Reading: Bringing It all Together



The stakes run pretty high for airline pilots. When a captain of a 747 steers a plane into the sky, hundreds of lives hang in the balance along with tens of millions in technology. Up until recently, though, many pilots lacked a crucial bit of training. Despite the massive potential loss of life, something significant was missing from their skill set—and the story of how pilots developed this expertise gives us a few final insights into the learning process.

Let’s start, though, with flight Northwest 255. It was supposed to take off from Detroit’s Wayne County Airport on the evening of August 16, 1987. The destination was Phoenix. In the cockpit were two experienced pilots, John Maus and David Dodds.

Each seat on the flight was filled. Almost 150 people were on board. College kids, newlyweds, a player for the Phoenix Suns. An engineer with a tight mustache and the nickname “Captain Crunch.” A California teen who had a sweatshirt with her boyfriend's name emblazoned on it. Four-year-old, Cecilia, sat near her mother and brother.

As the plane pushed away from the gate, the two pilots were in a light mood. Jokes, a bit of singing, some humming.

The pilots went through the safety checklist. Brakes? Checked. Pumps? Checked. Circuit breakers? Checked. During the procedure, there were distractions—a change in the runway, a debate over the plane’s weight, some back and forth with the controller.

Eventually, Maus sped the plane down the runway. He mentioned the throttle. It “won't stay on,” he said.

“Won't go on?” Dodds said.

“OK, power's normal,” Maus said. “TCI was unset.”

The plane roared past at a hundred miles per hour. Then the wheels lifted off. The plane was in the air, and it immediately became unsteady—shaky, wobbling, yawning. From the outside, it looked more like a kite than a 40-ton aircraft.

Inside the cockpit, the stall warning system began to ring. A wing slammed into a building, before the fuselage rocketed into the middle of a highway, becoming a skidding, metal inferno. Besides for one small child, everyone on the plane died.

At first, it appeared that an engine caught fire, a freak mechanical accident. Another whispered theory was that the runway was too short, and so the plane didn't gain enough speed. Like in so many accidents, bad luck made a visit, and the plane’s automatic lift warning system wasn’t working properly at the time.

But in the end investigators determined that Maus and Dobbs had never set the flaps on the wings. A type of air rudder that hangs on the edge of the wings, the flaps provide lift, and without flaps, a large plane simply cannot fly.

One National Transportation Safety Board member later wrote that the crash was a matter of “blindness.”

Many experts were in disbelief over the discovery. Setting the flaps on a plane is like opening the garage door before backing out. It’s obvious, and the two pilots had all sorts of opportunities to address the problem, including the ten or so minutes that they had spent taxiing to the runway.

But even as the plane rolled and shook, Maus and Dodds didn’t diagnose the issue. Even as the plane wobbled in the sky, the pilots seemed unaware. They couldn’t even categorize the difficulty. One National Transportation Safety Board member later wrote that the crash was a matter of “blindness.”

It was Mica Endsley who helped future pilots to see—and learn. She took the blindness that plagued the two Northwest pilots, turning it into a type of sight, using the process of learning to revolutionize the field of flying.

At the time of the Northwest accident, Endsley was living in Los Angeles. She was studying for her Ph.D. in systems engineering at the University of Southern California. The Detroit crash occurred late on a Sunday night, and Endsley would have heard about the incident on the news, with accounts like—“Life or Death Turned On Twists of Fate”—continuing in the papers for days.

In her graduate school work, Endsley had been thinking a lot about the causes of airline crashes, and Endsley believed that something call “situational awareness”--a type of ambient perception--might be the root cause of the issue. As a skill, situational awareness has a good amount of history, and at least since World War I, pilots have been discussing the skill.

At the time of the crash, situational awareness was a vague concept, often understood as something innate, a roll of the DNA lottery. But Endsley was an engineer, not a pilot. She wanted data, not dramatic narratives, and starting in graduation school, she conducted a series of experiments on situational awareness, showing that situational awareness was something that people could hone over time. It was a type of expertise, something that could be mastered with focus, practice, and reflection.

Endsley found, for instance, just about every captain could misread a problem if they didn’t have sufficient background knowledge. She also found that “meta-skills” like awareness and metacognition were crucial, and pilots without these skills were more likely to make major mistakes. For the first time, she also found that situational awareness required planning and developing as well as a type of relational knowledge that allowed pilots to solve problems on the fly.

Endsley encouraged pilots to ask themselves “what if” questions to help them develop a more systemic understanding of flying...

Endsley soon began taking her research to airlines and flight schools, helping them develop better training programs. Endsley encouraged pilots to ask themselves “what if” questions to help them develop a more systemic understanding of flying: What if this didn’t work? What if this didn’t happen? What if the engines stopped working?

Endsley also pushed for the direct application of the skill of situational awareness, of learning as mental doing, and she and her staff would often sit with pilots in a flight simulator, helping them develop a more concrete sense of how situational awareness works. At the same time, Endsley underscored the value of thinking about thinking, and she recommended that pilots talk to themselves, explaining situations to themselves, examining their patterns of reasoning.

Today, many programs—from the Air Force basic training to medical school programs—teach Endsley’s approach, and while there’s no clear way to track the impact of Endsley’s work, there’s little question that her efforts have helped stave off airline accidents.

At the time of the Northwest wreck, more than 2,000 people would die every year in plane crashes. Now it’s less than 500. More exactly, over the past four decades, there has not been a single major crash in the U.S. due to a pilot not setting the flaps.

Now I’m hoping it’s pretty clear by now, but training for situational awareness bears a lot of similarity to the type of learning that we’ve come across in this course. Like Endsley, we’ve been talking a lot about the need for focused skill building—and the value of spotting relationships across different situations. Like Endsley, we’ve been discussing the need for fluency in the basics—and embracing real-world uncertainty. As Endsley told me, the goal of learning--any kind of learning--is “to put information together to form meaning.”            

In many ways, this is the science of learning. Math or reading, biochemistry or gaming, playing the piano or knitting a sweater, there are proven ways to improve our skills and knowledge, and even something that seems at first glance as vague and ill-defined as situational awareness can be developed.

For her part, Endsley has mapped out three stages of situational awareness—perception, comprehension, and projection—and the stages are not too different than the steps that we’ve been discussing throughout this course. Here are the steps of learning again, and you’ll see that readiness isn’t that different than perception, that comprehension isn’t that different than relating. In the end, both ideas strive for a type of mastery:

Target. In the early part of gaining mastery, focus is key. We need to figure out what exactly we want to learn and set goals and targets.

Develop. Some forms of practice make people more perfect than others. In this stage of learning, people need to hone their skills and take dedicated steps to improve performance. 

Extend. At this point, we want to go beyond the basics—and apply what we know. We want to flesh out our skills and knowledge—and create more meaningful forms of understanding.

Relate. This is the phase where we see how it all fits together. After all, we don’t want to know just a single detail or procedure—we want to know how that detail or procedure interacts with other facts and procedures.

Rethink. When it comes to learning, it’s easy to make mistakes, to be overconfident, and we need to review our knowledge, to reconsider our understanding, and learn from our learning.

These steps don’t always occur sequentially. Sometimes, we need to simply hone our skills. On other occasions, motivation is plain. If you’re studying for an exam—or checking your flaps—the reconsidering stage is always going to be central.

At the same time, we often get ahead of ourselves. One reason that hands-on learning doesn’t work in many schools and colleges is because it’s introduced too early. Same with practice: Too often, people try to develop their skills without knowing what exactly they’re developing, without any sort of goals or targets.

This brings us to another idea we’ve come across before: Learning is a process, a method, a system, and in the end, people can get better at gaining expertise. Once we know how to learn, we can hone expertise in just about any field. If we're mentally engaged, if we're strategic and deliberate, if we practice and extend, if we relate and reconsider, we can develop mastery. 

In the end, perhaps that only thing that's surprising is how little has changed. Education has not shifted like flying programs, and most academic programs do not teach the science of learning. Same with most corporate training programs. In the survey of the American public that I conducted some years back, few people had heard of many of the key ideas of the science of learning, despite the fact most respondents described themselves as knowledgeable about teaching and learning.

Education has not shifted like flying programs, and most academic programs do not teach the science of learning.

Or just consider that some ten years ago the U.S. Department of Education released a document that should have revolutionized how people learn. Some of the nation's leading learning scientists developed the report, and behind each recommendation, there was a bookcase worth of evidence, outlining the "consensus on some of the most important concrete and applicable principles to emerge from research on learning and memory."

The report’s conclusions were dramatic, at least relative to the behaviors of most people who aim to learn anything. The document underscored the value of quizzing. It talked about the value of spacing learning out over time. It argued for more “explanatory questioning,” and the value of seeing “connections” across different examples. In short, it saw learning as a process, something that can be learned.

Like so many government reports, there weren’t many exciting examples or interesting graphics, to be sure. The text was dry, written in governmentese. In fact, just the title of the document could provoke an unhealthy stammer: “Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning.”

Yet still, despite a more than decade, learning methods have not changed. This is surprising, if only for the  fact that small tweaks in learning can make an enormous difference. Some years ago, researcher Louis Deslauriers and some colleagues decided to roll out a simple intervention in an introductory college science class. If a student did poorly on the first exam, Deslauriers or one of his colleagues would meet with the students for around 20 minutes and provide some research-backed advice.

We’ve already covered a lot of what the researchers told the students, and they underscored the importance of mental doing. “Do not simply reread,” Deslauriers would explain. “Attempt to ‘do’ each learning goal by generating your own explanations.” As part of the meeting with each student, Deslauriers also talked about developing plans and goals, advising people to learn “in a targeted manner, to improve your ability with a specific learning goal.” Finally, Deslauriers would tell students to take various approaches to engaging an idea, to make sure that they could explain a concept in various ways.

The effects of the advice was impressive. Most students saw their outcomes skyrocket...

Given this sort of research, most schools and universities often seem struck in the Middle Ages. Stanford’s Jo Boaler recently put out a guide for parents that argued that adults should “never tell kids they are wrong” in math. (It’s not clear how the students would ever know that they’re right.) My own daughter’s teacher asked me about my child’s “learning style.” (Again no research on this idea.) Relatively weak approaches like underlining key points of text remains a common practice in many classrooms. (The practice doesn’t add much.)

Most people are often no different than educators. At the office, people often use highlighters. (Generally, not a great learning tool.) Jeopardy champion Roger Craig told me that he sometimes spots students studying flashcards with dozens of words on them. (“I want to tell them ‘you’re doing it wrong!’” Just use one word per card.) Walk into any office, and people will be preparing for a presentation by rereading the text of the speech. (Unless you don’t know the text at all, you’re much better practicing without notes.) “If education were in the same realm as medicine, we would still be doing bloodletting with leeches,” cognitive scientist Katherine Rawson told me.

The effects of better forms of learning are about a lot more than a test-score. Improved educational outcomes might be the single best investment in our economic future. Better learning predicts higher income—and all sorts of other benefits like less smoking. Indeed, people who learn more also have longer, happier lives. Think of learning to learning, then, as the plastics of the 21st century—the one thing that no one can do without.

If you’re a student or parent or a policymaker, there's a short how-to guide for you in the appendix. In those documents, you can find tailored advice on how to learn—and how to support other learners. I discuss what families and companies and governments should—and should not—do to help improve learning for all.

This effort is going to require more than advice, though. It’s going to take more than a course or a guide or even a moment or two of practice. Because we all have to master the learning process—we all have to learn to learn.

Complete and Continue