Flight instruction as the future of education

This blog originally appeared on the author’s personal website, and is presented here with minor editing.

When I am in discussions about education reform and education entrepreneurship, I often forget that I own a flight school, but then I see a pattern that I recognize and realize that “it’s already happening in pilot training!”

First, some statistics. At any given time there are about 100,000 people in the US who have a current student pilot certificate. This is a round number because the term for a student pilot certificate has just recently extended to 5 years for those under 40 from twoyears previously. Of those student pilots, about 25,000 students take the private pilot written exam every year and about 91 percent pass.

Becoming a pilot is actually pretty easy, but a very thorough and rigorous process. There is a ton of content and decision-making skills you have to master along with mastering the physical part of flying. However, the process is highly flexible, adaptable and personalized.

Multi-modal Instruction

A student has many options to learn to become a pilot. They can watch videos like King Schools, Sporty’s or even some free videos on Youtube. They can read various text books, FAA books, the FAA website or even various material on the internet. They can talk one on one with a flight instructor. They can take classes at a flight school or college. Or, they can even play video games on the computer, like Flight Simulator, or mobile device. Each of these usually includes some form of formative assessment – small quizzes that ensure that you comprehended, retained and can apply the material as you are learning it.

The great thing is that you can mix and match. I really enjoyed watching the King videos. They were corny but entertaining and they had quizzes at the end of each video to ensure you got the material. If you got something wrong, they would immediately take you back to the place in the video so you could re-watch the section and then take the quiz again. This loop would continue until you got it right or cancelled out. In contrast, my friend who was taking lessons at the same time really enjoyed reading the textbook. He read it cover to cover, over and over. I can’t do that!!!

At the same time, we would be training on the actual flying part with an instructor. Our instructor was quite good. He would be throwing questions at me in context to ensure I was getting through my material. Similarly, I was taking practice tests on my iPhone while I was sitting in boring meetings at work. With this much reinforcement, I knew exactly when I was ready to take the test.

There are many insights I gained from my flight school.

  1. Instruction should be de-linked from certification.
  2. However, instructors should be continuously using formative assessment to ensure the student is comprehending, retaining and able to apply the skills, knowledge and judgement you are instructing.
  3. Instructors should be measured by the success of their students.
  4. Instruction should move at the pace of the students motivation and abilities.
  5. Instruction should be provided in as many modes as feasible.
  6. The student should be free to chose the modality that works well for them.
  7. The student should be free to select an instructor that works well for them.

Of course, the biggest difference between flight training and traditional education is that the motivation to do it is completely student driven. However, I believe that students are born naturally curious and want to learn. They just want to learn what they see value in learning. So, why don’t we harness that natural curiosity and desire to learn and use it to provide a better education for each of our citizens. I learned meteorology, physics, biology, mathematics, geometry, passenger management and more, all driven by my desire to fly a plane. I had no real desire to study any of those subjects, but my desire to fly a plane drove me to learn quite a bit about each. Every person has a passion. Every person has interests. Can’t we discover those interests and use them as a platform to deliver the education they will need to be a positive, contributing member of society???!!!!

The biggest lesson is that the problem isn’t money! Learning to become a pilot easily has a school year’s worth of content in it and the total cost including gas and plane rental (the biggest expenses by far) was less than $10,000. That is less than we spend to put a kid through school for a year. Take out the plane rental and the gas and the cost was under $2,000. The instruction costs $45 per hour for 20-30 hours. The videos cost under $300. The equipment costs another $200-400. Learning to fly is expensive, but if you take the unusually high cost of the plane and gas out, it’s actually pretty cheap. Why isn’t all school this cheap?

I think I will continue to add to this article over time, as I continue to learn so much about teaching, learning, etc from my flight school.

–Vince Talbert, co-owner of Middle River Aviation and co-founder of Bill Me Later