An Apollo rocket equipped for direct ascent to the moon — rather than lunar orbit rendezvous involving the famous Lunar Excursion Module — might never have gotten us there. History might never have included a successful Apollo program. NASA long ignored some basic physics in pursuit of the moon landing.
Similarly, if we ignore the ways in which humans best learn, education will not result in learned humans. But the most popular ideas about education ignore what is known about both learning and children.
The development of the lunar orbit rendezvous was a key breakthrough in the huge task of landing on the moon. Finally, the man who championed the idea — Dr. John Houbolt — 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.
He knew that the methods under consideration would require too much weight in the rocket. He knew what was needed: 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 had long been so unthinkable to the NASA decision-makers 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.
Eventually Houbolt’s risky action bore fruit. We all know how it ended: The bottom half of six different Lunar Modules are now parked on the moon.
The first sentence NASA engineers heard describing LOR might have violated enough 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 egos meant too many personal treasured solutions. Maybe everyone wanted to be the one who solved the problem.
The moon is, at least, a clear destination. Not so much with education. “Increase those test scores,” some say. “That is the most objective measure of student achievement.”
For others, the destination is wrapped in jargon and accomplished through pushing content standards: “critical thinking,” “rigor,” “problem-solving,” “collaboration,” those attributes in students that we need to develop in order to “stay competitive in the 21st-century global economy.”
But the health and vitality of children’s minds and bodies are ignored when education is planned in those terms.
So what is the most desired destination for our education system? My answer: kids with self-determination. They are well-prepared for and on their way toward achieving their own goals.
How does a system do this? Give children the time, resources and support to pursue their interests and develop their passions.
“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?”
When we push content at a learner regardless of their goals and interests, we are sacrificing the creative ideas of childhood that will develop into mature intelligence. 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 tangible evidence of ability.
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 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 provide the key to reaching the moon, despite dismissal and derision. Houbolt succeeded, and if we fight for what we know to be true about children and learning, we can do the same.
Lisa Cooley of Jackson is a school board member in Regional School Unit 3 and an education activist.