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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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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16 thoughts on “The Armour Goes in Unexpected Places

  1. Maurice, Thanks for this illuminating insight into the pros and cons of your distance ed experience. I think teaching is a complicated enough experience when face to face with your students and able to see their body language and facial expressions. Distance ed would negate those things. I feel for you in regard to Angela and her situation. What a tragic series of events. Best wishes to you from me.

    1. Thanks, Martin. My experience with Angela dates to around 1993 and I often think about the whole thing. She would be in her mid thirties now and I sincerely hope that her life situation is better than the one she had to endure as a child. Someday I may find out and, frankly, even now I can feel that knot of anticipation in my stomach wondering which way it turned out.

  2. I must admit I prefer close circuit learning, inside the classroom where I can interact with the professor or teacher. I am still learning how to communicate properly through blogging. Your story is similar to the ones I heard at the school board about children having trouble at work. It’s a tough one for teachers. If it’s any consolation to you, you’ve tried and you did your best.

    BTW that diagram about the plane and the bullet holes, that’s very entertaining. Thank you.

    1. Thanks. I tried to source the story about Abraham Wald correctly. It’s fairly well-known in management science circles but I have the feeling that not all of the credit goes to Wald for his stroke of insight. It’s been my experience that those kind of innovative ideas and insights tend to arrive from groups and he was certainly part of one. I found his original paper on the subject. It’s brilliant, technical and hard to read but does not at any point claim any credit for that insight, just for the subsequent mathematical analysis which he does brilliantly.

  3. Maurice I wish there were more teachers like you. Looking at the why is so important, as each child has different levels of skill and abilities. My son learns differently from others and when we find a teacher who understands that, it is golden. Rather a detailed post, but I get where you are coming from with the planes too.

    1. Thanks! It’s been a while since I posted here and I had seriously consider making it multiple pieces but felt that it just did not hang together well unless posted all at once. Unfortunately the result was monstrously long for a blog, and rambling too–but that was my intent as I did want to convey the sense of humility and conflict that all of it brings over, even to this day.
      Snow today on the ground! Hopefully not for long, though. In November it tends to be a transient thing–here one day and gone the next. It’s not until late December that it gains a winters foothold. Of course it’s the opposite for you!

  4. You have struck a nerve here Maurice. I am currently teaching a large course (~300 students) in Biology for nonmajors. I compiled the results of the first examination and brought them with me to class. I displayed the grade distribution which was clearly bimodal; kids either received and A or a B … or a D or an F … with very few grades of C in between. Having read your post I can reflect, with some pride, upon the analysis that I presented the group. I said that I wasn’t too worried about the As and the Bs and those receiving Cs needed to ‘bump it up’ a bit. The focus of my comments was on the Ds and the Fs. I said that students who didn’t do well, needed to figure out WHY they didn’t do well. Figuring out the right solutions to questions they missed was almost secondary to figuring out how it was that their approach to the course and to the learning the material was perhaps off target. It was important that they identify some systemic problem which resulted in poor performance. Now, having said that, I must admit that I didn’t personally help the D/Fs discover where they had gone wrong (in approach that is), I left it up to them to see what they got wrong and to try and figure out why. So, you are correct in suggesting that poor performance doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of intelligence. It is often the case that our students do poorly because of something that’s ‘going on.’ Whether the thing that’s ‘going on’ has to do with the ways in which they study, a romantic interest, or things at home, these impact student performance – how is it that this important variable could be overlooked or ignored? The real question then is how, as educators, can we know? And, even if we know what’s impacting performance, is it our job to buffer the influence of these negative effects? And even if we buffer the effect, the influence doesn’t go away. What, when you distill it all, is our job? We’re not counselors, and we’re not social workers … and yet these ‘outside-of-the-classroom’ effects do influence what we may achieve.

    I haven’t told you anything you don’t know. This comment then is my way of letting you know you did, in the case described, everything right. The simple fact is that students are people … and people are complicated … and sometimes the complicated lives of our students makes what goes on in the classroom (electronic or otherwise) problematic. It’s no fault of our own. Like the kids say … it is what it is. D

    PS: Really, really, enjoyed the WWII bomber analogy. Wonderfully done.

  5. Thanks Dave. First 300 students i one course! All I can say is Ai yii yiiii! As you know, except for this current job, (which i enjoy very much, by the way) all of my experience has been in the k-12. In my face to face experience I was in a small school and typically was responsible for either 11 or 12 different courses, which tended to be doubled up. I taught G10 practical and academic math concurrently, G11 same and G12 same, etc. I typically had around 150 students total. In my distance education teaching experience I typically taught 6 sections and was in any given year responsible for 3 or 4 different courses. Again, my numbers would be around 120 students total. It was all i did. No research, no outreach none of the other stuff you also have to do besides teach. As such I could get to know the students and could assume responsibility for some of their learning. In your case there’s simply no way you can do anything other than deliver the lectures and design the evaluation. No way you can do anything else.
    What you say is entirely true. The students all come from slightly different backgrounds and are not all engaged and productive. That, more than anything else, is why some of them tend not to have success. I can relate one thing my institution is working on, though. It has implemented a ‘first year success’ program across campus which is trying to address those issues. You might take a quick peek here to have a look. I think it’s making a difference for some of the students. http://www.mun.ca/success/

  6. Mary Duffy

    I also hope Angela found happiness and success later on and agree you did your very best by contacting the school. Your story really does illustrate the difficulties of online teaching – but you tried to reach beyond the barriers of technology to possibly connect Angela with some help and support. Despite the challenge related to online courses they are so necessary – if those Physics courses were not available in the outports – so many up and coming young Scientists and Engineers would really be at a disadvantage. I do hope you compile all these writings into a book – very useful for educators and also documents the history of distance education in Nfld.

    1. Indeed. In fact it’s been my own experience that the students themselves do not give the distinction between the online classes and the face-to-face classes much thought at all. It’s just natural to them as they live comfortably in both worlds. Some do tend to prefer one over te other but as far as I am concerned, to most students a class is a class.

  7. I really enjoyed the Lancaster Bomber analogy. As you will probably guess, it was the Angela situation in your post here that caught my interest first. You’re absolutely right in suggesting that there is most always something bubbling under the surface that gets in the way of learning. Sometimes it is just down to lack of ability but most often there are mitigating circumstances. Sadly, I come across many Angelas. Some eventually do succeed. Others disappear without trace. All we can do while they are in our care is to attempt to create the most positive experience we can for them and hope that something rubs off.

    1. So true. We are but one part of the students lives. It’s just that, over time, each time I see a student not succeed I’ve come to accept that I have been at least partially responsible. But yes, sometimes our efforts can make some difference and others they will be to no avail. As for the Lancaster story, there are others I could have tapped into as well. In the Great War, for example, when the US changed over to canvas style helmets to the steel ones it actually found that head injuries went way up. Was it because the soldiers grew more rash with their more effective headgear? No it was all about the way the statistics were compiled. Not all of the soldiers were counted in original studies as they would not be injured but, rather, deceased. Simply put the new helmets changed “fatalities” into “head injuries” but were still. in fact, much more effective.

  8. I also enjoyed the plane analogy. From what I’ve learned you’re an excellent teacher, but sometimes success/lack of success of a student is far beyond what a teacher can do. That’s just a simple fact of life. Greetings!

  9. I am, not surprisingly, most encouraged by your willingness to look beyond the obvious and see the individual behind the behavior. The heartbreaking details of Angela’s silence and struggle remind us all to be kind in our assumptions.

    Your students are lucky to share your time, Maurice.

  10. Terrific and super multi-faceted post, Maurice!! This (where to put the armour) is such a great example of so-called counter-intuitive reasoning.

    You have also blended the human aspect of learning and school with the necessary requirements of hard work that don’t allow for easy shortcuts … which I find too often presented as if these were contradictory (‘playful learning’ etc….).

  11. Thank you so much for this post – I’m struggling with getting feed back from employees of a business I just re-designed website for and have done in-person training on new ‘tools’ for – – I’ve reached out every way I know how – through a variety of feed back methods and got disheartened this past week as to my incompetency of how to determine what they need without adding to their work load. Your post gave me an idea…. Thank you ever so much!

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