Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Do we want to get to the Moon or not?"

The development of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was a key breakthrough in the huge task of designing a way to get astronauts to the Moon. For a long time, however, the engineer  who championed the idea -- Dr. John Houbolt -- had a hard time getting anyone to listen to him. Finally, he did what NASA staff were not supposed to do: he jumped ahead in the hierarchy chain. He wrote to George Seamans, NASA’s associate administrator and made his case.

See, he knew that none of the methods for getting to the Moon that were under consideration would work. They would require too much weight in the rocket. He knew the it wouldn’t get off the ground unless it had a lightweight, detachable vehicle designed only for landing on the Moon and taking off again to rendezvous with the Command/Service Module in Lunar orbit.

But the idea of a critical rendezvous so far from Earth was, for a long time, so unthinkable to the NASA guys making the decisions that Houbolt chose to go up the food chain and write a now-famous letter to Seamans.

“Do we want to get to the Moon or not?” he asked. It must have been with some chagrin that Seamans first read this letter. Um, duh? Who is this guy? But Houbolt knew, as Seamans did not, that LOR was the only answer.

Eventually Houbolt’s risky action bore fruit and various characters in the NASA playlist began, one by one, to adopt the idea. We all know how it ended: the bottom half of six different Lunar Modules are now parked on the Moon.

“Do we want to get to the Moon or not?”

It’s a great story; the story of someone who understood something that others could not. People were tying themselves into knots trying to figure this problem out, ignoring the way that would actually get them where they needed to go.

“Do we want to get to the Moon or not?”

A combination of factors might have contributed to the lack of foresight on the part of very smart engineers. The first sentence they heard describing LOR might have violated so many preconceived notions that they felt it would be fruitless to listen to the second or third, and definitely didn’t make it down to the end of the third paragraph, by which they would understand that the first sentence did not, after all, violate anything.

Maybe too many people had a treasured solution that they were trying to make fit into place. Maybe it was ego; maybe everyone wanted to be the one who solved the problem.

Houbolt’s difficulty is similar to that which some education advocates experience -- only the problem becomes greater, and harder to overcome, when there is no clear idea of what our destination is. Increase those test scores, some say; that is the most objective measure of student achievement. For others, the destination is wrapped in jargon: "critical thinking." “Rigor.” “Problem-solving.” “Collaboration.” All those things that come under the nebulous tent of “21st Century Skills:” those attributes in students that we need to develop in order to “stay competitive in a global economy.”

But neither the health and vitality of children’s minds nor bodies are taken into consideration when education is planned in terms of test scores and some ill-defined notion of our future national economic health.

So what is the most desired destination for our education system? My answer is simple: a system where children are given the time, resources and support to pursue their interests and develop their passions; where we see as a result young adults who are intelligent, engaged, and compassionate.

“Do we want to get to the Moon, or not?” was an obnoxious question asked by a low-level engineer. My question is, “Do we want educated kids, or not?”
A rocket equipped for direct ascent to the Moon might never get there. Similarly, if we ignore the ways in which children best learn, we will not get learned humans. But the most popular ideas about education violate what is known about learning, children, neuroscience and motivation.

Children must engage in learning that is most meaningful to them. The simplest way of achieving that is to have them choose their own goals, their own challenges, and create their own curriculum

There is a chance that many readers are already shaking their heads at that statement, crediting the author with naivete or plain old ignorance.

For learning to take place, the motivation must come from inside the mind of the learner; indeed, if it starts anywhere else, we are sacrificing something that is too important: the creative ideas of childhood that will develop into mature intelligence. We are also squandering the greatest asset to learning: innate curiosity. Ideas develop in play; they grow into passion; and develop into purpose. The development of those ideas results in accomplishment, which yields self-respect: the pride of a job well done, the knowledge that one is capable of more, and confidence that is based on real, tangible evidence of ability. It makes use of the genius in all people instead of wasting that genius on learning activities that have no meaning to the learner.

Trusting and respecting kids’ right to open their own doors, choose their own challenges and drive their own learning is not only the best way to get to the Moon, but will result in students who, after 12 years of active learning, have a base of knowledge that is both broad and deep, a connection to the world that is positive and meaningful, and a sense of optimism and hopefulness that is exactly what is needed by future generations. In short, everything that we as adults and parents desperately hope to bring to our children.

It took a daring person to see the solution to the problem of getting to the Moon, and stick to it through dismissal and derision. But Houbolt succeeded, and if we fight for what we know to be true about children and learning, we can do the same.