What NASA can teach us about education reform

If teachers weren't taught to fear failure, could they see greater success in the mission of education?

Matt Candler: One way to think about the state of school today in the U.S. is to ask the question, what did school look like a hundred years ago? And lets say we found someone and brought them in a time machine forward from a 100-120 years ago and started to show them what our world looked like. We would probably have to slow down and explain the Internet, maybe modern jet travel, maybe our mobile phones, but if we walked them into your kids school, my kids school we wouldnt have to do that much explaining. That would instantly resonate with them as something theyre familiar with. And to me thats one example of how little we think about how school could change, how school should change and specifically what pieces of it could we reimagine, not just for the future but even for today.

if you look in Websters Dictionary you will see the word institution in the definition of school. We think of it as such, when in fact what we all care about, what I care about from my kids, what I care about for other folks' kids is not the building and the institution and the structures, it is their relationship with other human beings, with their own emotions, with the world as it is rapidly changing around them. And so, what gives me a lot of hope and what Im really proud of at 4.0 is that we have created a relational and communal way of thinking about school. And when you do that it doesnt take long for great ideas to start oxygenating the conversation. If you really create enough trust for people to say yes I actually want to see a prototype of your learning space and it doesnt have to be perfect, it doesnt have to look like school and it doesnt need to take more than about 30 minutes, if you can create enough dialogue for someone to say, "Okay, I think I can do that, I think I can create that for a handful of students." Suddenly youve created a space that is no longer institutional its just a few human beings in a space together talking about what they want to learn and what they can share.

And that to me is really liberating because most of my professional career has been spent believing that I must be the most certain one in the room, I must be the most confident and secure knowledge holder, that I must deliver knowledge to children. And for my inner teacher to be along for the ride embracing this new version of me in my participation and a vision of school that is not institutional and not predicated on my certainty as an educator but on my willingness to go into uncertain places to shine a light on what might be a horrible idea and a bad 30-minute experiment, but to say Im going to participate in that as a curious human being with other curious human beings, that is what school should be and thats what school could be. And so, for me what excites me most about the future of school is that, what if? What if it could be about humans relating to one another not humans trying to make these institutions less institutional.

Heres why I love the conversation about NASA and what it might teach us about school, and specifically getting to Mars. Lets talk about Mars and the moon. The vision is that humans will make that trip. And so, what you see in NASA is this real tight focus on something weve mentioned before about human beings being at the core. And so, the paradox of NASA where all the cool tech is is that at the core they consider getting humans to the moon and to Mars safely their mission. And that to me to my inner teacher thats a revelation because NASA is able to take that same sense of purpose and intensity about serving humans that my inner teacher thinks about his students, and yet theyre somehow able to create a culture where you better fail. Like the idea of NASA is that we have to fail, everything has to break while were here on earth because we cant afford for it to break once a human is in that ship.

And that to my inner teacher is such a radical concept. He has fooled himself, the whole construct of how we train teachers fooled me into thinking that I can actually make it all perfect and that going live with my students means no failure at all. And that's something I really love about studying the methods, the culture of NASA is that somehow it has become part of that culture for everyone to embrace the idea that my job is to fail as quickly, as cheaply, and as publicly as possible within NASA. My inner teacher just is so hungry for that, he is so desperate to be able to live and breathe in that kind of culture because frankly he was never taught that. He was taught you cant screw up and if you do, you screw up on a Sunday night doing your lesson plan because once you get to school, its on. And all that weight is on you. And I think weve just done such a disservice to our kids, to families, to teachers themselves by saying failure is not an option. At NASA failure is the only option. You have to push through all that failure to get to the place where youre ready to carry human cargo. They keep the humanity sacred while embracing the importance of experimentation and of taking risks and of gradually working our way to a future that might be a lot brighter through experimentation and failure. And that to me is a really beautiful thing to try and create for schools and people in schools.

  • Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, questions why school has stayed overwhelmingly the same the past 100 years. As a teacher, he sees the future of schools embracing mutual curiosity in both students and educators.
  • He points to the example of NASA scientists, who approach missions with the idea that failure is welcome and necessary. Failure during preparation ensures the mission will succeed when the time comes to perform.
  • Candler suggests that this idea should hold up in discussions of education reform and how teachers are trained in their approach to learning.
  • This video is supported by yes. every kid., an initiative that aims to rethink education from the ground up by connecting innovators in a shared mission to conquer "one size fits all" education reform.