An old dog can learn new tricks—leveraging a growth mindset in aviation

by David Donaldson, Great Lakes Gliding Club

Back in 2016 I had the great pleasure of interviewing Chris Hadfield for a two-part article in Free Flight (2016/2 & 2016/3). Among the lessons that came out of that experience, for me, was the need to revisit and relearn my lessons. Oddly enough, an important function of our brains is to forget. You may often find that when you debrief a student after a flight or read an accident report, there are irrelevant details that cloud the issue, preventing the relevant data from coming forward. Forgetting allows us to let go of information that is irrelevant, wrong, or no longer useful, making way for corrections and the very important relevant information.

This very important function does have a down side, when we forget those important and relevant details. So how does our brain choose which items to keep and which to discard? There are two main criteria: relevance and frequency. Let’s take a look at them separately.

Relevance. Picture yourself taking a formal training course to learn some new software. The instructor is passionate about the software and obviously knows their stuff; however, they like to show you all manner of neat features that you will not use. One’s natural reaction is to disengage from the training, and, in effect, forget the non-relevant items.

A training program that I deliver is a five-day intensive preparation for a technical exam and the material is a cure for insomnia. My secret weapon to retain engagement in the class, and enable learning, is a simple phrase: “for the exam”. As learners we continuously and unconsciously ask ourselves, “Is this relevant to me?” If I, as an instructor, want any chance for my lessons to be accepted and digested, I need to ensure that those lessons are relevant to the student, not the instructor.

In the scenario of an intro/guest flight we want to show students all the details, all the instruments, how the controls work, and how to execute a coordinated turn. These are all important and relevant details to the pilot, but not to the Sunday afternoon bucket-list passenger who wants to see the fall colours from 2 000 feet (ft) and take pictures. A simple question before you start, “What do you want?” will quickly let you know the type and extent of the briefing required.

Frequency. The concept of recency is now being applied in the world of aviation safety. In the glider world, we have, for many years, advocated spring checks. The benefits are to bring those lessons of how to fly back onto the top of one’s mind. Over the winter break, as we do not practise those skills, our brain naturally culls: “Not using those skills? I will allow them to drop to a lower level or even forget them.” One of the bear traps of spring checks is that it is our cognitive function that degrades, not our physical skills. Basically, we hop back into the cockpit after our long winter’s nap, operate the controls, execute smooth, coordinated turns, and land safely. We are good to go.

Meanwhile, it is the cognitive skills, perception, and decision making that are the skills that truly degrade. An effective spring refresher should include not only the physical (“Can you operate the controls?”) but the mental as well (“How are you going to deal with this situation?”). A study in 2010, titled Enhancing Aeronautical Decision Making through Case-Based Reflection, illustrated how we can better teach decision making by reflecting on case studies.

In effect, this is what we are doing when we share our stories over a drink after a good day of flying. Who knew hangar flying served such a great benefit? In the context of spring checks, a discussion of various scenarios prior to getting into the cockpit will do a world of good to help you safely transition back into the air. Many clubs have instituted a mandatory spring safety briefing—not a flight check, an on-the-ground discussion. At Great Lakes Gliding, we host ours in late March, before the flying season starts, to help folks get their heads back in the game, and yes, it is mandatory.

While that is well and good for the student, after all, as the saying goes, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Recent advances in the study of neuroscience are changing our understanding of brain plasticity. We used to think that as adults, our brains were fixed and could not change or grow new pathways, and in effect, could not learn. We now know this is not the case.

Carol Dweck, in her seminal book, Mindset, describes two basic mindsets: fixed and growth. A fixed mindset is one that relies on talent and opportunity. In simple terms, a fixed mindset says, “I cannot play basketball.” A growth mindset says, “I cannot play basketball, yet.” A growth mindset is one that is open to, well, growth—one that accepts that it does not have all the answers and that there is always lots to learn.

The good news is that mindset is a choice. The fixed mindset can be used as an excuse (“Oh, I can’t do that, I don’t have the talent.”) whereas a growth mindset recognizes that talent makes a particular task or activity easier for some, but pretty much anyone can get there with enough training and practice. This concept was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, in which he proposes that there is a formula to success. The outliers, the Michael Jordans, the Bill Gates’, the Yo-Yo Mas are not a result of talent, but a combination of passion, opportunity, and practice. Yes, practice. In Gladwell’s assessment he puts out the number of 10 000 hours (hr) of practice (a depressing thought for a sub-1 000-hr pilot), but there is lots of practice we do outside of actual flight time, thankfully.

At a Transport Canada safety seminar the crowd was asked to raise a hand if they were a student pilot. Dean raised his hand. How many hours? 4 000 was the answer. Dean, a commercial pilot and Level 1 glider instructor, identified himself as a lifelong student—a perfect example of the growth mindset. While he did acknowledge that he knew a lot and has great skills, he sought continued learning. That continued learning does not have to be in the form of the next rating. Flying and soaring, to a greater extent, is a continuous journey of learning and discovery. We need to look at this world through a lens of humility and wonder: humility to accept that new data and wonder to spark our curiosity to seek it.

So what about the classic 200-hr pilot? In the world of power flying, this is a statistical danger zone. The pilot has earned their licence, has some experience, and starts to think they know it all. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where people overestimate their own abilities based on a limited understanding. In a study of drivers, 88% of U.S. drivers and 77% of Swedish drivers rated themselves as safer than the average driver. Hmm...

I think it is safe to say we have all fallen victim to this bias; I remember a young Air Cadet who received his licence on his 17th birthday. I realize just how little I knew all those years ago. This is where humility comes in. In my Interview with Jan Juurlink (Free Flight 2016/1), a retired military fighter pilot and Canadian National Soaring Record holder, he rated each one of his landings. “I never gave myself a 10. Lots of 9s, some 5s.” All I ever saw was 10s, and now I realize that it was Jan’s humility to accept that he was not perfect that was key.

I saw a high-time, experienced pilot take off in an SZD-55 one day. The wing dropped, and he put in full aileron to pick it up. After he had landed I asked him about this. He swore up and down that he had used rudder and not aileron and lamented that this was just a reality of this airplane. It took a little convincing, but he reluctantly accepted my observation. I watched his next takeoff, and this time, when the wing dropped, he kicked rudder and levelled the wings much faster. He had forgotten the lesson; our conversation brought it back to the surface, but it was not until he had had the humility to accept his error that he was able to correct his actions.

We all make mistakes. Having the humility to accept that, to recognize that we can and should still learn and grow, is something I aspire to and, well, these are the pilots I enjoy flying with. Fly safe.


Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Company.

Frank, A. (2018). Science Says That To Fight Ignorance, We Must Start By Admitting Our Own.

O’Hare, D., Mullen, N., and Arnold, A. (2010). Enhancing Aeronautical Decision Making through Case-Based Reflection. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology.

Svenson, O. (1980). Are We All Less Risky and More Skillful than Our Fellow Drivers? Acta Psychologica.