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 sometimes 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 they 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 a general enhanced ability to “keep track of a number of things at once” [2] and whether…

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