Monday, November 19, 2012

Novenber 19th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

As a flying instructor, as well as teaching the variety of things (from aircraft building to robotics programming, EMT to tractor maintenance, etc.) that I am privileged to share in my general week, I often get asked about my approach to education and learning theory. Over the next few weeks, as education is the hot topic of the year, I will share some of my experiences, concepts and approaches – of course, they have a link to aviation, since teaching people to fly is one of the most challenging things to teach anybody!

The first thing a learner needs is motivation to learn. Whilst I was passing my ‘post-16 educator’ lecturers qualification I wrote a paper called ‘Motivational Ambition’. Let me share the ‘concepts’ with you, and see what you think. I look forward to hearing your reactions as to whether you think this is relevant, alternatives and how we should motivate the next generation!

Throughout the world, and perhaps throughout time, the source of motivation of young people to learn, and develop skills, has been the subject of many a discussion – and, I am sure, arguments, perhaps even fights – amongst educators, parents and in the halls of all of academia – as well as Ministries of Education! Traditional ‘education theory’ tends to link motivation with reward (mainly short-term), and many teachers, lecturers and parents will agree. Methods such as “If you complete this task by 2:30 we will... read a story... have a cookie… go on a field trip… etc…” or “If you do well in your exams we will buy you that ... book… item of clothing… bicycle… car… motorcycle… etc…”, and of course the ultimate threat “If you do not achieve in your education – you will not get (or perhaps keep) a good job”. This last statement succinctly summarises why we educate our young people – with the hope of positive engagement in gainful employment – please include ‘self-employment’ as an option in todays ‘entrepreneurial world’.

But is this really the manner in which we should go about motivating learning, especially for the next generation? What about the use of the obligatory prefix of ‘self’ to provide the more long-lasting, and most probably, more reliable ‘self-motivation’. Unfortunately, motivation appears to be difficult to assess, and impossible to quantify, and therefore most people’s sense of what motivates others, or how to stimulate motivation in another individual, tends be anecdotal. Of course, Captain Yaw has opinions!

For many years, children in the industrial nations, when asked what they want to do when finished at school, could be heard to say things like “I want to be a... train driver… tractor driver... pilot... road builder... fireman... policeman... etc…”; until one day (at some point in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s) it became far more socially acceptable and, it seems, politically correct to say “I don’t know” or “I will wait and see how I do in my studies/exams”, or perhaps more commonly “I am keeping my options open” - which translates in many cases to “I have no idea” or “do I care?”. Such a response has been endorsed, and even encouraged by modern educational systems – enhanced perhaps by the so called ‘life-long learning’ revolution of always learning more, that has stimulated adults, and especially late-learners, into positive progression. It appears to me that the ‘you can always do that later’ approach may well be damaging early development, determination and creativity in our young people around the world. Furthermore, today’s parents often discourage such ‘unguided’ ambition through social pressure. In some societies it appears to no longer be socially acceptable that your child wants to drive a tractor, be a farmer or even a road builder – even as a transient ‘growing-up desire’. Sadly, ‘parental-ambitions’ may be placed upon the shoulders of some offspring very early on - being a doctor, lawyer or accountant seems far more attractive (albeit in the eyes of an adult), and some children quickly learn that it is a good idea to echo the ‘ambition of their parents’ since it gains a positive response, and gains ‘social rewards’, even if they have no idea what it really means. A five year old child came by the airfield (with his family) and told me that he wanted to be a Lawyer and that his three year old sister wanted to be a doctor. Excuse me! ‘Total poppycock’! What is worse; the parents were visibly glowing at the statements from their ward! Such ideas are (totally) unlikely to emanate from a young mind, in my opinion.

If does appear that the ‘Western Parents’ are, in general, abandoning ambition altogether. The argument being ‘It is unacceptable to expect a young person to aim for a career, without first seeing the academic ability of the young person on paper.’ In the developing nations the tendency is to ‘Forcibly raise the expectations of the child, based on the desires of the parents, not always with the resources to make it a reality’. The modern Western trend of ‘keep your options open until you see how you do’ or the concept of ‘academic results-based choice of career’ is the new mantra of many educationalists, career advisers and parents. Is it this change of emphasis from ‘unguided wild-ambition’ to ‘results-based choice’ that has culminated in the apparent lower-motivation quotient, and lower-academic results, in the youth of such nations?

The developing nation’s young people, especially in the rural areas, appear to have another problem: lack of motivation due to lack of opportunity. Despite the child-echoed-parental-mantra of ‘I want to be lawyer or doctor’, many of the developing nations suffer from extremely high unemployment and lack of opportunity. This may reflect in why some young people are failing to make the effort at school - or at anything for that matter? Perhaps young people are growing up in areas where there is no industry, simply subsistence farming, petty trading, a school and a church where the example of ambition from successful adults can be to ‘sit under a neem tree when the sun is too hot’ or run a tro-tro between two trading points. It appears that, in many cases, no thought for anything new – even the planting of a new tree - goes through the mind of the average child in a society that accepts its lot and is not exposed to the possibility of rewarding ambition.

What would rewarding ambition be? Rewarding ambition is related to the exposure of the young person to the ‘success around them’. Perhaps building a factory, flying an aeroplane, designing a new hoe, establishing a farm, breeding a new crop variety, and the list could continue – if only the creativity was present. This does not mean that the child in such circumstances is unhappy; far from it - many children and young people live happy, simple and often hungry, shorter lives.

What is the answer? Let us look at that more next week!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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