Abstract to Action: Targeted Learning System Theory Applied to Adaptive Flight Training Part 1

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environmentEditor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two part series exploring the use of Targeted Learning System Theory to pilot training. Part 1 lays the foundation by explaining the traditional approach as well as the concept of Targeted Learning System Theory. Part 2 will detail how this theory can be applied to maximize both efficiency and effectiveness of pilot training.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Travis Sheets and Matt Elmore

“Our [education] system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation and pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority. But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century.”– US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Introduction
The future is changing rapidly, and while no one can predict the future with any certainty, organizations can create adaptive learning structures to mitigate the risk imposed by change. The changes that threaten current United States Air Force (USAF) educational and training models are the rising cost, precipitous requirements, and the increasing complexity of tasks associated with preparing Airmen for future environments. These challenges foreshadow possible fractures in the traditional USAF training and education models unless new cost-effective, adaptive, and flexible ways are adopted. A current example of these trends are the rising cost and growing complexity of training tasks that prevent the USAF from surging pilot production in a time of dire need, such as a growing pilot shortage or a war with pilot attrition. In 2017, it took approximately seven years (including college), and $11 million to create a 5th Generation combat qualified pilot. With the USAF facing a growing fighter pilot shortage, already over 20%, it needs a new approach to education and training that can achieve the same caliber of graduates faster, while utilizing fewer resources.

This exploratory study uses a mixture of educational structures, learning theories, and technologies to create the Targeted Learning System Theory (TLST). The TLST scaffolds an integrated learning approach with an adaptive performance-based progression to change the value-paradigm of education and training for the USAF. The TLST reimagines how the USAF could train and educate Airmen by creating flexible systems that capitalizes on human-machine integration to provide previously unforeseen value to the learner and the organization. It provides a vector to riposte the rising costs, changing requirements, and increasingly complex tasks plaguing education and training in USAF and is aligned with the 2018 AETC Strategic Plan.

This research is framed around a practitioner’s approach to creating actionable solutions. The intent is to identify new learning opportunities made available by recent technological advancements. Technology combined with the right educational structures developed with sound learning theories can help the USAF move a step closer to capitalizing on new means and ways of preparing, sustaining, and augmenting Airmen for future challenges.

Educational Structures
A structure is an “arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.” An educational or training structure is an arrangement of expectations, resources, rules, and curriculum requirements that provide the framework to create, mold, and shape the knowledge, skills, and behaviors of individuals. The purpose, priority, and relationships of the elements in the structure determine the character of a student’s experience and provide a shell that guides a student’s learning emotionally, cognitively, or kinesthetically. An educational or training structure can exist with an almost infinite number of variations. For this discussion, structures are imagined on a continuum, from fully instructional, rigid, and compliant, to student-centered, flexible, and experiential. Education and training structures are the shaping mechanisms that frame expectations, define the usage of resources, and order requirements to enable purposeful learning outcomes.

The current USAF’s traditional structures fail to connect with the next generation of digitally native learners, empower students, or prepare them with the cognitive elasticity necessary for volatile, uncertain, changing, connected, and ambiguous (VUCCA) environments. Digitally native learners accumulate information, communicate, and make sense of the world around them differently than students did decades ago. The internet of things and social media have made dramatic impacts on individual expectations in the western world. Students get frustrated and disengage from learning when archaic systems are not reliable, when they cannot digitally connect with peers, or the information they need is not readily available. Future structures need to ensure digital pathways are reliable, collaborative, and leverage the immersive ability technological advancements have provided. Using technology appropriately is the first step to help empower the student. Student empowerment is the personal motivation and authority the learner feels about their education or training. It relies on a student’s self-awareness, curiosity, and purpose. To successfully empower students the structure should be student-centered and collaborative to promote informal learning, physiological safety, and belonging. Cognitive elasticity is a person’s sensitivity and awareness to new paradigms, unanticipated information, or unsettling situations. It is a learned skill that combines a person’s mental agility and emotional intelligence to think critically and creatively when there is no clear-cut solution. Learning opportunities that use cognitive elasticity teach people how to think, not just what to think, by letting them explore the underlying principles and relationships important within the context of a situation. Traditional models, as used in today’s VUCCA environment, lack appeal to digital natives, fail to empower students, and do not place sufficient emphasis on cognitive elasticity, producing diminishing returns for the nation and the USAF.

Most structures today are so rigid they trade agility and creativity for compliance and standardization. They are bogged down in processes, oversight, and are partially blind to the exponential increase of technological change and the growing complexities surrounding them. These large lumbering industrial hierarchies and autocratic educational models struggle to recognize when new patterns emerge and rarely adapt to new challenges. The lack of adaptation and poor use of opportunities to forge cognitive elasticity is a dangerous problem for the USAF because it limits how we “bring the mind into form” and how we prepare Airmen to think when they tackle tomorrow’s challenges. As Admiral Rickover once said, “Most of our schools have lost sight of the fact that a well-trained mind can cope with many unforeseen problems. In a rapidly changing world, no one can foresee what future problems will have to be met.” The USAF must find a way to break the current dogmatic paradigm of structures that focus on filling the mind with facts “at the cost of absorbing fundamental principles,” to produce a deeper, more rich understanding of the world around them. Future educational and training structures should be aimed at breaking the inertia of these outdated models, capitalizing on disruptive technologies’ ability to create personalized, flexible, adaptive learning systems that empower students to deal with change, complexity, and uncertainty.

Although the structure is important, it is just one part of an effective educational and training environment. Like the body and frame of a car need an engine and wheels to be useful, the structure also needs the educational tools and a well-designed curriculum to ensure learning occurs. Understanding various learning styles is one way to create and integrate an effective curriculum and develop sound learning pathways into a structure. Learning models provide a framework of student learning styles along with applicability to learning in the virtual reality (VR) environment that helps to identify necessary pathways for multi-modal learning environments. Providing students with multiple learning pathways engage the learner, adds more value to the structure, and helps the organization make better use of time.

Targeted Learning System Theory
The Targeted Learning System Theory (TLST) is a performance-based educational and training structure grounded in student-centered experiential learning aimed at maximizing human potential. The TLST is a combination of art and science that uses technology to create an intelligent system capable of providing adaptive curriculum across an array of training or educational requirements. The art of the TLST consists of creating a proper structure that empowers the students, encourages collaboration, and allows students to take ownership of their learning. The science of the TLST fuses multiple technologies to create real-time feedback loops and adaptive curriculum that adjusts to maximize their learning across multiple learning pathways. The TLST builds on previous research into learning styles, experiential learning, and virtual reality learning environments (VRLEs).

The TLST is designed to make better use of time and information than traditional models by giving students the structure and the tools to be self-maximizing learners without changing the current standards or requirements. The TLST uses immersive experiences, gamification, and minimal guidance to create multiple learning pathways within an experience. In theory, the immersive learning experience can be real, simulated, or virtual but for the TLST to be effective, it must be possible to measure the person, the environment, and their performance. Using immersive exploratory environments produces a cycle of trial and error, creating conscious and subconscious cognations that students believe are real. The student’s biological factors, cognations, decisions, and behaviors are then measured as performance and assessed by the system to create improvement feedback loops. Learning begins as the student attempts to make sense of the world around them to consciously or subconsciously understand the underlying principles and dynamic relationships within the context of the situation required to achieve success.

To maximize the benefits of the TLST, the educational structure guiding the learning experience must be a collaborative student-centered performance-based environment. It must provide the student with tools to help them understand how they learn best while providing psychological safety to encourage exploration and sharing. To engineer this structure, educators must focus on creating self-awareness, and evoke curiosity, and passion within the students. Educators or instructors must help students connect their internal beliefs with the learning experience. Students must feel valued, know why they are doing what they are doing, and understand the importance of what they are doing. The collaborative environment surrounding the TLST should make maximum use of knowledge linkages that provide a learning experience equal to the sum of all the parts, not an experience minimized by silos of specific subjects. It should help students learn from their experience through formal and informal discussions with instructors, peers, and personal reflection. There are many ways to create empowering and collaborative educational structures. How an educator or instructor designs a learning environment and sets a strategic culture aimed at creating self-actualization is the art.

There is never one right answer on how to create an empowering structure. It will often require constant adjustment by the educator to adapt to their target audience, changes in curriculum requirements, and technology available. Any changes, however, must be rooted in what is best for the student and their learning. The above synopsis is a wave top discussion of the art required to effectively leverage the scientific technologies utilized in the TLST. The goal of the structure is to get students to a self-actualized point with a solid foundation of self-awareness, motivation, and purpose. Most of this study focuses on the engineered or science portion of the TLST, but it should be noted that the more empowering, collaborative, and self-actualizing structure an educator can create, the more benefit they will get from a TLST setting.

The scientific portion of the TLST involves fusing technology to create learning tools for students while measuring the person, environment, and their performance to build datasets for student and system feedback. Capturing these datasets allows the system to provide adaptive curriculum to the individual student based on their performance level. By adaptively increasing or decreasing the difficulty of the learning environment, the system creates customized iterative learning for the student. The system can also manipulate the environment to inject surprise, uncertainty, or complexity into a situation. Additionally, the collection of data can provide insights for the institution, for training selection, remediation, or performance advancement by using performance indicators indicative of success, failure, or re-train. A key component of the TLST is to have each data stream captured simultaneously so that at any given moment of a training session the instructor can correlate a student’s performance, their relationship to the contextual environment, and how they are being affected biologically and neurologically.

In this study, the TLST was used to develop a mixed reality-teaching tool called the Adaptive Flight Trainer (AFT) that was optimized to flight training. The proposed idea of the TLST is a fusion of educational structures, learning theories, and emerging technologies that create a customized learning eco-system capable of redefining USAF education and training ways, means, and ends. The TLST maximizes learning and elevates performance through empowerment and technological leverage. The student empowerment provides the energy for iterative exploration of immersive learning environments, and the technological fusion enables customized feedback loops and adaptive curriculum that synthesizes the accumulation of knowledge and skills. Looking towards the current pilot shortage within the USAF and the creation of Pilot Training Next, the AFT was used to test concepts of the TLST and the impact it could have on flight training.

Major Travis Sheets is an Air Force Officer assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon. He was previously an Air University Fellow. Major Sheets grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Virginia Tech. He has flown multiple small fixed-wing aircraft for AFSOC. He is a published author with The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, Vol 11, 2018. 

Matt Elmore is an Air Force Officer and prior C-17A Evaluator Pilot with 13 years of aviation and instructor experience. Both his graduate and undergraduate degrees specialized in coaching and education. He has served in multiple C-17 squadrons, in the Contingency Response Wing, and most recently as an Air University Fellow. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Featured image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. David Richards

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