There is a very dangerous assumption built into all our CFI instructional materials and techniques. This starts with developing the “standardized lesson plans” we are required to create for our initial CFI evaluation. If not checked, this standardization can quickly lead to the “Army Chow Line Approach to Instruction.” e.g. “This is Lesson 3, step up…here is your slow flight (blop), turns right and left and intro to stalls (ready or not!)” Everyone rolls their eyes at this analogy but our modern aviation delivery system is built on the military and is still not too different! But teaching a millennial post-doc college student aviation is completely different from coaching a young mother discovering aviation for recreational purposes. Every student requires creative instructional techniques on the part of the CFI to be effective. If you are a brand new CFI, take those lesson plans you carefully prepared for your FAA checkride and shred them (or use them for reference only).

I call the FAA approach “the myth of the blank slate” when working with new CFIs. You are never going to get to teach that “idealized lesson plan!’ One of the initial challenges of being a flight instructor “for real” is accepting this fact and being able instead to adapt rapidly, effectively and safely to each new learning situation as it evolves. Though developing a curriculum and lesson plans, for an “ideal student” has value, imposing that structure on a  unique learning environment (and person) is one of the biggest errors in flight instruction.  Creativity and adaptability are the key skills of a masterful CFI.

When you meet a new student, whether it is their first lesson or midway through a curriculum (with “history” and “issues”), it is essential to immediately discover their unique strengths, weaknesses, background and learning style in a very intentional manner. With apologies for this glib generalization, every successful student in aviation needs some combination of the “hands, head and heart” capabilities to succeed. Some people are extremely dexterous and blessed with tremendous “hand to eye coordination.” Others will require more practice to succeed. The sooner you discover these (and other) unique characteristics, the more efficient and fun the training will be.

So now when I meet a new student (at any level), I insist on some time to work out all of these issues clearly before flight. I personally would not recommend an “interview” since this formality can impose a frame which creates tension and discourages true discovery. But a casual sit down discussion allows you both to gather information and dispel myths (in both directions). This is a time to establish a common bond and make sure you find out: first, “what are your goals in aviation and what is your motivation for learning aviation?” Teaching a recreational flier to be a future airline pilot is a common (and unsuccessful) modern mistake. Second, “what are activities you enjoy and are already good at? (What psychologists call “privileged domains”) Third, “how much do you know about aviation already?” (from a parent or friend who flies?) This “naive rendition” or what they think they already know about aviation is critical. These existing impressions might be a positive (or negative) but they are the basis for all future learning.

One last essential trait you need to discover about your new client (and questions are not necessary or recommended on this one) is determining their disposition and learning style. All learner’s personalities fall somewhere along the spectrum between “OCD engineer” to “skateboard dude” (this is not a currently accepted psychological scale!) Discovering their disposition and learning style will be essential to creating an effective learning environment. Interestingly, in my experience, neither end of this personality spectrum makes a better pilot, but that is another article…fly safely!

Please join us on July 12th for a live discussion of these and other CFI issues. Rod Machado and Greg Brown are true leaders in aviation education. We will be offering actionable CFI techniques. Please register on the FAA Safety site so we know who is watching *and* we will give out some exciting prizes!

Please “follow” our SAFE blog to receive notification of new articles. Write us a comment if you see a problem or want to contribute an article. We are always seeking more input on aviation improvements and flight safety. There are many highly qualified aviation educators out there! If you are not yet a SAFE member, please Join SAFE and support our mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits alone make this commitment worthwhile and fun. Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to put pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smart phone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together we make safer pilots!

About the author 

David St. George (Lifetime Member)

David St. George learned to fly at Flanders Valley Airport in 1970. Proving that everyone is eventually trainable, he became an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor for airplanes (single and multi, instrument, and glider) and serves the Rochester FSDO as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. In this capacity, he gives flight tests at any level from sport pilot to ATP and CFI. For 25 years David was East Hill Flying Club's 141 Chief Instructor and manager. David holds multi and single engine ATP pilot certificates, with pilot ratings for glider and seaplane and several jet type ratings. He recently earned his 13th renewal as a Master Instructor and owns an Aeronca Champ so he can build hours for that airline job!

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