Sunday, March 20, 2011


Fundamental Electronics ('Funsies' as we sometime referred to it), as I noted before, is a "Modular, Self-Paced" teaching environment. But it looks a lot different from an instructor's side than from the student side.

A new class is typically made up of students just out of high school. There were usually ten or twelve students. Most were only about four years younger than me. I was a E-2 rank. I had one whole stripe on my sleeve. The rank's name is 'Airman'. But the Air Force, to encourage longer enlistments, was granting to those who signed up for 6 years a rank of E-3 (two stripes - 'Airman First Class') right out of Basic Training. So some some of  the young students already out-ranked me.

The highest ranked student in each class became the 'class leader' and performed various leadership duties. Occasionally higher ranking Air Force members would 'cross-train' from their current job into another, beginning their instruction at the Fundamental level. I had one class where a 5 stripe sergeant was a student and was therefore the 'class leader'. In this particular class one of the young 'Airman First Class' was attempting to exert what they perceived as a rank advantage over me, the instructor. To say the least I wasn't very proficient at exerting my own authority at this early point.

The 'class leader' came to me and suggested that I might want to go get a coffee for a few minutes. I thanked him and stepped out but only far enough that I could still hear what went on. The sergeant then proceeded to make it very clear - in a surprisingly normal tone of voice - that 'that badge' (he was referring to the 'Instructor' badge I wore) made me the highest rank in the class and if the 'Airman First Class' had a problem with that they could discuss it outside. When I came back from my 'coffee break' I stepped into a very calm class. I gave the 'class leader' a discreet thankful nod. I had a lot to learn myself.

The students would receive a study manual which had text, pictures, study questions, practical equipment exercises and quizzes based on the hardware exercises. As they mastered the work in the manual they would take a proficiency test, in a separate testing area, then progress to the next manual.

The 'instructor' in Fundamentals managed the paperwork for each student, kept class statistics and helped each student as they progressed, answering questions and helping with misunderstandings. In the early few days of a class most of the students were on the same manuals so it wasn't too difficult to keep things straight. But as better student finished more rapidly and surged ahead in their manuals the class would become fragmented in what they were studying. There was less opportunity to address class problems as a whole.

This became even worse as the students advanced past very basic electronics. The students were preparing for different specialties. These would require different sets of knowledge at the basic level. If a specialty did not require knowledge of a subject - for example “lasers” - they would not receive that manual but would receive others that they needed. So a class became even more fragmented and the instructor was answering an even wider variety of questions. It was like a rapid-fire version of Jeopardy with ten subjects at the same time.

It had been found that, relying on the aptitude tests given before enlistment, the 'Reading Ability' pre-test came out ahead as a predictor of success in learning Electronics over scores on the the 'Electronics' test. But even with preliminary testing the predicted ability didn't always show itself. We had one student who, by pure memorization, finished each of the tests with barely a passing score. He was 'progressing' but it was increasingly apparent that he lacked actual understanding of the subject and was becoming more and more despondent over this situation. He did not give up but he had to work twice as hard as the other students just to achieve this level.

He had been with a few different instructors so we got together and discussed him and his progress. We then took the matter up with our supervisors. Even though he was 'technically' passing we urged that something be done to help him. There was no way he would be happy or productive in the Electronics field. Our supervisor called him in and talked about his progress listening to his level of enjoyment for the course. He was then reassigned to another skill field, with no negative mark whatsoever. We later received a letter from him expressing his delight in his new assignment (something very different than Electronics.) We couldn't be happier for a student who couldn't make it through our classes. We felt that we had properly applied another aspect of being an 'instructor'.

Being an Air Force Electronics instructor was more-or-less an eight hour a day, five day a week job (more on this later). At times we would be relieved of one class, which had fragmented in their studies enough to be grouped together in other classes with students in similar areas of instruction. A number of students had also failed to make the grade (even though their 'Electronics' pre-tests had predicted great aptitude). So at times we were between classes. We were given duties such as reviewing training materials and tests for updating and special instruction for students having specific problems. (I mentioned this near the end of my Instructor Training post.)

While I was 'between classes' my supervisor, a Master Sergeant, said to me at the end of a Friday “See you Tuesday”. I was confused. Was there a holiday on Monday I didn't know about? But luckily another instructor grabbed me. He said that that was my supervisor's method of giving an 'extra day off'. He said that my supervisor knew exactly what he had said, there was no holiday and if I go back in to ask he will correct it to “See you Monday” thus losing that day off. Interesting times.

After one and one half years of teaching in the Fundamental Electronics school I was re-assigned to the Systems School.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Instructor School

I began my career as an Electronics Instructor by sitting in on the same 'Fundamental Electronics' classes that I had graduated from some months before. But this time I would have to be proficient in all the materials taught in the Fundamental Electronics School, not just the areas I had taken as a student. So about one third of the classes were totally new. I did this until the Basic Instructor Course opened up. So I sat in with students, doing the practical exercises, reading the same training materials and taking the same tests (except as an Instructor I had to take all the various forms of the tests which had different questions). I had to pass the tests with a 'missing only one at most' score. Obviously an Instructor should have a grasp of the material that they can easily pass all the tests.

I was excited when the Basic Instructor Course opened up. I reported to the training building and found that I was the lowest ranking individual in the class. There were even officers there each taking the same course Basic Instruction. There were also civilians who would be teaching Air Force courses (primarily in the Accounting and Procurement areas). My trepidation at being with OFFICERS was quickly lessened as we each introduced ourselves. Since the class was being lead by an upper-ranking sergeant it was like a buffer between our ranks. We always addressed each other with the proper rank (or 'Mr' or 'Mrs' for the civilian students). There were only about ten students in the class so at times it became somewhat informal but we were always careful not to cross lines.

In college, one of my Psychology courses was 'Psychology of Instruction' which covered methods of preparation and presentation of materials in different situations. It also covered various forms of measurement of progress and ranking of students. I had liked that course.

So here I was in the Air Force learning its methods of preparation and presentation of instruction and it turned out to follow the techniques I had learned in college. We learned about the basic concept of instruction - 'You are not a mind reader!'. The desired outcome of instruction was always in terms of directly observable behavior. There was none of the 'the student should understand ...' stuff. The final result had to be in terms of behavior we would observe. 'What does the student actually do that makes you satisfied that they have mastered the subject?'

As part of 'teaching a physical skill' I gave a presentation on changing a broken string on a guitar. I had sat in my apartment working out EXACTLY the steps and checks on changing a string. Before my presentation I had placed an old string on my guitar and started the presentation with the opening ... "You are at Carnegie Hall preparing to give the performance of your life when ..." (and I pulled on the string breaking it - I had worried that it would whip back and cut me but that didn't happen.) The presentation went well.

In another presentation which was to be a pure lecture format it had been emphasized that we had to take into account the background of our audience/students. I began with a fairly complex presentation when, as expected, it appeared that the students (my fellow instructor students) were not following. I gave a feigned frustrated sigh and ripped up my notes. I got an audible 'gasp' from the others then launched into the simpler presentation I had prepared which followed the format that we were expected to give.

After my presentation, which went over well, the instructor asked why I had done what I did. I noted that, following the background of the audience, I knew I would capture the best attention if it appeared, at first, that I was utterly failing in my presentation. He remarked that no one had done that before. I grinned.
The final test of the Basic Instructor School was to give actual face-to-face instruction to real students. But, as I had mentioned in an earlier posting, the presentation in the Fundamental Electronics Course was of individual student learning from training materials, often with many in the class on totally different areas. The only face-to-face instruction was with students who had worked through a subject area but had failed the test for that area. They then had to take 'Remedial Instruction' which often took place in any old empty classroom.

The students, who could be from a very wide assortment of the training areas, brought their training manuals. It was up to the 'Remedial Instructor' to determine individually what area each student had been studying and which concepts in that area they had failed to grasp. The 'Remedial Instructor' had to instantly give a presentation for each student clarifying the areas they missed. I did this over the course of one hour for three students.

After the 'Remedial Instruction' class I met with teaching instructor. He was amazed. The usual class preparation which should take hours had been compressed into mere minutes. And even though he had not studied the area of Electronics I had presented he said that he understood it very well from my quick instruction. I grinned again. I was an Air Force Electronics Instructor.