Rote is the Route to Prosaic Mediocrity

By Scott Spangler on June 28th, 2010

Flight instructors who can remember the answers that returned a passing score on the Fundamentals of Instruction test they had to take should be able to tell you that Rote is the first of four levels of learning. If they possess a good memory (or they took the test a few days ago), they might actually be able to parrot its FAA-approved definition: “The ability to repeat something which one has been taught, without understanding or being able to apply what has been learned.”

Levesl of Learning In simpler, more concise terms: Monkey See, Monkey Do.

Correlation is the highest level of learning. It means you employ all  previous learning and make relevant connections to aspects of a new situation and derive the proper response to what one might call a learning experience.  In between the first and last steps are Understanding, which is the ability to comprehend or grasp the nature or meaning of something, and Application, the act of using something learned and understood. 

Despite claims to the contrary, most aspects of aviation rarely step beyond rote. By not correlating the lessons learned from past experiences to new challenges, we’re bound to repeat our past actions, with the outcome a predictable route to prosaic mediocrity. If you doubt that rote is a contributing factor to more than a century of aviation tradition unimpeded by progress (another name for learning through correlation), permit me a few examples.

Let’s start with accidents. Most agree that roughly 80 percent of them are the result of pilots making poor decisions. And as the AOPA Air Safety Foundations annual Nall Report shows, running out of gas, flying into bad weather, and maneuvering, usually close to the ground, are the most common procedures for airplane bending, folding, and mutilation.

Why? Rote.

Pilots are not devising new and unusual ways of running out of gas, flying into bad weather, or maneuvering close to the ground.  They are repeating the same rote actions they’ve read about in thousands of accident reports. If we truly have reached the level of correlation, we’d know that a  timely go-around is the best “save” for a less than perfect approach, yet we still bend airplanes instead, and run out of gas, and fly into bad weather. 

bureaucracy The government is our co-dependent, the pied piper of rote. Structure is necessary to any organization, and rote operation is SOP for most bureaucracies. We perpetuate this by “monkey doing” without first correlating our  current behavior with all we’ve learned from previous situations.

The Next Generation National Airspace System is a perfect example. People in all corners of aviation are complaining that ADS-B is too expensive, not well thought out, or doesn’t provide enough reward to their particular segment of aviation for the investment. I imagine that people made the same complaints when navigation went from bonfires to beacons, and to A-N ranges, and to VORs, and to Loran, and to GPS. Oh, and remember the stink about transponders and the Mode-C veil? 

At the rote level, people wonder why are you doing this to us? Operating at the level of correlation, experience has taught us that we cannot have progress without change, and that change is not free. Life is a series of transitions, and at the level of correlation we know this and plan accordingly. NextGen is just the next step, the eventual replacement for radar-based ATC, and goodness knows the FAA has been talking about it long enough, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it would one day require some new equipment. Those working at a level of correlation started saving for it years ago, and they will reap the rewards in the future.

As most flight instructors will tell you, only those doing the learning can lift themselves from one level of learning to the next. from rote to understanding, to application, and finally to correlation. It is an individual effort, an individual decision. No one can do it for us.

Each of us has to decide that blindly following the route to prosaic mediocrity isn’t good enough any more. And each of us has to invest the time and effort to actually think about our decisions, to correlate them to all that we’ve learned, and then respond in a way that delivers the best outcome. –Scott Spangler

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5 Responses to “Rote is the Route to Prosaic Mediocrity”

  1. Bob Iversen Says:

    No argument that change is necessary for growth, BUT where the FAA hasn’t risen to the level of correlation is selling the *whole* ADS-B plan to the aviation community. They toss a decree over the fence that addresses only one part of ADS-B (the “out” part) that by their own admission has virtually no benefit for GA, then either don’t expect or don’t care about the strong negative reaction. A wiser approach might be to lay out the comprehensive ADS-B plan (“Out” and “In”) together with the expected benefits for all parties (e.g., FAA saves money by reducing radar coverage and VORs, airlines save money with more direct routing, GA benefits by ???). Instead we get a decree for a partial solution.

  2. Scott Spangler Says:

    You’re right. The NextGen rollout, starting with ADS-B Out, is a rote reenactment of just about every other government program. It’s one piece at a time, with correlation to the other pieces and the bigger pieces. And just as predictable is aviation’s reaction to it, which is why the FAA and the industry clearly seem to be rote behavior co-dependents.

  3. JetAviator7 Says:

    I must agree that “rote” – the equivalence of “inattention” leads to the same problems over and over like running out of gas.

    Learning new techniques and systems certainly keeps the brain active and involved, but sometimes I wonder if we are not suffering from information overload and too much technology, losing our basic flying skills. Case in point – pilots flying past their destination by not paying attention while the aircraft is on autopilot.

    If we are not careful we may find ourselves with airplanes that we are just passengers in and no pilots aboard.

    JetAviator7, ATP Pilot

  4. Knowledge is NOT power Says:

    […] 45 times in 32 Posts From my flight instruction days: Rote is the Route to Prosaic Mediocrity – Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Correlation is power. Reply With […]

  5. tom torlakson Says:

    No argument that change is necessary for growth, BUT where the FAA hasn’t risen to the level of correlation is selling the *whole* ADS-B plan to the aviation community. They toss a decree over the fence that addresses only one part of ADS-B (the “out” part) that by their own admission has virtually no benefit for GA, then either don’t expect or don’t care about the strong negative reaction. A wiser approach might be to lay out the comprehensive ADS-B plan (“Out” and “In”) together with the expected benefits for all parties (e.g., FAA saves money by reducing radar coverage and VORs, airlines save money with more direct routing, GA benefits by ???). Instead we get a decree for a partial solution.

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