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Inspired by NASA: A 3-Phase Plan to Transform Education

NASA published a three-phase plan to get humans to Mars. To live on Mars. For indefinite periods of time in sustainable habitats. It will take decades. They don’t have an exact timeline. They don’t have all of their funding in place. Much of the technology they need hasn’t been invented yet. But they have a plan. And they are moving forward with it. (You can read NASA’s plan here.)

I think that’s incredible. And it got me wondering. Could we develop a three-phase plan to make our educational system brilliant in several decades? Most people I know believe that our educational system needs to change. Most people I know understand that our educational system does not meet the needs of all learners nor the needs of all teachers. So why not change it?

The first step is to agree on the goal, like NASA did with their Mars plan. The school system I envision for this country has not yet been invented. But our country created a new educational system before. Remember, we were the first country in history to have a free system of public education for all citizens. We can be the first to create an educational system that recognizes and fosters the curiosity, creativity, and genius in all citizens. So, what would Education’s Goal look like?

An Educational System where ALL schools meet the needs of the students they serve in order to foster the powerful and informed citizenry we need. We can accomplish this goal in phases, leveraging our current experiences in educational innovation to create a heterogeneous system that nurtures all of our country’s potential geniuses.

Let’s look at NASA’s plan and then examine what an Educational Plan might look like.

NASA’s plan includes the following three phases (p. 7):

  • Earth Reliant

The Earth Reliant phase is focused on what is already happening on the International Space Station (ISS). On ISS, NASA is “testing technologies and advancing human health and performance research that will enable deep-space, long-duration missions.”

  • Proving Ground

In the Proving Ground, NASA will learn what they need to know to work in a deep space environment, but allow crews to return to Earth in days rather than months or years. They plan to conduct operations in “cislunar space” which is the volume of space around the moon.

  • Earth Independent

The Earth Independent phase is exactly what it sounds like. NASA plans to “build on what we learn on ISS and in cislunar space to enable human missions to the Mars vicinity, including the Martian moons, and eventually the Martian surface.”

Impressive. Ambitious. Well thought-out. Can we do the same for Education?

Below is a three-phase plan to create an exceptional Educational System in the coming decades.

  • History Dependent

The History Dependent phase is focused on what has already happened in Education and what is currently happening to address problems in our educational system. We need to keep testing educational innovations such as project-based learning and student-centered learning that will enable an educational system that works in the Information Age. I mention a few here, but there are many, many more out there.

  • Buck Institute for Education (BIE) is a leader promoting Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a “transformative teaching method for engaging ALL students in meaningful learning…” http://bie.org/about/our_values
  • Coalition of Essential Schools envisions “an educational system that equips all students with the intellectual, emotional, and social habits and skills to become powerful and informed citizens…” http://essentialschools.org/vision/
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation (Edutopia.org) has a vision of “a new world of learning based on the compelling truth that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race.” http://www.edutopia.org/mission-vision
  • Big Picture Learning is a non-profit organization “dedicated to a fundamental redesign of education in the United States.” http://www.bigpicture.org/about-us/

Like space exploration, “educational exploration” is necessarily driven by technology as technological advances continually change our society. Educational technology may well be the driving force behind the implementation of our plan. Many of the decisions and steps on our technological journey can’t be made yet, but here are some encouraging efforts.


  • Proving Ground

In the Proving Ground we will learn what we need to know to develop strategies that can effect change in all states and school districts in the next ten to fifty years.

First, we need to adopt NASA’s “resilient pioneering approach,” which it needs since “achieving Earth Independence will take decades and can be impacted by multiple uncertain events.” Among those uncertain events are “changes in priorities of future administrations, the emergence of breakthrough technologies, discovery of new scientific knowledge, fluctuations in funding, and new partnership opportunities.” (p. 12) If you are an educator, these events probably sound familiar.

Since we face many of the same uncertainties as NASA, their pioneering approach is desperately needed for our educational system. Education constantly deals with changes in politics, information updates on the Internet, daily breakthroughs in technology, ongoing funding issues, and the need to foster potential partnerships.

Our new educational plan should use the technology that connects us and the teaching models that will help create the innovative, well-adjusted thinkers we need in our society. Then we need to develop strategies for funding that equalize opportunities for students in all schools and districts.

There are already many thoughtful educators working toward these ends. We should continue to form broad coalitions of forward-thinking organizations and individuals whose mission is to improve education.

  • History Independent

In the History Independent phase we build on what we learn in Phase 1 and Phase 2. The way to make good education happen for all students is still elusive, but we CAN get there. We can enable an educational system where:

  • Teachers have the training and planning time they need to facilitate student learning.
  • Students (along with teachers, parents, and mentors) map their own educational plans.
  • Every school has the infrastructure it needs for its population and its educational focus.
  • Schools are driven by student demonstrations of their learning in real-world arenas.

I might be overly optimistic, but I believe this IS an achievable goal.Mars

Horace Mann’s One Big Mistake

traditional classroomAs you know, Horace Mann is credited with creating our current system of public education. He was known as “Father of the Common School” because he wanted to ensure that every child in America could receive a basic education. Mann believed that political stability and social harmony depended on education. http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html

I have disparaged Mann’s system often enough, calling it a “factory model” that was invented to create factory workers. But the truth is, that system was created at a time in our history when we were shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. So preparing factory workers with a basic education and understanding of democracy was meeting a need. And it was very innovative at the time.

It was the first time in WORLD HISTORY that the idea of educating EVERY person in a country was ever thought of, much less implemented. And it was free to students; paid for by taxes. Before that, people thought that only leaders and other important (read wealthy) people needed an education. The common people didn’t need to know much.

Bur Horace Mann persisted. He sold his radical idea first to Massachusetts (via his position as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.) Soon, the rest of the states embraced the idea. Not only that, but Mann was influential in developing teacher training schools to professionalize teaching. That was a new concept too.

Horace Mann made one mistake though. Unfortunately, it was rather a BIG one. He chose the Prussian system for his model of delivery (mainly because it was cheap and easy to implement). The Prussian system seemed to be exactly what was needed at the time.

The problem was that Fredrick the Great had created the Prussian system to teach obedience and solidify his control of his nation. Frederick wanted to indoctrinate his people from an early age. To that end, he focused on “following directions, basic skills, and conformity.” He isolated students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms, “intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.” No one cared what students thought. They were there to soak up the information Frederick thought they needed. thenewamericanacademy.org

So, today we have an educational system where public education is free to every citizen from Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. We have a system of training teachers who are viewed as professionals. That’s all good. But many people are questioning our Prussian-based educational delivery system.

We are no longer in the Industrial Age. We have entered the Information Age and we need to change our public education system to reflect that seismic shift. We need citizens that can think independently, work collaboratively, and create solutions to the problems we face now as well as those we haven’t yet encountered.

“The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education. It’s time to unhinge ourselves from the many assumptions that undergird how we deliver instruction and begin to design new models that are better able to leverage talent, time, and technology to best meet the unique needs of each student. In doing so, we can put Mann’s innovation in its proper context: as the foundation for our commitment to a public education but not as the blueprint for how to deliver it.” Joel Rose, The Atlantic, May 9, 2012

I agree with Mr. Rose. We have a commitment to public education. But it is time to change our educational delivery system. The factory model doesn’t fit our needs anymore. The good news is there are many people working to change it.

Groups and institutions have sprung up all over the country whose focus is updating our educational system. Individual schools and districts are working to create educational models that meet the needs of all students and include students in the design their own learning. Philanthropists are funneling large amounts of money into technology and promising educational programs. Coalitions of like-minded educational organizations are being formed.

This is all very encouraging, but there is much work to be done. As another of our early educational innovators, John Dewey, famously wrote in his book Schools of Tomorrow in 1915, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Let’s not rob our students of tomorrow.