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 is useful.

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 sky.



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