Tailgunners, Falling Cats & Top Students: How to Overcome Survivorship Bias & Improve Schools

During World War 2 a study was conducted as to where best to reinforce aircraft in order to cut down on the amount of planes that were lost in incursions against the enemy. (The entire plane couldn’t be reinforced as it wouldn’t be able to leave the ground.) Initially, the thinking was that the most damaged areas on the aircraft that did make it back to base should be reinforced. These areas were the wings, the tail-gunner area and along the center of the plane. This thinking was flawed, however, and a wonderful example of survivorship bias: reinforcing the areas which took the most damage would not help to increase the number of planes which returned from bombing campaigns. It would keep it the same. What they needed to do was to reinforce the areas which took the most damage of the planes which were shot down. This was done and, as if by magic, the number of surviving planes increased.

Heard that story about cats who fall from less than six stories having more injuries that those who fall from six stories or higher? Something about them reaching terminal velocity and ultimate ‘readiness’ if they fall from higher up, and thus being less likely to suffer major injuries? Survivorship bias again, I’m afraid. The poor felines which fall from higher than five stories and die were not included in the original study as they were seldom taken to the vets from which the fallen cat data was taken. If they were, the number of cats who fall from higher than 5 stories and did not live to tell the tale is likely to be far higher.

Want to be successful like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs? Want to have a triumphant company and make millions? Then look for the characteristics which make these companies and individuals successful right? Wrong. You need to look just as hard at what makes the unsuccessful fail. In their book ‘In Search of Excellence‘, for example, Peters and Waterman propose eight attributes of over 40 ‘excellent’ companies. Today, the majority of those companies have performed worse than the market average. Reading a tome titled ‘In Search of Failure’ might have been a better way to go.

So basing your interventions, plans and analyses purely on what you perceive to be successful examples is a flawed approach. You often learn just as much, if not more by basing your ideas on failure.

Now take schools. Progressive schools base everything they do on what works for successful students and other successful schools. To my mind, what we need to do is to base our schools as much on what doesn’t work and on what the ‘less successful’ students need. To this end, a few suggestions as to what we should be rethinking:

  • Rigid timetables
  • Standardized teaching and assessments
  • Canned curricula
  • Classrooms designed around the teacher
  • Kids not being able to work from home
  • Rushing to meet deadlines
  • Rigid / inflexible assignments
  • Insisting that STEM subjects are more important
  • Punishment for not performing
  • Lack of reflection / thinking time
  • Too many subjects in one day
  • Too few breaks
  • Lack of opportunities to ask questions
  • Too much homework
  • Fear of failure
  • Archaic approaches to disciplinary problems
  • The lack of a second or third or even a fourth chance
  • Class sizes
  • Unclear instructions
  • Stereotyping students according to perceived ability
  • Focusing on the wrong things (spelling / neatness / format issues)

What do you think?






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