When The Wings Fall Off

One gem of wisdom I’ve quoted a number of times on this blog is from a speech given by professor Seymour Papert, and it goes like this…

“The model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

What I really like about that quote is the idea that it’s not the specific content of what we teach that really matters, but rather the ability to apply general principles to solve entirely new problems.

So when I saw this video it occurred to me that it was an interesting example of how we can never be fully prepared for when the unexpected happens.

I know that the training required to be a pilot is an incredibly rigourous process.  It means learning about aerodynamics, weather, instrument training, plenty of takeoffs and landings and lots of instruction on how to deal with emergencies, but I’m not sure that it includes what to do if your wing falls off! (I don’t know, maybe it does… perhaps if you’re a pilot you can leave a comment and let me know)

So you’re flying along, relying on all those habits you developed back in flight school and the many years of practice you’ve done since then, and suddenly one of the wings comes off and all those things that have always worked for you no longer apply.  The plane plummets towards the ground.  Your mind immediately runs through all the stuff you learned in flight school to find the right response to this situation, but there isn’t one.  The controls no longer responds the way they used to.  The big question now is, can you unlearn what you’ve always known and relearn what you need right now? Can you apply the right general principles to this new situation and respond to this situation for which you were never trained?

I can’t even begin to fathom the composure that must have been required to put that aircraft into knife edge flight, start using the rudder as an elevator and vice versa, and manouvre the thing towards the ground in such a way that it stalls a few metres of the ground and then drop it safely onto the runway. But more importantly, the only way that such a stunt could even be attempted is by a pilot who was able to relearn and instantly adapt to the aircraft’s new behaviours.  To me, this is a perfect example of the sorts of things that Papert was talking about when he said, ” We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

PS: There is a bit of discussion in the comment thread on this video as to whether it was real or not… some say it was faked, some say not.  Lots of accusations of it being a model plane, being done with CGI, although some even said they were there and actually saw it happen. I did some more research and I’m still not convinced it’s fake. This video of a model plane suggests that such a manouvre is feasible.  Either way, the point remains that if it did actually happen, there is no way that a conventional response would have given the pilot a hope in hell.

CC BY-SA 4.0 When The Wings Fall Off by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

7 Replies to “When The Wings Fall Off”

  1. Hi Chris

    A few weeks ago, we went to see Gov Angus King, Govenor of Maine when they implemented their 1 to 1 laptop policy. He used a great analogy of law school. When you go to law school, you don’t learn the law, because it’s such a dynamic field. You learn how to find what cases you need, when you need them, and how to interpret and use them. Essentially, how to find the information you need and to utilise it.

    I think that relates alot to school now, and more emphasis should be placed on teaching students how to think and problem solve, find and interpret, critically analyse information rather than just teaching enough facts to get through the HSC.


  2. An interesting post yet again Chris, although I think it is a little simplistic. I do agree that you do need to know how to learn, however, you first need to have a solid foundation. To be able to function in society, you need at least a basic understanding of literacy and numeracy. I would see the literacy component as being crucial in enabling students to learn.

  3. Mark. I don’t disagree with you at all. We absolutely MUST have a good grasp of literacy and numeracy in order to function in society. To continue the aircraft analogy though, a pilot would need a good grasp of aerodynamics, instrument reading, and general piloting skill in order to function effectively as a pilot. On this I think we agree.

    My point was that, once you have a strong understanding of the essential elements required to function – be they literacy or aerodynamics – then when things change suddenly you need to know how to reapply those elements in new situations. The ability to “learn, unlearn and relearn” as Alvin Toffler would say. When the wings fall off an aircraft, the laws of aerodynamics still apply but the controls don’t respond the way they always did… in this situation a pilot had better be able to unlearn the old ways the aircraft responded to the controls and relearn some new ways pretty darn quick!

    Likewise, I doubt anyone would argue with you that literacy and numeracy are foundational to being able to function. But when the culture shifts dramatically, whether that’s because of technology, politics, economics or something else, and suddenly things are not working for us the way they always worked, then we better be real good at unlearning the things that have always served us well and relearning new things that will serve us well in this new environment.

    Being “literate” is important, but what does that even mean these days? Is being able to read a book enough to be considered literate? What about visual literacy? Cinematic literacy? Hypertextual literacy? Online literacy? These are absolutely different literacies than what existed as “literacy” when I went to school, but the ability to “be literate” in these new mediums is critical to being able to function effectively. If we were to only consider literacy as the way it was understood when we were at school, then as society changes – as the wings fall off – we may not know how to respond in an appropriate way to these new situations.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Chris

    Caught your keynote at ULEARN and thought your sentiments were right on.

    However I’d like to say that research (of validated material) is a key part of learning. If the basis of our knowledge is founded on false facts or manufactured truths then the story of learning does not end well.

    I wouldn’t be embarrassed either by learning that this video is not of an actual pilot flying a single winged plane. The video was designed to fool, deceive and provoke debate by a clever team that get paid to make propoganda. It clearly worked and I have now relayed to the creators how it was used at ULEARN.


    1. Hey Brian,

      Yep, I originally wrote this post before I had seen that article and agree that, in hindsight, it may be a hoax. I even added that note in a PS at the end of the post a while ago.

      That said, I still show the video in presentations sometimes because I feel that the point it makes about learning, unlearning and relearning is still just as valid. I have seen numerous videos of one winged model airplanes being landed, so it seems like it’s still technically possible to do it, and the idea that the controls are all suddenly messed up and require a relearning of how to fly I think still makes the point I was trying to make.
      Thanks for your feedback though! Cheers.

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