I was recently reading a piece from Fast Company about the mathematician Abraham Wald. In the article, it explains how Wald was hired by the Navy during WWII to help them figure out where planes needed more armor to avoid being shot down. Prior to Wald, many people thought that it was the wings, nose and tail which needed the extra armor since that is where the planes showed damage. Wald instead turned this logic around and said that it was precisely the spots where there was no damage that needed to be reinforced. By Wald’s logic, you could not figure out where planes needed armor by looking at the ones that made it back, you needed to account for the ones that didn’t return. In other words, if a plane made it back to be analyzed, those bullet holes only told you the plane could survive being shot there. The important point here is that Wald showed “the results revealed the opposite of the obvious conclusion.”
This got me thinking about education. Much like the fighter planes of WWII many would argue that modern day education is flawed. Along these lines, there are no shortage of solutions to fix this problem. But are we jumping to the obvious conclusion? If we think of student achievement as our plane what are we trying to protect it against?
Now you might ask, what do WWII fighter planes have to do with education? Well, if you think about it, WWII fighter planes were a design problem much the same way education is. If you are trying to armor a plane, the simple solution would be to add armor everywhere. The problem with that is that armor is heavy and the plane won’t fly. You need to be selective about where the armor is added so as to create a plane that can both fly and have armor in all of the right places. Much like education, Wald was looking for the weak spots. In education, we ask about the standards, the content, the teaching method and all sorts of other variables that we think will help students succeed. But are we looking in the wrong place? Just as those before Wald were jumping to the obvious conclusion, are we simply looking for a solution based on the ones who have “survived?”