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Click Air: Clicker Trained Flight Instruction, Part 3

Filed in - Off the Beaten Path

by: Michael Pryor, President, Click-Air

Teaching and reinforcing

Once again, quite a bit of time has passed since I wrote my last article. I am now an instructor at a small flight school in California. My students are young and not so young, and include college kids, retired executives, some corporate management types, a painter, and the airfield fuel-truck driver. They are bold, they are timid, they are coordinated, they are uncoordinated, they are organized and they are disorganized. Some are too smart for their own good. One or two don't know how talented they really are, laughing while performing difficult tasks that make others freeze with fear. I teach and I watch and I marvel at the complexity of the interaction: the transfer of knowledge and skills from one person to another in the crammed cockpit of a Cessna 152.

Back during the "instrument" portion of my own flight training, my instructor used to tell me repeatedly, "Hold the yoke correctly!" I tend to hold the yoke in my fingertips, the way I hold a guitar neck. He preferred that I grasp it with the palm. Half a dozen times a flight he would say, gruffly, "Hold the yoke correctly." But I couldn't seem to remember for very long.

Finally I told him, "You know, if you happen to notice me holding it the way you like it, and you say ‘THAT's the way I like to see you hold it,' you will only have to say it two or three times and I'll get it." He never would do it; I still hold the yoke like a guitar. The principle is this: If you reward a behavior two or three times, you will get better results than if you punish a wrong behavior a dozen times (it was wrong in his eyes anyway).

I had a similar experience with an instructor who was teaching me to be a flight instructor. He wanted to make sure that I kept my hand on the throttle at ALL times. I didn't mind doing that, for the sake of following his agenda; but he had a way of punishing you for forgetting. He reduced the power to ‘idle' if you let go of the throttle. After about half a dozen such events, I told him: "You know, if you happen to see me holding the throttle the way you like, and you say, ‘THAT'S the way I like to see you hold the throttle,' it will only take two or three times and I will get it."

To my surprise, a little while later he saw me holding the throttle and said, "That's the way I like to see you hold the throttle!"

I shouted back, "THAT'S the way to reinforce a behavior!" And I really did start to remember to hold it the way he wanted. And he actually started to reinforce other things that he wanted to see.

Marking the behavior as it happens

Some flight instructors aren't punitive in method, but they miss reinforcing the good stuff, and are therefore less effective. Karen, I've noticed, is quite a good photographer. She waits and then clicks at precisely the moment my three-year-old daughter has turned her head and, for a second, is gazing at her mother. Isn't that just like clicker training? As a flight instructor, I set up the situation and then I wait for precisely the "shot" that I am looking for. "There! That is what I was looking for," I say to my student. (I am probably the only flight instructor on the planet who kicks himself for a ‘late' reinforcer!)

I have used an actual clicker in the air at times, if the task is narrow enough. I myself enjoyed being actually ‘clicked' by my instructor in the flight simulator environment. Unfortunately, flying can be so complex that it usually seems necessary to use a verbal event marker—"Good!"—plus a verbal explanation, and that seems to be adequate; the students do learn. For now, I am applying the concepts and techniques with a voice-mark or thumbs-up as a conditioned reinforcer, and sometimes by letting my student do something fun, as a reward or primary reinforcer for giving a good effort at the not-so-fun stuff.

I will be trying the clicker again for a guy who has trouble timing the landing ‘flare' (the timing and touch of the flare is so delicate!). Clicker training is proving useful for gymnasts, so perhaps it will help unlock the secrets of landings for my student too.

Altitude and attitude

I know that I have much to learn about teaching and training, but I know I am going in the right direction; it really works. My students have an ongoing sense of success, even if they are struggling with certain things (like landing) because they get precise and positive feedback when they show me the stuff I want to see. The FAA wants to see that a private pilot can hold altitude within plus or minus100 feet (in total, that is the height of a twenty story building, by the way). I reinforce in the plus-or-minus twenty-foot range, from the start. Also I make sure to reinforce when the altitude is exactly on the mark. If the altitude deviates substantially, I may mention the fact (not in a punitive way) but I would rather that the student see the deviation himself and correct it. Then I am reinforcing a good correction as well as a good altitude hold.

My students can all hold an altitude like pros, because when I see them exactly at the altitude that they are supposed to be at, I erupt: "THAT's the way to hold altitude. I love that kind of flying!" It remains fun for them; and I happen to know that rewarding the stuff that I like will take much less energy than trying to punish the stuff I don't like (and with better long term results, of course).

Of course, when my student is distracted and points the nose at the ground moments before landing, I wait briefly to see if he is going to do anything and then pull the nose up myself. The fact that the instructor had to step in and fix a faulty approach never fails to register with a student; a scolding wouldn't add much to that. So, I focus on the good stuff and avoid the natural tendency to scold, even though it might feel good to vent for a moment (after narrowly escaping sudden death.)

Tasks, sub-tasks, and micro-tasks

Aviation is not a simple world. The task the pilot is asked to perform, flying the plane, actually consists of groups of tasks. Each of those tasks consists of its own package of sub-tasks, and those consist of what I call micro-tasks. On an instrument approach to an airport, the pilot must fly the plane (‘attitude instrument' flight); navigate with maps and various instruments; and communicate with the air traffic control facilities. Each of these tasks has a group of sub-tasks associated with it. For example, use of a single instrument, the Omni-Bearing Selector or ‘OBS,' requires that the pilot be able to tune it to the proper frequency, rotate the dial to the proper course, and identify the station.

This last sub-task (‘ID-ing' the station) consists of a number of micro-tasks. They include looking for, reaching, and switching on the appropriate switch on the intercom; turning on the ‘I.D.' switch; turning up the appropriate volume knob; listening for the Morse code identifier; cross-checking the code with the code on the map; and then reversing the process. Meanwhile the pilot is alternating these micro-tasks with the primary tasks of flying the plane (yes, your eyes bounce around continuously).

All of the tiny tasks, plus the ability to flow between tasks groups quickly and accurately, constitute the overall task of flying the plane. My goal is to shape general skills by shaping "fluency" in all the parts. I need to combine the careful task identification and sequencing of the so-called precision-teachers with the clicker trainers' timing and creative flexibility.

While maintaining an overview, the realm of effective ‘shaping' is down in the tiny tasks and fractions of tasks. I am seeing that I can shape very small behaviors with a few well-timed reinforcers. These small clusters of behaviors, once shaped individually, can than be reinforced as a group (and eventually only intermittently). Then I can reinforce the performance of groups of groups. If I can remember that hollering "Hold the yoke correctly" is ineffective, I can focus my time and energy on finding creative ways to positively reinforce the good stuff that I see. It takes a certain kind strength (patience, I suppose) to ignore the unwanted behavior and to watch carefully for the behavior desired. But it takes so much less energy than constant punishment.

Ho'o a'o: the teacher and learner as one

The Hawaiians didn't discriminate between the acts of teaching and learning. Their phrase, "ho'o a'o" [hoe-oh-ah-oh] is used to describe both simultaneously. As I try to integrate the principles of operant conditioning into the flight training environment, the concept of "ho'o a'o" illustrates the dynamics of clicker training well. Karen recently taught a master-class for dog trainers (her students are actually trainer-trainers which makes her a trainer-trainer trainer). She used a technique we called ‘chain-training,' in which she and her student would both click the animal. If the student was clicking late, Karen's click would arrive first. The exercise helped the student to get the feel for accurately clicking the behavior that was being shaped. Over the course of the session, their two clicks began to synchronize until it was one click (which, in itself must have been very reinforcing for the student) and eventually Karen could abstain.

A transfer of skill occurred in parallel, like DNA peeling off a copy of itself. My interest in this kind of dynamic is simple; my student and I sit side by side and we each have a set of flight controls. I want to take him from not knowing how to use those controls to wishing that I would leave him alone so that he can go flying. What I am looking for, in adapting the techniques of clicker training to flight instruction, is the parallel transfer of skills, this "ho'o a'o," wherein teaching and learning are one and the same, and the teacher remains a student and, perhaps, the student becomes a teacher.

Long-term retention: a new goal

I used to remodel homes for a living. One client had a golden retriever that would bark loudly at you until you threw its disgusting tennis ball (it REALLY liked to retrieve). My client had ‘trained' that behavior, simply by throwing the ball only after the barking had become unbearable (note: how to shape unbearably loud barking—see above.) I was working on the exterior of the house at the time, and the dog was a real pest. So I told the dog, "Listen, I will throw the ball for you ONLY when you bring it quietly to my feet." When the dog brought the ball, I would wait patiently until the barking ceased. Then I would quickly throw the ball. The dog learned that it could make me throw the ball by lying down quietly. Eventually, the dog would lie nearby quietly for most of the day for a couple of throws.

What interested me most about this arrangement was not the fact that I could train a dog, but how well the dog remembered. An entire year later, I showed up to do a little more work on the house. The arrangement I had with this dog resumed as if no time had passed at all. The dog still barked loudly at the owner and lay quietly nearby for hours for me. The behavior had lain dormant yet intact for the whole time.

So, I am asking myself a question for the future: can I shape flying skills that are not used very often, but that will remain dormant yet intact until needed? In the next article, I will let you know how that goes and I will also report on my work on sequencing of tasks in series and in parallel. Any feedback you care to give me on the subjects we are covering can be sent to mempryor [at] earthlink [dot] net.

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