The Armour Goes in Unexpected Places

It would have been in most respects a normal day for an online distance education teacher in the early nineties. I settled in to my spot in the studio and made sure everything was working. First the mikes—all OK. Next the Telewriter: I picked up the pen and wrote on the screen and then remotely loaded the first ‘slide’ for the day’s lesson. Again everything was fine. As always the first thing to do would be to greet the students by name and just chat for a few minutes. Besides ensuring that the audio and graphics capabilities were working it had the much more important function of getting the students to open up, to come out of their schools, defined as they were by the walls of the classroom, and now enter into the online one defined only by who was present that day.

Today I had a new student. I was a bit surprised as it was several months into the school year. I asked her name but she did not reply. Eventually another student at that school answered for her, telling me her name and letting me know she was shy.

Over the next few weeks I did my best to get my new student—let’s call her Angela—involved, but all to no avail. She would not respond when asked a question and would not ever write on the electronic whiteboard when asked to contribute to the day’s work. Her first written work assignment was comprised of mostly blank sheets and so, I decided it was time to contact the school. I called the principal and then learned the awful truth.

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In a previous job, around 14 years ago, my designation was Program Implementation Specialist and one of my initial tasks was to put together a team of online teachers who would lead the changeover from the distance education system used in my province since 1988—the one described in part above, and may be described in more detail here if you are interested. Together, the Program Development Specialist and I devised a recruitment strategy that involved an online application system that would be used to provide a short-list of candidates. Those candidates would then be interviewed by a panel of three and would be subject to a reference check. All components were scored and the scores were used to rank the potential candidates, who would then be seconded.

This system was used by me and my colleagues for seven years and provided me with a significant experience in selecting those would be well suited to online learning. Through constant use I came to anticipate the response to one particular question as it tended to give an almost instant measure of whether the interviewee was or was not a suitable candidate. The question? “What would be your response if you noticed that a particular student was not doing well in the course? That is, if you noticed that a student was not engaged, not submitting work on time or doing work that was of sub-par quality?” Typical answers included: putting on extra classes, creating tutorials, providing “worksheets” and maybe even involving disciplinary measures. None of those, however, were the one I sought. I wanted something else.

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Oftentimes the truth or the best course of action is not the one that seems obvious. Take my own academic discipline—physics—for example. There’s nothing commonsensical about the majority of what is typically found in the high school physics curriculum despite the protestations of inexperienced (or just plain ignorant) instructors who claim they can “make it easy.” Newton’s first law (objects tend to remain at rest or in constant motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force) is about as counter-intuitive as it gets. Objects remain at rest—no they don’t! Just YOU try sliding a book across a floor; it comes to a stop in no time! No! Newton’s first law is the product of sheer genius; a fantastic off-the-charts insight made by a most unusual individual. Seeing or maybe creating ‘friction’ as a new construct but one that merely presents itself as a new unbalanced force—pure brilliance!

Physics is not something that is not easily absorbed; something that is only understood after a skillfully-constructed instructional framework that involves bringing students right up against their existing world understanding, clearly pointing out the deficiencies and ensuring that the student acknowledges those deficiencies and then carefully rebuilding the worldview in a different way. Not simple at all and certainly not something that happens in a day.

And so it goes with everything. To do better work you have to work hard to get beyond the obvious and, as just pointed out, this involves going up against your “comfort zone” then breaking through it with a whole new worldview. This involves breaking common sense.

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Allied Bomber Command faced just such a situation in World War II.

Let me digress for a moment here. I am not one given to glorifying war. While I acknowledge that it is a reality and something that often cannot  be avoided I also want to point out that there is generally no “right” and “wrong” side but instead two opposing groups who have found themselves with no alternative but to act with extreme aggression. It is a reality. Ordinary people like you and I never wish to find ourselves in it but, alas, from time to time it happens and we are faced with no choice but to do what we must.  Under the extreme conditions faced by the various sides oftentimes comes the need to dig down deep and to utilize every and any opportunity that affect the balance of power. Frequently, then, wartime becomes a time of extreme innovation borne of necessity. I wish to consider one case here as it is illustrative of a point I wish to make and not for any other reason.

Bombers, with their heavy deadly loads, are slow lumbering beasts and, as such, are easy targets for fighters who desperately seek to prevent them from achieving their missions. In WW2 many that set out did not return but were instead shot down by the fighter planes they encountered along the way. Those that returned were typically bullet riddled but still able to limp back to base for repair and refitting.

One of the responses to this loss of planes was to install armour that would protect the aircraft from the projectiles from the fighters. Armour, though, is heavy and reduces the load capacity and thus the military effectiveness of the aircraft. The solution, therefore, is to place the armour only where it is absolutely necessary. Bomber command subsequently engaged in a constant, careful study of its in-service aircraft. Each time an aircraft would return from a mission it would be inspected and the location of bullet holes obtained in that flight would be recorded. Typical returning aircraft resembled the drawing below. Notice where the bullet holes are; namely on the wings, tail and fuselage. Based on that it would make sense to place the armour there since, after all, that’s where the hits were occurring, right?

A Lancaster Bomber after a run. The red dots indicate the position of bullet holes.
A Lancaster Bomber after a run. The red dots indicate the position of bullet holes.

Wrong. The reasoning is unsound; fundamentally flawed, in fact.

Fortunately so, too, thought the Allied Bomber Command, thanks to the insight of mathematician Abraham Wald. He assumed that the bullets were not specifically aimed at any one part of the aircraft. Aerial firefighting was much too chaotic an activity to allow for precision aiming. Fighter pilots instead aimed in the general direction of the aircraft and hoped that the bullets/cannon shells would have some negative effect. One would expect, therefore that in an ideal situation, the placement of bullet holes would be more-or-less uniform.

The placement wasn’t uniform, of course as you already noticed from the image. Wald, however went one step further by reasoning—correctly—that hits to vulnerable areas would result in downed aircraft, ones that would not make it back. Since the sample used in the study consisted of aircraft that made it back it would be logical to conclude that they tended NOT to have hits to the vulnerable areas.

Take another look at the diagram. Where are there very few bullet holes? The engine and forward cockpit. Of course! A relatively small number of hits to the engines would render them inoperable. Likewise, hits to the cockpit could result in casualties to the flight crew. In either case the plane would be lost.

Simply put, instead of looking for where the bullets were you should look for where they were not. Those are the parts that need armour, and not the bullet-riddled parts.

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So what does this have to do with eLearning? It turns out that in my previous career a significant part of my efforts were dedicated to the improvement of the quality of our instructional efforts. I approached this is various ways: reading about things done differently elsewhere, researching new devices and attendant methods, conferring with teachers and interviewing successful students. These tended, at first, to be my main starting points. Over time, though, I slowly moved away from all of these somewhat.

It started in a somewhat unexpected fashion. Each year I would address all of the intermediate-secondary student teachers at Memorial University in order to explain to them how the province’s distance education program worked. As part of the presentation I would those in the audience who has received part of their high school program from the program to identify themselves and would ask them to offer up their perspectives on the experience.

Of course, in all honesty, I was, in part, “selling” the program. I was part of that same system and certainly took great pride in it and in my contribution to it. While I was making it look like I was seeking an unbiased assessment I know—now—that in the initial stages I was really seeking affirmation; an ‘independent’ external source that validated the program as being worthwhile.

To my great surprise that’s not exactly what I got. Yes, many of the students were quite positive about the experience they’d had in the distance education program, but not all of them were. Numerous students indicated that they’d not found it great or that they much preferred the more traditional face-to-face approach.

The first few times this happened I responded by downplaying the responses, merely assuming that they were just the voices of the disgruntled few who had not enjoyed success probably through their own efforts or, more accurately, lack thereof. In time, though, I came around. Rather than dismissing those voices or, worse, glossing over what they’d said I began showing active interest in their points of view. I would not just let their comments sit unacknowledged; unchallenged. Instead, I slowly came around to a practice whereby I would probe deeper whenever I got the somewhat negative responses, attempting to determine just exactly had led to what I’d found.

It was enlightening, to say the least. Space does not permit a detailed exposition of what I found but, in general, here were a couple of items that were frequently encountered:

  • The choice to enrol in a particular course, which also happened to be a distance education offering, was not made by the student but, rather, by the parents or, even more frequently, the school administrator or the school district office.
  • The instructor had not made a concerted effort to reach out to the student but seemed, rather to either just teach to nobody in particular, seldom involving anyone in the class or, instead, appeared to play favourites.
  • Technical issues had resulted in significant ‘down time.

Now, lest you get the impression that this post is a mean-spirited barb at my former employer, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. The pride I felt, and continue to feel in that program, is built on more than just emotion. It is, rather, something that is rooted in significant evidence that indicates its overall efficacy. The numbers don’t lie and they indicate that the students tend to do well. Just not all of them.

My point, rather, is to point out that in the later part of my career I found much more use in finding out why students did not find success than I did in identifying those factors that were associated with success.

Like Wald, I found it useful to consider the planes that did not return.

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As for that telling response to the question, “What would you do if a student is not having success in your course?”

The desired response: “I would find out what was wrong.” That’s a lesson I earned through long and often painful experience.

Never mind the extra classes, the tutorials and the varied approaches, just figure out why the student is not doing well and do what can be done.

———-

But there’s still ‘Angela,’ the student I found in my class, the one who unexpectedly dropped in and who was not finding any success. Yes, I did seek to get to the bottom of it all.

And I did.

I learned that she had just returned to her home community, after living away for several years. Her mom was a single parent but had found a new boyfriend so she’d moved away to be with him, taking her daughter with her. It became an abusive relationship and one night, in a drunken rage, the boyfriend had murdered Angela’s mom while she was present there in the apartment. She’d returned to her home community and was placed in foster care and that’s why she’d been dropped unexpectedly in my grade eleven physics class.

I tried as best I could to make things work for Angela. Unfortunately I did not succeed. I did not end up giving her a passing grade and she was not in my online physics class the following year. I do not know how she fared in life after that but do think of her often, especially when I need a good dose of humility. Sometimes, even with hard work, skill and insight you still cannot get the success you hope for. Yes, you generally do, with effort and teamwork, but not always.

Angela did not have a good experience in my Physics class. It continues to be a humbling truth.

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