The Air Traffic Controller Paradox: Why Teaching Generic Skills Doesn’t Work — chronotope

Being an air traffic controller is hard. Really hard. The job entails having to remember vast amounts of fluid information often within a context of enormous pressure. Essentially the job is about ‘situational awareness’ which involves “the continuous extraction of environmental information, the integration of this information with prior knowledge to form a coherent understanding of the present situation.”[1] The job is done under extreme duress, where they have to make life or death decisions often with a lack of sleep leading in some cases to long-term fatigue and burnout. So stressful is the job that air traffic controllers are eligible for retirement at age 50 or after 25 years of service. In the 1960s, a series of interesting experiments was done on air traffic controllers. Researchers wanted to explore if they had an general enhanced ability to “keep track of a number of things at once” [2] and whether that skill could be applied in other situations. After observing their sophisticated abilities in air traffic control, they then gave them a set of generic tasks such as general intelligence memory tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that when tested on these refined skills outside their own area of expertise, the air traffic controllers did no better than anyone else.

via The Air Traffic Controller Paradox: Why Teaching Generic Skills Doesn’t Work — chronotope

About Carl Hendrick
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