I fly a planes.

Teach Everything

It’s always fascinated me that most pilots first become professionals as flight instructors. Before starting jobs at airlines or charter companies, most pilots’ careers begin by teaching brand-new private students the basics of aviation. Not everybody is good, and most don’t do it for long even if they are, but it’s somehow become The Way It Works in aviation.

2,000 ft/min, Bend, OR

I spent three years teaching at multiple levels, and one of the first things I realized is just how damn hard it is to be an educator. I’m not comparing the relatively straightforward, one-to-one tutoring that is flight instruction with teaching a classroom full of highschoolers, or anything like that, but it’s tough. If you want to know a subject thoroughly, teach it — so, basically the opposite of that bullshit “those who can’t, teach” saying.

The main textbook of a CFI course is the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook, which dives into some of the psychology of learning. One of the core concepts is that students should move from simple to complex — “everything from intricate cognitive processes to simple motor skills depends on what the student already knows and how that knowledge can be applied in the present.” It works well, and allows people to pick up big ideas gradually and sanely.

What I find hard to believe, now that I’ve moved into a field other than teaching, is how poorly understood some of these concepts seem to be. There are plenty of websites & smartphone apps that offer up incredible complexity, but do little more than fire up an intro tour. These are shockingly useless, as Khoi Vinh explains so well; most users won’t be able to memorize what you’re telling them — and this is an important distinction: you’re telling, not showing. Luke Wroblewski spoke a bit about this issue in his talk at An Event Apart, suggesting that instead developers use just-in-time teaching as people interact, like what Facebook does every time they launch a new feature.

The Aviation Instructor’s Handbook suggests a similar technique, one that served me well in briefings and on flights: the accurately-but-uninspiringly-named “Telling-and-Doing Technique”. Unlike traditional lectures, the sequence of teaching & demonstration looks like this:


  1. Preparation
  2. Instructor tells + instructor does
  3. Student tells + instructor does
  4. Student tells + student does
  5. Student does + instructor evaluates

The parallels to interaction work pretty well — the sequence could probably be adapted to skip the instructor tells & does stage, which would otherwise be a demo, instead moving straight into an interactive, prompted first-run through a series of features. Add in some context- or timing-aware hooks so that your walkthrough can fire a second time, perhaps if somebody seems stuck or inactive.

Barring a better tutorial, just get people using your app. Even better, introduce features in small, digestable chunks, so that they can learn as they go. Skip the tutorial and let them learn by doing.