
devoted to pilot musicians (www.flyingmusicians.org).
Astronaut Story Musgrave should know something
about transferring learning from one area of life to another. A
surgeon with a slew of other academic degrees, he flew six space
shuttle missions and has more hours in the supersonic T-38 Talon
than any other pilot. As a child, Musgrave taught himself to operate
and repair every piece of machinery one might find on a farm –
including an airplane – and draws a direct line between that
and his later endeavors. When the Hubble Space Telescope was found
to have critical problems, Musgrave was assigned to lead the first
servicing mission. “The reason I got the job,” he says,
“is because I’m a farm kid.” He believes his early
experiences gave him the ability to determine important elements
in unfamiliar activities. Faced with a new playing field, as he
calls it, Musgrave attempts to determine the new skills required
for completing the job. “You identify the skills you have
to have and go learn them, but identifying the skills you have to
have is a skill in itself.”
If recognizing the relevant skills is important,
so is figuring out how to effectively practice them. While searching
for other jugglers who are pilots, I came across Barry Friedman.
He has performed as one half of the Raspyni Brothers for 30 years,
including two appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Friedman holds a commercial license and instrument rating, and believes
juggling showed him how discrete components of skills can be practiced
separately and intensively. He notes that although flying involves
both cognitive and physical skills, “I can break down the
steps, I can master each step, and then I’ll be able to do
it. I don’t see flying as a whole lot different than that.”
Transfer of learning can also work negatively,
especially when two skills are similar but have important differences.
The classic example from sports is tennis versus racquetball. A
tennis swing is primarily an arm movement, while racquetball necessitates
a more wrist based action. An experienced player of one may have
difficulties learning the other, although this type of interference
is usually temporary.
Flight students often experience negative
transfer while learning to taxi. For people who have been driving
most of their lives, deeply ingrained automotive skills directly
conflict with rudder pedal steering. Many students will reflexively
grab for the yoke when they feel hurried or distracted, although
this tendency fades with experience. Flight instructors can prepare
students by discussing this beforehand, and assuring them that their
initial discomfort will be short lived. Having new students keep
their hands on their knees during initial taxi practice also helps.
I’ve observed that bulldozer operators have no problems learning
to taxi because they are already accustomed to steering with their
feet – positive transfer!
Harrison Schmitt was a Harvard trained
geologist, and had never flown an airplane prior to joining NASA.
Sent to train with the Air Force, he felt his background wasn’t
much of a factor until it came to instrument flying. “I’ve
always had the impression that my scientific experience probably
made it more difficult to learn to fly instruments”, he says.
As a scientist, Schmitt was accustomed to methodically focusing
on one problem at a time, and moving on only when it was fully understood.
Instrument flight demands a more timely response. Schmitt recalls,
“Learning that very rapid scan was a new skill set that I
had to master.” His difficulties only temporary, Schmitt qualified
as a jet pilot and later co-piloted the final lunar landing of the
Apollo program. Interestingly, Schmitt notes that flying helicopters
transferred well to certain abort scenarios in the lunar module
that required challenging hands-on flying.
Another example of negative transfer comes
from civilian Harriet jet owner and airshow pilot Art Nalls. He
notes that some standard pilot reactions have the potential to kill
you in the Harrier, which uses vectored thrust for vertical and
short takeoffs and landings (VSTOL). While landing from a hover,
the pilot must maintain a three-point attitude while carefully controlling
the descent with engine power. Throttling back and flaring –
as pilots are trained to do in all virtually all other fixed-wing
aircraft – would quickly lead to a dangerous loss of control
in a Harrier. This factor, among others, made it a difficult airplane
to master in transition training.
Flight simulators have the potential for
both positive and negative transfer of learning. The airlines have
long used full-motion simulators paired with carefully structured
course syllabi. These machines are such faithful reproductions of
real-world flying that positive transfer is virtually (pun intended)
guaranteed. Pilots can even receive new type ratings in simulators
without ever having flown the actual aircraft. Today’s powerful
computers now enable enthusiasts to run high quality simulators
at home, and with a little more investment they can add realistic
flight controls and avionics suites. But despite these advances,
there are two ways that home flight simulators can cause negative
transfer for flight students.
First, until these systems utilize full-motion
and realistic force-feedback in the controls, they will be unable
to replicate the sensations of flying actual aircraft. Second, home
simulator buffs are not likely to be guided by qualified flight
instructors. That’s fine if users intend to stay in their
living rooms, but if they hope to fly real aircraft some day they
could be giving themselves bad habits. The most common problem is
that simulators encourage pilots to look at the instruments, while
in VFR flying we want to spend much more time looking at the horizon
and scanning for traffic. Obviously, a case of negative transfer.
Instructors should ask students if they practice on home simulators
and offer guidance on how to use them properly.
The authors of How People Learn: Brain,
Mind, Experience, and School advise educators, “Students may
have knowledge that is relevant to a learning situation that is
not activated. By helping activate this knowledge, teachers can
build on students’ strengths.” Find out if your students
ride motorcycles (or unicycles!), knit, play an instrument or climb
mountains, and give them an edge on their new playing field in the
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