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

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 that skill could be applied to other situations. After observing their sophisticated abilities in air traffic control, they then gave them a set of generic memory based tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that when tested on these skills outside their own area of expertise the air traffic controllers did no better than anyone else.


These findings challenged contemporary thinking on generic skills. Surely they had developed a set of general cognitive capacities that could be used in other areas or ‘domains’? The evidence suggested the opposite. In order to be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about that specific domain and moreover, “the more complex the domain, the more important is domain-specific knowledge.”[3] This phenomenon is now well established and has been replicated many times. Other research for example has shown that the ability to remember long strings of digits does not transfer to the ability to remember long strings of letters.[4]  Indeed, we all know very ‘clever’ people in their professional lives who seem to often make very stupid decisions in their personal lives:

“A person who is able to reason logically in science may show no such ability in his or her personal life or in any areas outside of his or her areas of science. Knowing that we should only test one variable at a time when conducting a scientific experiment is critical. Outside of hypothesis testing, it may be irrelevant, with other knowledge being pre-eminent.” [5]

Take another example, sport. Within a football team you have many different types of positions or ‘domains’ such as goalkeepers, defenders and attackers. Within those domains you have further categories such as centre backs, full backs, attacking midfielders, holding midfielders and attacking players. Now the ‘general skill’ that all these players have is the ability to play football, however if you put a left back in a striker’s position or put a central midfielder in goal they would be lost.

A footballer’s ability to be effective in a particular position or domain is based on years of experience where they have built up thousands of mental models from playing the game in that particular position so that when they have to perform at a high level they can do so with faster reaction times and their full concentration can go on anticipating the complexities of the game faster than their opponent. Of course there are elements that are consistent with each position such as touch and technical ability but they look very different in each position and are heavily context specific. For example, a central defender heading a ball away to safety is very different to a striker heading a goal and the types of positioning and runs an attacking player needs to make are radically different to those of a defender. In other words, elite footballers are not “good at football” as such, they’re good at being a left back, defensive midfielder or attacker.


Despite the growing body of evidence questioning the efficacy of teaching general skills in recent years, there is still a near constant refrain for them to be prioritised in schools. This usually takes the form of generic “critical thinking skills” often taught in some form for an hour or two a week and decontextualised from any specific subject. This is a problem as Dan Willingham reminds us

Critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.”

Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. [6]

Another problematic area is the diaphanous world of “21st century learning skills” which some schools have made a central part of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain training games whose proponents claim can help kids become smarter, more alert, and able to learn faster. However recent research has shown that brain training games are really only good for one thing – getting good a brain training games. The claim that they offer students a general set of critical or problem solving skills was recently debunked by a new study  reviewing over 130 papers :

We know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.

Instead of teaching generic critical thinking skills, an alternative strategy would be to focus instead on subject specific critical thinking skills that seek to broaden student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. This goes for other dispositions and faculties taught generically such as Growth Mindset and Grit – students may well have a Growth Mindset in English but not in Maths, and yet the concept is often portrayed to students as a general capacity that can supposedly function in a transversal way across all subjects.(Despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether these can be taught at all.)

In the same way that teaching knowledge devoid of any platform for students to discuss, explore and develop that knowledge makes no sense, the teaching of standalone, decontextualised general skills is a questionable practice at best. It’s enduring appeal is probably in the fact that the concept seems so intuitively right yet when the evidence is appraised we find their justification weak. To those advocates of the ubiquitous critical thinking skills we might risk the question: “but what are they going to think with?” As Dan Willingham reminds us “thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.”




The Role of Memory in Air Traffic Control (Gronlund, Dougherty)

Domain-Specific Knowledge and Why Teaching Generic Skills Does not Work (Tricot, Sweller 2014)

Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? (Willingham)

Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? (Simons et al 2016)



1 (Dominquez, 1994)

2 (Yntema & Mueser, 1960)

3 (Ericsson & Charness, 1994)

4 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)

5 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)

6 (Willingham 2007)


  1. allen ralph parrott

    Of course trying to teach generic critical thinking skills in a vacuum is a nonsense. But generic criticality should still be an important goal of schooling in a free-thinking democracy. If it can’t be taught as a set of measurable and decontextualised skills, then please let it be practised by every teacher in every subject. Let it become part of the ethos of every school (especially in the 6th form) and of every university (especially in the business studies and science sectors).

    Young people must be encouraged to ask critical questions and to think for themselves: i.e. to think about their schooling and their lives in the same critical manner as Carl Hendrick thinks about matters educational.


  2. C# minor

    this is crude stuff; not sure how generalisable the experiences of footballers is nor whether you have thought through the differential skills involved in playing in different positions. Also have my doubts about the assumptions being made about specific and general skills involved in flight management. Next step is what a waste of time Humanities degrees are. How about you check out the Philosophy for Children approach, or what failures all classics graduates are. Sure, there’s an issue with a concept of general intelligence but that’s hardly news. Anyone arguing against the concept of generalisable skills per se is plainly talking rubbish. You really believe being in a sports team doesn’t transfer to other team work? That researching greek texts won’t help me handle legalese. What you fail to see is the artificiality of many of the divisions between subjects: the boundaries are incredibly porous, and anyway in large part they all grew out of each other.
    You’re attempting to use a grain of sand to sharpen your axe: try sharpening your thought instead.


    • Jon Tibke

      Interesting read though this is, I am with c# minor to a large degree. Isn’t this simply restating the issue of transfer, as studied at length by psychology. Rather than say it can’t happen, surely we need to get better at figuring out how it can happen, how connections can be made. Consider also the skill of questioning, as possessed by the best teachers. I would hate to think that an intelligent, for example history teacher cannot learn something from the questioning skills of a successful maths teacher (interchange the subjects as you wish, and as C# minor suggests, let’s not frame everything in the convenience of the school curriculum divisions, which are largely to enable timetables to be created and personnel deployed).


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  9. Matthew

    ” You really believe being in a sports team doesn’t transfer to other team work? That researching greek texts won’t help me handle legalese”

    On the one hand there is the evidence, which says that skills are quite specific and not generalisable, and on the other we have your opinion

    “Consider also the skill of questioning, as possessed by the best teachers”

    The best according to who? Teachers are typically evaluated according to how well they match up to culturally accepted ideas of what makes a good teacher, not so much according to how much transformation they bring about.

    Can one teacher learn from the skills of another? Of course, but the degree of transferability will depend on how similar the skills are. Good questioning in maths depends largely on how well the teacher knows the topic and the types of pitfalls that students fall into. This might be true in history as well, but the history teacher wont benefit until they get a better grasp of the history topics and the history specific pitfalls. In other words, a maths teacher with good questioning skills wont be much good at questioning in history and vice versa. The skills are not so much transferable as something that needs to be learned again in a separate context


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