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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chunking: It's not just for peanut butter

There 86x more Lego blocks than there are people on the planet, according to the people who make them. With that many building blocks, you can make almost anything. For example, there is a replica of Mark Twain's house in the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire made of almost 125,000 Lego bricks:

The house is 7.5 feet wide and over 4.5 feet tall, and took over 4.5 months to build!
There are Lego versions of just about every aircraft ever made, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the White House (plus Air Force One to go with it), an entire set of New York City skyscrapers, "The Brick Testament" (a collection of biblical scenes done in Lego), a Lego Vegas, and an entire Wikipedia page on a fraction of the things that have been built with Legos. There's even a short humorous YouTube video detailing a day in the life of Lego Pilot:

To build anything you can imagine with a pile of small Lego bricks, you just start with two bricks and connect them together. You add another brick to that one, then another, and another, and so on. If you just want to build something small, it might not take very long and it won't require a lot of bricks. If you want to build a scale model of the Golden Gate Bridge, it might take months or years and will require tens of thousands of Legos. In either case, whatever you build is just one brick connected to another: it's how many you use and how you connect them that makes the difference.

Continuing with last week's theme from Coursera's Learning How to Learn class and accompanying book, your brain does much the same thing when you're learning. The brain has a stunning capacity to learn almost anything, from catching a softly-tossed baseball to hitting a 100 MPH fastball, from learning the rules of chess to playing a dozen games against a dozen people at the same time while blindfolded, and from looking up at the sky to learning to fly through it. It learns all of those things and any of a billion more by taking small bricks of knowledge and connecting them to each other.

Unlike Legos, however, you do not have the bricks to start with: you have to build them yourself through education and then putting that new knowledge into active practice. Once you make a brick, you can combine that new micro-skill with another brick (which you had to make yourself) and make a "chunk", which forms a basic fundamental. Chunk together enough of the fundamentals and you have a new skill.

In the case of flying, there are four of these fundamentals:
  • Straight and level
  • Turns
  • Climbs
  • Descents
Almost anything else you do when flying will just be one or more of these chunks put together in a certain way. A takeoff is just a climb; a landing is a descent turned into straight and level at an inch off the ground; a traffic pattern is all of these strung together into a several minute sequence.

This is why when you first start to learn to fly, it may seem almost overwhelming and like you're always behind the airplane. That's because at first, you're making those little Lego bricks every single flight, and then you still have to take those bricks and chunk them together. As your lessons progress, you start to create and firm together those chunks, which means each of them takes less mental effort as they become more automatic.

That sounds great, but why does it seem like just when you're getting one thing down, there is even more to learn? Shouldn't it be getting easier by now?

It will. At first, you're so task-saturated that you have no idea how much you're missing. Your instructor has been sitting over there taking care of all the other things you've been missing while you learn the fundamentals. The better you get at the fundamentals, however, the more of those tasks are shifted over to you. In other words, the better you get, the better you need to be!

A good instructor will hand those tasks to you at about the same rate that you're chunking together the other things, so for a while it will seem like you're always putting out a large amount of effort. Ideally, you will be putting in the same amount of effort, but you'll also be doing a lot more at the same time. After all, the goal is to get you to solo, where you'll have no choice but to be doing everything at once.

Learning to fly is hard work, but it's also fun work. A while back, I went into more detail about the "fun curve" of learning to fly. This constant workload concept is one of the reasons why there are two large dips in that curve.

However, almost everyone has a lesson when getting ready to solo where it seems like you just can't do anything right. Those days are frustrating because they so often come after a lesson where things were just starting to seem simple. I've both seen this happen as an instructor many times, and experienced it myself as a student pilot.

The good news is that almost every time, the very next lesson is outstanding, and it really starts to feel like flying makes sense! The chunking concept explains this as well. Sometimes the brain does some "remodeling" overnight as you sleep. It takes the chunks you've piled up, shifts them around, puts them in a new, nice, neat configuration, and glues them together. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a bit of time for the glue to set, so things are a little shaky until the new shape firms up. Once it does, however, you've taken the next leap.

So how do we create these chunks? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. That's a subject that is so big that I could devote multiple posts to that alone. Fortunately, that's exactly what I'll be doing for the next two weeks! Next week's post will be on some general rules for effective and efficient practice so you can save yourself some time and money. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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