“Metacognitive” Teaching; Mastery and Expertise

Achieving expertise in piloting requires so many diverse skills and aptitudes it almost defies explanation. In aviation, we point to experts like Sully or Al Haynes (pick your favorite) to model expertise, but we are often frustrated trying to recreate these remarkable attributes in our students. Dr. Gary Kline, an amazing learning psychologist, has patiently deconstructed expert performance with “Cognitive Task Analysis.” Unfortunately, even having a “box of parts” only gives us hints and does not tell you how to reliably recreate pilot mastery and expertise.

The core question (and responsibility) for educators is not the expert end product as much as providing the pathway and inspiration – “How do we embed an urge for excellence in our pilots during training?” Viewed negatively, how do we prevent the “happy D- student” that inevitably also becomes a pilot for life and infects our aviation system (perhaps flying a personal jet over your house as you read this?) This endless enigma is the primary source of frustration for educators and safety researchers. This often leads to disillusionment and burn-out as history repeats itself. There is however a very clear solution to this problem and a toolkit for pilot success.

As I have written before, the FAA standards never describe (or require) “mastery” or “expertise.” They only tell us when “mediocre” becomes “unacceptable” and require more training (to achieve the minimum piloting level). Unless there is an internal “urge for excellence” in our pilots,  there is no way to create an upward skill trajectory after certification. Nothing prevents (or improves) “the happy D-” performer in our current system. I know many good pilots who are surprised (and frustrated) to find the same type of low-performers they met during initial flight school sitting next to them when they get to jets; the “happy D-” often never improves.

The real secret to inspiring excellence in pilots starts by creating a “self-aware learner” from the very first lesson. Until a person is aware of what they do NOT know, there is no motivation or pathway for improvement and the pursuit of excellence. It is incumbent upon every educator to share the bigger picture regularly and create a pathway toward success. This “urge for excellence” also creates in the student the critical habits of self-questioning and self-efficacy that are essential for a lifetime of pilot safety. It also vital in piloting to grow “personal responsibility” since we need to ultimately achieve “command authority” (a rare attribute in modern culture). The heart of self-awareness and self-efficacy that define expertise is a toolkit called “metacognition.” Literally “thinking about thinking” this represents a whole arsenal of higher-order thinking skills but basically “self-awareness, regulation, and control.”  Metacognition is essential both for more effective learning but also the idea of lifetime learning  and personal limitations.   Metacognition is a critical part of situational awareness and the beating heart of “mastery and expertise.”

The pathway to an expert pilot starts with incremental mastery during the initial training. This requires putting the learner in charge as much as possible and celebrating every small learning achievement immediately; “you got that, you did great, you are now in charge of that!” This handing over of responsibility creates a sense of mastery from day one, sustaining motivation and building the urge for excellence. As CFIs we are all guilty of “helping too much.” But in fact a good CFI should not be answering questions, but asking them. (even the chief pilot in our charter operation often turns back questions with “you’ll figure that out”) Taking charge from the right seat spoils any sense of accomplishment and mastery. This also ruins motivation and your student may easily become part of our 80% drop-out rate. From day one we also need to share the bigger picture and integrally involve the learner in the process. Once students see the needs and the pathway they are on the road to becoming an inspired lifetime learner. This all starts on day one (but requires time and a deep well of patience).

Some students are obviously quicker to embrace personal responsibility than others. Transferring PIC authority can take more time; so it helps to be patient and keep it fun. Eventually, every successful pilot must achieve “self-efficacy” and “command authority” or they will never be a successful PIC. This essential core skill (at every pilot level) also involves the metacognitive skill of knowing our limitations and accepting the need to continually improve. Expert pilots have a core of humility and a burning inner need to learn more and improve. The problem with the “happy D-” pilots is the mistaken illusion they are “good to go.” They are writing checks on an empty bank account. This ignorance coupled with larger ego and narcissistic tendencies is the definition of the well-known Dunning-Kreuger Effect.

As a pilot progresses with expertise, procedural knowledge becomes deeply embedded and constantly available in the “tacit dimension” of the brain for immediate and fluid recall. Beyond this “subconscious hard-drive” of reflexive skill response, a true expert is operating on the reflective level with metacognitive accuity. The spare RAM freed by total proficiency allows an expert to see meaning and detail in every activity often inaccessible to a novice. Dr. Gary Klein has been studying and teaching expert flight performance since first working with Air Force fighter pilots in the 1970s.

Novices see only what is there; experts see what is not there. With experience, a person gains the ability to visualize how a situation developed and to imagine how it is going to turn out…Our emphasis is not on rules, or strategies, or the size of knowledge base per se, but the perceptual and cognitive qualities of experience – experts do not seem to perceive the same world that other people do…Only with experience can you notice when the expectancies are violated, when something that was supposed to happen did not. And only with experience can you acquire the perceptual skills to make fine discriminations.

Unlike what most people believe, everyday perception is not a camera of the “outside world.” What we perceive and mentally organize into our “reality” is guided largely by our personal past experiences, memory, and emotions. What we see/hear/feel in every experience is psychologists call “predictive perception,” a blend of what we know, expect and also the input through the senses. It is very true that we “see what we want to see.” And this “motivated reasoning” is behind the true phrase “to a hammer everything looks like a nail.”

Since we construct our world based on past experiences, every instructor must accommodate this fact during every flight lesson. Until your pilot-in-training has any relevant experience, context and frame of reference, they will not even see what you are seeing– the humorous phrase “dog watching television” is true here. The primary function of a CFI, beyond assuring safety, is to pre-load and guide perceptions creating insights and meaning. Until context and meaning are available, what you see as a CFI does not even exist for your student (and if you scare them at all their processing shuts down). This is how an experienced CFI knows a mile from pattern entry that the student will overshoot the landing; the cues are there, but a pilot-in-training is missing them all. Pointed questions can illuminate these important cues to create the important metacognitive questioning; “am I high or low, fast or slow?”

Perceptual overload happens at all levels of flight instruction and in every new context. The first time taking off in a jet, the experience is so new and fast, that every new pilot is literally a mile behind the machine missing every cue. The tow first time in a glider is similarly overwhelming. The more carefully the educator guides the perceptions and builds a meaningful frame of reference, the faster learning and proficiency will develop. The”startle response” has the two-fold effect of diminishing the comprehensive abilities with fear and simultaneously presenting unfamiliar perceptual problems to decode. Having a recent and correct (automatic) response to upset is the only successful solution.

Learning is a continuum of acquiring, building, and refining the necessary mental library of experience and procedural skill. This process leads first to competence, then mastery and finally expertise. Once you have achieved a level of expertise, there is an additional empyrean 5th level of “reflective competence” or “artful flying” where the total function is fluid and almost magical.  I highly recommend the book Artful Flying by Cpt. Michael Maya Charles. Unfortunately, an alternate path is also possible at the fifth level of “knowing it all” and leads to complacency and an ironic diminishing of skills with time (the “been there, done that” EZ-PZ attitude). Let’s not go there! Keep it fun and artful.

Future articles will offer tips and tools for accelerating learning and achieving expertise. There are well-documented tools available, but unfortunately not common in our aviation world. Fly safe out there and have fun.


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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