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Over the summer I’ve (finally) been catching up on some reading and stumbled across a gem called An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield. Col. Hadfield was an astronaut for over twenty years and commanded the International Space Station. His book details his journey to becoming an astronaut, something he wanted since he saw the first moon landing as a child, as well as lessons he learned along the way.
So what has this got to do with learning? One of the things I found most interesting about the book was how much of an astronaut’s time is spent learning and training – in fact, the vast majority of their time. In a twenty year career, Col. Hadfield went into space just three times. The rest of the time was spent training to be in space, troubleshooting for other astronauts, helping work through technical problems being experienced in orbit, and developing new tools and procedures to be used in the future to make space travel safer and more efficient. Most days, he notes, they train and take classes as well as sit many exams for which they often study on the weekends. On top of all of that, a key part of their service is having ground jobs supporting other astronaut’s missions which are also crucial for developing their own skills.
There are three key lessons I’d like to focus on from the book in this post. First is the role of reflection in astronaut training. Second is how how NASA created and facilitated a rich learning culture for their staff. Third is how Col. Hadfield went about planning the learning he needed throughout his career which often involved planning ahead many steps into an uncertain future.
An absolutely key part of learning for astronauts was reflection-in-action as they undertook tasks as well as reflection-on-action after completing a task, mission, or simulation. Often this took the form of detailed debriefing sessions with all of the key stakeholders. These open and frank conversations and reflections were, Hadfield notes, at times painful but always important and helpful. He describes them as being key to operational and organisational success. My last blog post discussed the importance of reflection and I don’t think that it’s importance, particularly in contexts of uncertainty and “fluid work” (Lizier, 2017) can be overstated. The ability to reflect on our day-to-day work is key to learning through work but how can organisations encourage and reward reflection?
NASA as a “learning organisation”
The concept of the learning organisation (Senge, 1990) has been a popular one over nearly thirty years but not without criticisms (e.g. Fenwick, 2001; Caldwell, 2005). I have mixed opinions about learning organisations but, reading Chris Hadfield’s descriptions of NASA, I immediately thought of the learning organisation concept. In particular, the type of environment and culture that NASA created which supported and facilitated learning. First was a general expectation that everyone was learning all of the time. In addition, “everyone at NASA is a critic” as Chris Hadfield says. This is important to extract maximum learning opportunities from every situation. One quote from the book (p. 79) particularly stuck with me:
“At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack.”
The last sentence in particular made me think. It made me think of working in organisations were they talked a good game about learning and encouraging innovation, experimentation, and risk taking but, ultimately, it was all just talk. People didn’t feel safe to make those criticisms or have open and honest conversations. At NASA their lives may depend on it and so it is OK to be learner at NASA, something that researchers (Boud & Solomon, 2003) have found is challenging for many people and organisations. There are key questions here for managers and learning practitioners: how are you supporting risk taking, experimentation, and innovation? Is it truly encouraged or are you just paying lip-service? What processes do you have in place to really, critically, debrief projects and tasks?
The final point I want to discuss in this post is how Col. Hadfield prepared for his career by looking ahead and thinking about what skills might be needed in the future. As he notes, the requirements for astronauts change over time making skills obsolete. For example, the Space Shuttle program required skilled pilots who could fly the most complicated ship on earth for short periods of time whereas now astronauts and cosmonauts fly in a largely automated vehicle called a Soyuz. Col. Hadfield was particularly skilled at looking at what was happening and reacting to trends that he could see shaping the future.
That didn’t mean that he’d be right. He could be training for something that he would never have to do but it would mean that he’d be ready to take up opportunities as they arose. He emphasises this point, that, to take opportunities, you need to be prepared all of the time. An example of this is that he speaks fluent Russian and has been learning it for around 15-20 years. When he started learning Russian there was no formal announcement that space launches would move to Russia but he could see some key trends and wanted to be prepared. Turns out he was right and he was then ready to take opportunities to work at the charmingly named Star City (no relation to our not so charming edifice in Sydney) near Moscow.
Since this is the time of year when people are starting to think about (heaven help us) Development Plans for the coming year, this is a point worth making. We often ask people to think about their next role or where they want to be in five years but in current contexts of flux and change is that really going to work anymore? Perhaps it’s better to look around at key trends in your field and think ahead to the sorts of skills that would be broadly useful in the future rather than focusing on one or two specific roles which may not exist by the time you get there. For example, for learning practitioners, e-learning and augmented reality are becoming more influential along with STEM skills more generally. I’m planning on starting to learn some basic coding this year to fill that gap in my knowledge. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coder but at least I will have an awareness of what it entails and the key steps involved. I’ve also recently finished an online course about designing e-learning.
So, learning like an astronaut. I highly recommend the book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth as both an interesting read and a chance for learning geeks to really geek-out by reading about a true lifelong learner. It speaks to current key areas of lifelong learning and learning throughout one’s career as well as learning through work. You may also want to check out this video which made Col. Hadfield famous 🙂
Boud, D., & Solomon, N. (2003). “I don’t think I am a learner”: Acts of naming learners at work. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(7), 326-331
Caldwell, R. (2005) Leadership and Learning: A Critical Reexamination of Senge’s Learning Organization, Systemic Practice and Action Research, 18(4), 335-434
Fenwick, T. (2001) Questioning the concept of the learning organization. In Paechter, C., Preedy, M., Scott, D. & Soler, J. (Eds), Knowledge, Power, and Learning (Ch. 6, 74-88). Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd: London
Hadfield, C. (2013) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Pan Books: London
Lizier, A.L. (2017) Investigating work and learning in complex adaptive organisations. Journal of Workplace Learning,
Senge, P (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Century Business: London