The U.S. Department of Education, and more than a few state-level departments, could take a lesson from NASA. On a recent evening, I had the opportunity to again hear one of my favorite local celebrities; Kathy Thornton, engineer, professor, UVa associate dean, and a 4-mission retired space shuttle astronaut. Kathy doesn’t hold back when it comes to sharing her informed perspectives on space. She’s earned that right, having been key to several major payload deployments into space including the first service work on the Hubble telescope. She’s a real-deal spacewalker. And, she’s fascinated with the human narrative of exploration. She began her talk with an image of one of the earliest maps of the globe in existence.
So, what does Kathy’s focus on the narrative of human exploration have to do with education?
Kathy Thornton created a metaphor in my mind as she spoke. Here’s what she shared. The 20th century shuttle program had to die so that NASA could get back to its primary mission of exploration, rather than maintaining its current state as a commercial cargo mover. Instead of continuing the same trajectory, NASA administrators made a tough choice. They decided to redirect the energy and thought of their teams and funding of the shuttle program away from their current work. Otherwise, the current program doomed NASA’s astronauts to circling the globe in low space orbit, over and over and over again. I thought that night – just like kids doomed to sitting in rows, facing the same direction, doing 20th century test prep worksheets over and over and over again.
When she finished speaking, I couldn’t help but think that we educators are caught in low orbit work, too.
This week, I also chatted with assistant principals (who meet together monthly) about our current work to stop our own version of the 20th century shuttle program. We discussed one entry point into a different kind of space exploration – learning spaces where kids search, connect, communicate, and make learning in and out of school. They described their own perspectives on the meaning of space, what optimal learning looks like in contemporary spaces – wherever those spaces exist, and what they see and hear among learners experiencing optimal learning.
Assistant principals used words that described spaces for learning as non-temporal, open, flexible, social; existing in both physical and virtual worlds, inside and outside the walls of school. They described optimal learning as engendering curiosity, passion, joy, interest, questions, pursuit, creativity, critical thought, collaboration, enthusiasm, excitement, commitment, reflection. They asked each other to consider new “space” words such as maker, cultural, connected, choice-driven, interactive, interdependent, and independent.
As assistant principals shared metacognitively about their own work to explore new territory and space, I wondered how we might make sense across our nation’s education communities of the real need to abandon America’s 20th century educational version of the shuttle program? How could we leverage our best transformational – not reformational – thinking to take us on a journey of learning exploration, rather than shuttling test prep cargo? How can we make sure our teachers and students aren’t consigned to more decades of exploring 20th century content, pedagogy, and tools?
If NASA is doing it, shouldn’t we also “go boldly where no educators have gone before?”
As we ended the conversation, I challenged the assistant principals to spend time every week looking for examples of optimal learning – learning that transcends 20th century standards of learning, tests, and grades that have been re-treaded into 21st century text, on and off of screens. As a friend of mine commented once to our state department of education staff, “if you take an old car, put new tires on it and repaint it, you’ve still got an old car.” Much of what we are doing in the name of contemporary learning today is nothing more than driving the same old vehicle, whether a metaphor of ‘99 Buick or ‘92 space shuttle.
NASA is taking risks right now to dream a new human narrative of space exploration that moves beyond orbiting Earth or even traveling back to the moon. They couldn’t do that without abandoning the shuttle program. It’s why they’re now paying about $63 M per American astronaut seat on Russian space vehicles. It’s why they’re investing in commercial sector space vehicle venture work to replace NASA’s ownership of it. It’s why Curiosity is on Mars right now. They’ve made tough decisions about the future that a mostly scientifically illiterate American public (72%) doesn’t understand or consider as particularly important.
But, NASA staff knows that you can’t get to and past Mars if you keep flying circles around the Earth. Kathy said it well to the gathering of business community members that night.
“Our kids must invent their future. We need to help them build the foundation to do that well.”
I think we need to stop flying in 20th century educational circles, too.