Abandoning the Space Shuttle… a Lesson for Educators

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.

Ptolemy World Map (Wikipedia image)

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.

Captured by Earth’s Orbit: Photographer: NASA/AFP/Getty Images

Captured in School Desks

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.

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School

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.

Curiosity on Mars

67 thoughts on “Abandoning the Space Shuttle… a Lesson for Educators

  1. Great post, Pam. It is so hard for us to abandon the familiar even when it is not in the best interest of kids. Not only physical spaces for learning but other spaces constrained by time (clocks, calendars, bells) and efficiency-based age-grouping work against kids from the first day they walk into the school house doors. We all know that and the evidence points to the need for change, but we still cling too much to the past. Fear of the unknown? Fear of failure? Fear of losing control? Fear of costs going up? Fear that our children won’t have the same “wonderful experiences” we had?

  2. Beautiful and powerful post, Pam. You have a wonderful talent for connecting disparate images and ideas and seeing things in a new way — and then inviting others to do the same. I love the idea of “a new kind of space exploration” in schools. We do need to leave our old habits, and old thinking, behind. It is hard — but Kathy Thornton says it so well: “Our kids must invent their future”. In working with students at 3rd level, my overriding feeling is that I need to get out of their way. I ask questions, engage in conversations, listen, learn, provide support, but mainly, I try to give students the freedom (and permission) to learn and to create in their own ways. Space exploration is a great analogy. Thank you 🙂

  3. You make an interesting point about the education system and learning today, and the analogy you draw to NASA is relevant….Sometimes I feel that the education system that was developed a long time, is still in place, even though it’s somewhat archaic. Research shows that there are better ways to engage today’s students, but it sems as though classrooms still want to continue the old method. This is why we need schools / principals / teachers that constantly try to introduce innovative methods into their classroom—it helps the education system a much need shove forward!

    Congrats on being FP!

  4. I’m in. For years I have lamented the dreaded worksheet and was overjoyed when our superintendent had some PD that focused on going outside the boundaries of “normal” education. It was refreshing, it was invigorating. It made me dream of a world where students ask questions because they are delving into the subject on their own, instead of completing a mind-numbing vocabulary matching sheet with fill-in-the-blanks as a way to evaluate comprehension.

  5. What a great insight! This metaphor is both apt and useful, because I believe educators would rather see themselves as similar to NASA than to a business. The image of educators being caught in low earth orbit is especially apt. So many resources have to go into maintaining things under the existing model that it’s difficult to envision other ways of operating. Who has the time or energy to spare for such an exercise? Maybe more widespread dissemination of this idea could create an environment in which that kind of change would be possible.

  6. I posted about this yesterday, but mine was just a dinky little post.

    This week I attended two teaching seminars for college professors. I am just a second year graduate student, but my goal is to become a great college instructor. Well, sitting next to me at this seminar for teaching was a professor who has won awards for teaching excellence. This professor, and your post, just reinforce the idea that to be a great teacher you need to continue searching for new ideas to make the learning environment as good as it can possibly be.

    Great post! Loved it.

  7. The larger an institution gets, the more it resists change. Public education in this country is backsliding quickly, but the machine keeps plodding along of its own accord. I don’t work in education, but since you do, I’m curious about your opinion, Pamela. If a young, ambitious teacher comes to a union meeting with all kinds of innovative ideas for curriculum change, where will they get the most resistance from? Students? Teachers? Bureaucrats?

  8. My dad was a teacher and the only way he could maintain this model was to keep students interested. The only way I see today to keep the kids interested and looking for more outside of the classroom is what the finnish have applied in their system (forget the whole tiger mom nonsense, it only generates insecure adults, bullies and sociopaths – keep the discipline, teach common sense and encourage them and they’ll go far). Teach the basic stuff, point to the tools and the other ways to get knowledge, encourage them to get more involved and become more. How to encourage them is only up to a cultural study to see what makes children and teens tick in every different country (is this how it’s written, english is my second language). Technology is a common ground (I’ve seen a case that tablets can be applied to help autistic children to learn). I’d rather see teens focus in an area that is most comfortable for them and develop that all their lives than dump a truck load of information and only a fraction be used in their lives. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach them the basic stuff about everything. The point is to make teaching more effective and make children more interested in learning, without excluding theimportant stuff. Whatever you’ll do, don’t look at asian models, they are deadly (literally) and doesn’t tach how to deal with failure – I know I’m half asian. Best of Luck in your quest for a better educational system.

    • I think you’re right on here with your assessment as is the Author, there is an Way OUT of the normal boundaries Idea I posted a few years ago while I was working post secondary in Ca, and my son was having a tough time in school, we had just moved back to the US from Sweden. I’m no expert, but there were some basic properties applied to Swedish learning/living environments which I think would be great to pick up on. And, also, some fresh ideas with other items I’ll post below.

      • Half the process is done at home. If parents participate on the childs development and help to grow their curiosity we’ll get better results as well. To educate is a job for all (parents, teachers, society, government, culture, etc) and that is something that Sweden and Finland knows very well. The current system as it is doesn’t give place or a chance for kids with Autism or forms of disabilities problems. I suffered a lot being ADD/HI with teachers denying the problem, pushing me to limits and forcing into paths I didn’t knew how to go through. I only performed better out of spite; I wanted to be bigger and better than all of those who treated me like crap and forced me into doing things I had no idea how to act like. Eventually I absorbed new data out of pleasure of learning more (anger, rage and revenge shouldn’t be a motivation for learning). Back at Law School I had problemas learning, but I managed and found my passion (sadly, my country’s culture doesn’t allow me to develop it further). I can’t take the system in US and here trying to place responsability into the teachers that are not qualified to educate or even to have children of their own. The whole world should review it’s educational system and re-evaluate why their societies are sinking in a sea of mass media led ignorance.

  9. I love your analogies! “Shuttling test prep cargo” is pretty lame and completely useless when it comes to aspiring to reach our full learning potential.

  10. Nice post. Loved it. You are absolutely right. Our world is at stake right now. If we don’t take another step towards proper child education then our children will be lost and ultimately future will be lost. Our foundation will shatter down to pieces. Proper education in improving the surroundings that we live in is must taking into consideration the surrounding values. It is the right of each and every one. Outdated knowledge of windows 3.11 operating system is of no use when windows 7 is there in the market. We have to predict what type of surrounding will be there after say 20 years and based on that the education framework should be set.

    If we have to predict our future in an optimum way then we have to take the the optimal values to feed in, considering all the pros and cons.
    Once again, nice post.

  11. This is a great metaphor. I think it applies to so many pieces of how the world and government is structured, even in other countries such as Japan, where I live. The need for progressive reinvention of systems, most definitely, isn’t limited to the field of education. The best part is that a lot of educators are talking about needing change, and they’re speaking loud and confidently.

  12. I look forward to the day where we can turn these theoretical descriptions of optimal learning spaces into real, research-based pedagogical practices. Until we make major strides in this area, educators and students will continue to be hamsters on the wheel, exerting so much energy and getting nowhere.

  13. Pingback: Education, The Final Frontier « sciencestrangeasfiction

  14. Hi Pam,
    Thank you for taking this stand. I am a brand new teacher (also new to blogging) who just got into a bit of hot water posting about how the archaic public education system in Canada is destroying our children’s future.
    I see that a number of people have already re-blogged this insightful work and wish to do the same, but wanted to obtain your permission before doing so.

  15. You do realize that corporate interests are actively working to dismantle public education just like the space shuttle program, don’t you? NCLB and RTTT constrain educators from this type of teaching, which I agree is important. Just my two cents.

    • As Rupert Murdoch said when he acquired a large education information management system, he said in the WSJ “why not? education in US is a $500B biz alone.” It’s actually far greater than that as a result of the test machine biz. Anyone who doesn’t get the agenda to shift public ed money into the private sector isn’t tuned into what’s occurring in their neighborhood schools. NASA is saying we don’t need to be doing the private sector agenda on the public dollar that we need to use for space exploration. I think the corporate agenda should not be getting driven by public money either. I’m for what Yong Zhao calls mass localism vs mass standardization of public schooling.

  16. I often discuss this with my teachers in school and I love the metaphor used here. I love learning, as does every other kid but constant drilling for the next exam means we never get to explore our interests outside of a set curriculum. Even when asking questions in class, teachers often warn me I won’t need it for the exam!-This really defeats the point of an education.

    • Hi, Gosh, Pamela, what a wonderful well told story. I always look for topics I’m passionnant about to read with my Sunday Morning Coffee. Today, I consider myself very fortunate to have found your wonderful 2+2 between educational system and NASA. Thank you so much for sharing your insight.

      First of all, I’m not a professional teaching, yes, I have taught, but I taught at a post secondary level, (computer science) and I would just like to state for the record that I have a great deal of respect for good teachers. It is a gift, not all people are great at it, but those who are encourage their students fundamentally and creatively for life. Even First and/or Fourth Grade Teachers. My Fourth Grade Teacher taught me, just because I hadn’t received a demerit all year long, didn’t mean I couldn’t receive 32 in one short 15 minute recess. It took almost an hour for the student to recite each of my infractions to my teacher. At first it was disappointment I saw in her eyes, then it changed to anger then I think pity, which she did not take on me – a very good lesson – finally it was disbelief, bewilderment and in general shock. Not nearly as much as mine when she called my mom in for a ‘talk’ about how things were going at home. I then received the “I’m so disappointing in you” talk from my ever-present-personal-travel-agent, my mom. My sister, five years my senior, came up with that humorous nick-name one day when we were then adults and it has stuck ever since. We lovingly refer to our mom as our personal travel agent as when it is appropriate since she can book a guilt-trip faster that we can blink our eyes.

      Due to this post becoming much longer than I feel comfortable posting on your blog, I’m switching it to here: read more please! If you find after reading it the post is appropriate we can always switch it back 🙂

  17. Great post, and a spot-on analogy, bringing the space program and education together. These are two of the most important things going on in our country today, and both can take heart from your blog entry.

    Congratulations on the Freshly Pressed recognition – – well deserved.

  18. Nasa is actually the only name that brings along an aura of thirll, trepidation, adventure, professionalism, and hard work. All the people working at Nasa are barely visible to public but their undertakings and immense results are talking on their behalf. This also in memory of Neil Armstrong, who left us for the greatest journey. We’ll miss him badly. Thanks for this beautiful article and pictures.


  19. So true! Our curriculum and perspective on education was birthed by the industrial revolution, and is still based on an outdated model. Like factories, we educate children without catering to their individual needs. In the end, our students leave school with a robotic memorization of a subject that will allow them to operate their future job like a robot. At my school however, we are jumping into the future with the introduction of iPads. Even though students are ungrateful, everyone recieved an iPad and this innovation, I believe, has the potential to revolutionize the learning process. Will this be the new education program like a new space program? Thats up to the people who implement the iPads.

  20. Inspiring words. I just began teaching, and I’m really hoping to get my kids out of orbit. Teaching to the test is a massive problem, both in the US, and around the world. The worst part it, that it stifles something more important than achievement, or intelligence. It stifles innovation, the very thing that makes NASA, or any advanced endeavor possible. We’ve got to find a way to foster that innovative spirit.

    • It may not seem like it some days, James, but you are in the most important important profession there is. We educators advance civilization. We are responsible for creating the learning that leads to medical, engineering, service, legal … Workforces. We teach the knowledge and competencies necessary for a democratic way of life, and we prepare young people to take learning journeys beyond high school. Don’t ever forget that as a new teacher – you are needed. And – it will get better! I don’t believe that our parents believe testing inspires learning – we just need to get that message heard.

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  23. I’m just a former pupil from Canada. My report cards consistently read “could do better” but nobody said why I should do better, so I did the minimum to get by, and caused a lot of trouble because I was so bored. In my senior year at secondary school, I started learning. First, because in the previous year I failed math and went to summer school to make it up, getting 99%. Then I had a history teacher who made the past come alive – inspiring my lifelong love of the subject and influencing my choice of study for my first degree (completed at age 34).

    School is too often something that has to be endured, pupils taking their cue from jaded and frustrated teachers. Education often happens outside that institution. In my case, I could read before kindergarten, I could give accurate answers despite never doing homework, I was in the top percentile in SATS. I presented a challenge to teachers who reacted to my difference from other kids by attempts at discipline and heavy put-downs, but never by offering a challenge or vision, something to aim for. My adolescent years included fun and I learned a lot about life (outside school), but formal education was a total waste of my time. I have felt bitter about that for a long time. Please, offer your kids inspiration and vision and challenge. Subjects and studies will fall into place naturally, as tools for meeting the drive you create in each young life.

  24. Excellent post! I recognize the challenges that education has regarding low-orbit education. I currently live in Finland and have two children that have special needs(specific language impairment SLI). I have been so pleased that they have gotten into a school where there are “average” students along with the ones with special educational needs. The atmosphere in the school is one of searching for the method best suited for the student. Every person, staff and student is valued equally. They get exceptional results. I know that this type of educational atmosphere is not available everywhere and there are many that would need it.

  25. I totally agree with you! This is 2012 for crying out loud, things have got to change! Imagine the boring class and yet children are compelled to go. I really have been thinking about creating a platform to raise my kids at home and teach them myself if nothing changes with the systems. Your post is on point and it completely resonates with me. I’ve not been following the NASA and space vessel projects but I sure get the picture. We need to explore our individual uniqueness for more creativity and breakdown the limiting barriers that have kept us bound or stagnant. Change is crucial now!

  26. I just recently finished my high school exams, and I’ve gotta say this post expresses pretty much exactly what my classmates and I have been complaining about for years! It’s horrible to sit around studying things that clearly have no value whatsoever, and to be forced to learn in a completely outdated way, simply because the people in charge are too hidebound to see that the educational system needs an update.
    Thank you 🙂

  27. Mention the word education and my eyes shut half-way. I’m part of it in every sense of the word. I’m a teacher and a mother. Every single day seems like a battle. Yet, I love those kids who frustrate me so. Why? I love them because I know their pain. The systems locks them in and refuses to free them. Thank you for a great take on a oh-so-serious subject.

  28. Pingback: What Makes a Post Freshly Press-able: A Space For Learning | SCRUM ALLIANCE TEAM 4

  29. Evocative, explorative and provocative post: that’s the challenge for society, for individuals, corporations, nations … and at the root and at the heart lies education, and teachers who engage learners. It’s daunting and terrifically exciting. Thanks for posting, let’s hope it makes a difference.

  30. The problem is how do we do this? The model has been in place for a while and it seems really hard to change. It “works” in the sense that kids go through school, they go to college, and they have a good job. But they miss out on so much else.

    I still haven’t been able to think of, or have seen, a good solution to this problem of education being equated with memorization.

  31. Great post. I agree, our educational system is in need of a major re-vamp – there is sooooo much more to learning than sitting behind a desk. Children want to learn. They are eager to participate. How engaging are worksheets? Enough with the worksheets.

  32. Pingback: #WhatIWrite: A National Day of Giving Voice to Learners and Educators | A Space for Learning

  33. Great post. Brings me back to the day when the NASA launched it’s first launch of space vehicles before shuttle program. I agree, we need to give our educational system a tune-up,

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