Teaching teachers

Our helicopter flight school sold coupons for 2600 introductory lessons and I’ve been trying to train the other instructors to teach a group ground school (outline). When I teach a group of 15 or 20 students, I do it by going around the room, learning each person’s name, and asking a question. If the person doesn’t give the right answer, I ask the next person. If that doesn’t work, I give a hint and ask the next person. We keep going around the room with questions such as “What happens if you have the helicopter parked on a frozen lake and turn on the engine to start the rotor system spinning?” (answer: fuselage turns in the opposite direction; this leads naturally to the next question “What would you then want to add to the helicopter?” (answer: tail rotor)).

Students stay awake because they know that they’re going to be asked a question within the next five minutes or so. The material ends up being naturally paced to the comprehension level of the class. If people aren’t answering correctly, the class slows down, people have more time to think, and I provide more explanations. At any time during the two-hour class I can tell you which students are getting it and which may need remedial instruction.

Helicopter instructors who’ve watched me teach the class assure me that they’re ready to do it themselves. I sit in the back to make sure. They stand up in the front of the room and start talking. They might ask two questions per hour of the students and they typically won’t select a student to answer, but rather let the student who is best-prepared answer. After about 20 minutes, just as education researchers have found, most of the students assumed a glazed uncomprehending look. Functionally I think it would be better to call this “live video” rather than teaching, since the same effect could be achieved by emailing students a link to a video to be viewed in a Web browser.

These are guys with 20 or more years of experience teaching helicopter students, both on the ground and in the air. They are genuinely great teachers 1 on 1. Yet they are hopeless in a group instruction setting (this was not only my (biased) conclusion, but that of our young assistants). It turns into high school all over again, with about 10 percent of students learning a lot, 40 percent muddling through, and 50 percent enduring a total waste of their time (since they quickly got lost and then the rest of the lecture was over their heads).

I’m basically giving up on the group idea because I don’t think it is possible for the teachers that we have to be effective in front of a group and we can’t accept the kind of failure-to-learn rates that are common in our public schools (the laggard graduates of our lavishly funded public schools have wrecked the U.S. economy but they haven’t wrecked any helicopters, which is a risk that is ever-present at a flight school if a student lacks proper ground schooling).

People talk about the importance of teacher training for our public school teachers, but as far as I can tell there is no way to make the lecture method work for anything that requires students to develop a conceptual grasp of a topic.

[You might ask what we’re going to do with our 2600 students. The answer is that I’ll continue to teach them in a 20-person Q&A session and the other instructors might teach them in groups of 2.]

7 thoughts on “Teaching teachers

  1. Phil, The approach you follow works in theoretical courses as well. My statistics teacher at Berkeley, Dieter Jurkat, used this very effectively. No one was penalized or yelled at if they did not know the answer. He just did not proceed until the question, the concept and the answer were clear to every one else.

    It was so effective, that I could recall the entire 3 hour class (almost) minute by minute in my head during my 1 hour drive back home.

  2. When I was teaching beginners computer programming (1989-2002), my style was to come up with ways so that students: 1) see the problem (on their own), and 2) device an answer to the problem (again, on their own).

    For example, I never showed them a loop and explained how to use it. Instead, I asked them how would I solve a problem of printing numbers from 1 to 10. I start by hardwiring printf. Then I asked what if I want to print 1 to 50, 100, or 1000, etc.? From here, someone will mention variables, and from it copy / past in the editor vs. typing over and over! Now everyone is getting excited. Next, I begun to point out obvious pattern in the solution that we just come up with: repetition! So, I say “how can we make those lines repeat over and over without us typing it”? Now and only now do I start talking about loops and give them the whole story as to why loops are important to programming. I use this style over and over when introducing logics, functions, classes, etc.

    And few other thing will help a lot: move around, raise and lower your voice volume as you lecture, use real world examples, and make jokes every now and then. Those are especially important for me when my class was for continuing education students from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM that averaged 15-20 students (one semester, it was 25).

  3. Re: Frozen lake question: When I saw this earlier, I was half-wondering if you were asking “copter on a frictionless surface” (more suited in introductory physics for heli-aviators) or “skids frozen to the ice” (advanced situational) The latter can be a problem with planes fitted with skis that have sat for awhile. I’ve read that is frequently solved by throttling up and trying to shimmy the plane out with the rudder, which makes me wonder about what would one do with a helicopter frozen to the ice. Chip them out manually? I’ve only flown “fixed pitch” throttle and cyclic RC types (very forgiving with ridiculous performance to weight ratios), but have seen plenty of videos of full size copters encountering destructive resonance, catastrophic coning, and dynamic rollovers, to make me feel extremely cautious and wary.

    Actually now that I think about it, the more advanced full-house RC helicopters used in competition have more augmented stability than an F-16. Gyro locks can be set on all axis with variable behaviors including sustain last input and motion with hands off the sticks, or hands off and the copter will immediately seek to hover at present altitude, and automatically orient itself to the closest attitude to ensure that motionless hover, and then counter for wind and such, this including inverted hovering. This leads to silly tricks like literally cutting grass- inverted or touching the blade tips to smooth hard surfaces such as a basketball court, while inverted. Throttle and tail rotor being added automatically by the gyros to deal with decaying rotor speed and torque effects, at a rate of near a thousand times a second.

    Any thoughts on an evolved or augmented user/control interface for full size helicopters? I can see giant training issues, liability issues, etc.

  4. In my experience, you can make lectures work for complex concepts, but only if the lecture is about twenty minutes long with a long Q&A, and then you teach other topics that rely on elements of the first thing you taught. You also use twice-a-day twenty minute small group discussion periods which also serve as a reenforcement point. Our failure rate seems to be only slightly over 10% with this approach, which I think is not bad unless you extensively prescreen out problematic students.

  5. Phil, the Army effectively teaches rotorcraft flight in the group setting for all ground instruction and then we use the “stick buddy” concept for actual aircraft flight training. I understand this isn’t very practical for someone paying their own way through the training, but we pair strong with the week and let the two man team conquer the training together. In the long run this method is very effective and has been proven by the test of time. Decades worth of Army pilots have been trained this way…

  6. Phil,

    When using this method how do you impart arbitrary information which the student would have no way of knowing until you tell them? A specific regulatory requirement for example.

  7. Neal: We email students in advance with some reading to do, so if there is a large block of stuff for them to learn they can do it at their own pace. I guess we could have some in-class reading where we give people three minutes to read a handout and then discuss. People can read 3X faster than they can listen. There are some parts of the class, e.g., going over the Robinson R44 checklist, where I have to revert to lecture mode for a few minutes at a time. But I punctuate with questions, e.g., “Why are we checking that our ability to turn the hydraulics OFF?”, that lead to a few minutes of discussion.

    Even with regulations, I start off with a question: “Who makes the laws of the United States?” [hint: the answer, at least as far as FAA regulations are concerned, is not “Congress” or “elected representatives”]

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