Open and Closed Tasks

Open tasks are defined as skills that require mastery of many details in an ever-changing environment. Closed tasks are represented as fairly standardized skills in a relatively constant environment. An example of a closed skill is a checklist. On the other hand, the act of landing an aircraft on a runway, in a gusty crosswind is a good example of an open skill.

The fundamental approach to teaching a closed skill is to demand perfection. In this instance the adage “perfect practice makes perfect” applies. However, teaching open skills requires different tactics, as it is unlikely that the novice will be able to perform them perfectly the first time. Even experienced pilots have trouble making all of their landings perfect. Demanding perfection of a novice in these instances is counterproductive. The approach in these cases is to provide coaching since these are complicated skills that require much practice to reach acceptable standards. Demanding perfection of students with open tasks from the beginning will rarely be beneficial, and may actually inhibit learning.

However for the instructor life is more demanding. Since the student also learns subconsciously it is important that instructors try to demonstrate and behave as perfectly as is possibleat all times. This is true whether or not they are demonstrating open or closed tasks. Less experienced instructors may have to limit their teaching activities to some extent so that they can provide good examples while they are still honing their skills.

Selecting which tasks are open and which are closed is not always immediately apparent unless we understand what fundamental skill we are trying to teach. Doing a proper lookout at a safe altitude (in the Green) should be a closed skill. If students don’t do it right you should be able to have them start again and demand that it be done right. In the same situation (Green) a lookout should always be done before turning the aircraft. Don’t let the turn proceed if the lookout has not been done. This is the best approach to promote good flying habits. In fact most manoeuvres in the ‘Green’ can be thought of as closed skills when unlinked with position over the ground (This should be the instructor’s responsibility initially!). As mentioned, landings would definitely be considered as an open skill, as would the takeoff, and the aerotow or winch launch. Coaching is the best approach in these cases.

Instructors should realize that stress could very easily push the student into the ‘Red’, such that their awareness of the world narrows. This can have negative effects when there are still requirements in a given situation to exercise monitoring and planning skills. What this means is that if you want students to make decisions or perform open tasks it may be necessary to take some responsibility for controlling the aircraft or monitoring the situation. It is unlikely in the beginning that the student will be able to master all aspects of open tasks simultaneously.

We can see from the above that what generally makes a task open or closed can be related directly to the capacity of our working memory. Checklists and activities that can be organized or chunked into seven to nine components will remain in the realm of closed tasks. If you cannot keep the task in this range then we enter the open domain. Time and organization are the keys to turning what may seem like one big open task to a more manageable series of closed ones.

I can think of two classic examples of this. The first is teaching the lookout and the turn, and the second is teaching straight and level flight. Doing a lookout-turn rather than a lookout, then a turn, followed by a lookout, is a case where we have turned what should be two simple closed tasks to a single more complex open one. The results of the open form are poor lookouts and poor turns.

In the second example, straight and level flight has been classically described as a series of linked turns towards a point on the horizon. Seems simple enough, but again we are linking two separate tasks together, keeping the wings level and flying on course. The trouble with this classical approach was that the point chosen to fly towards was rarely on the horizon. The student was always looking somewhere below, perhaps at a town. This led to wandering about, making the series of linked turns necessary. When we teach that level flight only means that the aircraft’s nose does not swing across the horizon, and that we can accomplish this by minor corrections to the bank, we make level flight a closed task. Flying on course once level flight is mastered is easy.

Since open tasks are more complex activities requiring a lot more trial and error, the trick is to attach importance to correct execution. While it is good for instructors to be positive, they must save some higher level of praise to help separate out proper execution of open tasks from the “almost there” work. If possible, when something difficult has been done well, it will be reinforced and retained better, if it can be repeated immediately.