Viewpoints: Flying on empty

October 21, 2014 Dennis Theobald, Associate Executive Secretary

Wilful ignorance no way to run an airline, or an education system

Canadian airline pilots are truly excellent and Canadians know it. In public surveys, airline pilots are consistently rated as among the most trusted professionals (exceeding even teachers).

Now, to some extent, this is to be expected given the nature of an airline pilot’s work. After all, the fact that the fate of pilots is inextricably linked to the fate of passengers riding in the cabin behind the flight deck is bound to create a degree of confidence in the folks up front. To use a concept from business, there is no “agent-principal problem” on an airplane in flight.

But more than that, Canadian pilots have demonstrated their excellence under particularly trying conditions. For instance, they seem to be expert at flying without fuel.

Recall the famous 1983 case of the “Gimli Glider.” This was an Air Canada Boeing 767 on a flight from Montreal to Edmonton that, as a result of a series of errors, ran out of fuel while flying at 41,000 feet over northern Ontario. Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal managed to pilot their massive glider some 235 kilometres before safely landing it on a decommissioned runway cum drag-strip at Gimli, Man.

Astonishingly, this accomplishment (which won Pearson and Quintal the first ever Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship) is not unique in Canadian aviation. In 2001 an Air Transat Airbus A330 flying from Toronto to Lisbon ran out of fuel over the mid-Atlantic Ocean when a fuel line fractured in mid-flight. Again, Captain Robert Piché and First Officer Dirk de Jager managed to glide their crippled wide-body jet to a safe landing at an airbase in the Azores.

In both cases, extensive investigations were conducted and preventative measures implemented to ensure that the circumstances that had resulted in the near-disasters would not be repeated.

So here’s the point: Despite the fact that these two aircraft had excellent pilots who managed to land them safely, their running out of fuel in the first place was still considered in aviation circles to be a bad thing best avoided in the future.

If only education were the same.

You see, it seems to be the case in education that the presence of excellent teachers provides a ready excuse for not addressing fundamental problems affecting children’s readiness and ability to learn or the conditions in which they are to be taught. In fact, teachers are expected to overcome these problems and, if they are unsuccessful, well they couldn’t have been that excellent to begin with.

If airlines took this approach, they would routinely underfuel, overload and delay servicing their aircraft, depending instead on the expertise and commitment of their excellent flight crews to save the day. Full fuel tanks? Unnecessary luxury! Take off weight and trim restrictions? Obstacles to real innovation! Two functioning engines? Wasteful and unaffordable redundancy! And as for runways — haven’t you heard of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger? He didn’t need a runway!

Of course, the resulting carnage would be blamed on pilot incompetence. Resources would be committed to conducting body counts, evaluations and professional development, all for the laudable purpose of documenting and building pilot expertise. And because all passengers deserve an excellent pilot, much attention would be paid to the problem of “getting rid of bad pilots.”

A timely example of this tendency in the field of education involves guru-du-jour John Hattie, who recently roamed about the province selling his visual learning concept to apparently receptive government, school and jurisdiction leaders. Hattie claims to have assembled, based on a meta-analysis of more than 900 education research papers, a catalogue of 150 education interventions ranked in terms of their effect size.

Hattie’s work is open to a number of technical, methodological and policy criticisms, and his conclusions about what works best in the classroom (given that virtually anything works at least to some degree) certainly leave few ideological oxen ungored. But what really takes my breath away is the completely unapologetic statement he makes in his book Visible Learning about what he did not consider: “[Visible Learning] is not a book about what cannot be influenced in schools — thus critical discussions about class, poverty, resources in families, health in families, and nutrition are not included — but this is NOT because they are unimportant, indeed they may be more important than many of the influences discussed in this book. It is just that I have not included these topics in my orbit.”

I suppose that Hattie is free to do this, given that his focus is on improving teacher and instructional effectiveness, presumably with the goal of improving learner outcomes. However, given that goal, it seems odd to disregard from the outset factors that are likely to contribute significantly to those learner outcomes.

It’s a bit like saying, because pilots don’t fuel aircraft or maintain them or determine the number of passengers or the amount of cargo placed on board, these factors need not be taken into consideration. If this is the attitude we take at the start of the flight, I’m fairly sure how that flight will end: you’ll want to take off your glasses, stow your carry-on securely, remove sharp objects from your pockets and brace, brace, brace. ❚

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