Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lessons from NASA

I think I probably took the same stance many did when they heard the agency was shutting down the space shuttle program. At first I was shocked - I know there have been accidents, but overall (in my layman's eyes) it's been a very successful program. It's our only method of getting people and supplies in to space. We will now have to depend upon others for transportation to the International Space Station. And my last thought was that it's a shame our government isn't willing to spend the money on such an important program.

While I'm not a space junkie, I do find space travel intriguing. I did stay up late  to watch the online stream of Curiosity land on Mars, and yes - I do follow Curiosity on Twitter. I would say it's an interest of mine, but not necessarily a passion.

But it's interesting enough that I stop and read a few articles every now and then. As I browsed through my reader this morning I saw Laura's post (and the others in her series) about the final flight of Endeavour. These posts really made me wax nostalgic about my elementary school experiences. Some of my favorite, and one of my saddest, elementary memories were cramming as many classes as possible around the TV and watching the shuttles blast into space. I also read this post by Pamela Moran, and it reminded me of a message that I have heard before. NASA is scrapping the shuttle program, not because it doesn't work but because it's time to move forward. And we in education need to do the same thing.

But schools aren't like NASA. We can't just shut down our program  for 2, 5 or 10 years until we find what works or what our kids need. So what do we do?

First, I think we educators need to look at our attitudes and stop being so ridiculously offended when somebody tells us it's time to try something different. It may not be that you're doing something "wrong" (although some of you are, I will go ahead and say that even if nobody else will!) it's just that our kids need more.

NASA didn't get rid of the shuttle because they didn't work - they worked beautifully most of the time. They did exactly what they needed to do. Our schools are the same way. When we were preparing some of our kids for college and most for factory work, our schools worked beautifully and did exactly what we needed to do. But that's not the case any more. We need to stop being offended that people want us to change, and look more closely at how our students are different than kids used to be and how their adult lives will be dramatically different than the ones we're living today.

Second, we need to get administration in our buildings who are actual leaders with a vision and plan to move us forward. We need individuals who are more than people who took some classes, got a paper with their name on it, and had the desire to be the boss in a big fancy office. If leadership is not willing to change the way they work with teachers, model for teachers how schools need to change, and hold teachers accountable for implementing change, then small pockets of innovation will exist here and there, but our system will continue to be stagnent.

NASA had leadership who was brave enough to stand up and say, "This is the end of the shuttle program. We have a new focus now." If those in charge didn't have the courage to make an extremely unpopular decision in the eyes of most, our space program would just continue to be the 1-800-Got-Junk of space exploration. (Not that there's anything wrong with people who come in and haul your junk for you, I just don't think it's where we want to go with our national space program.)

Third, we need to stop teaching to tests. All we are doing is creating a population of small, anxious, stressed out human beings who things their world does and will always revolve around filling in bubbles. By 9 years old, my kids are already telling me it's cheating to look at resources to help you answer questions, it's cheating to talk with people when you don't understand and need help to finish some work, and it's cheating if you can't do everything from your memory.

While I have never been to a NASA facility, I did watch the livestream of Curiosity's landing. Not a single individual in that room was working on his or her own. While they each had their own monitor and seat, each report that was made came from a team. Each piece of data was being monitored by a team. And when the vehicle landed, no one single person stood out (well, except maybe Mohawk Guy); the success was felt by every single individual in that room. Those people didn't sit on their own and fill in bubbles, they worked together to solve problems that had never even existed before! They were creative and took a leap of faith using their knowledge and skills in the hopes that something amazing would happen. And it did.

I know it's impossible for schools to shut down and totally revamp how we do our work. But if each teacher would start making small changes in his or her classroom, if each district would reach out to those who would be effective leaders, and if each parent would be willing to move on from their love of how school worked for them when they went, we may be able to take some lessons from NASA and move from a good program that worked in the past to one that is really meeting the needs of our kids.

No comments: