An Astronaut’s guide to learning

Space Oddity

Photo sourced from http://thewordofward.co.uk/chris-hadfield-the-making-of-the-space-oddity-video/

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.

Reflection

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?

Career planning

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 🙂

 

References

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

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Reflections past and future

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Happy new year! It’s taken until New Years Day to get back to writing after a whirlwind end of the year. Having looked at my email this morning after a short hiatus its predictably full of goal setting advice for the year ahead and breathless exhortations to sign up for online programs to organise my home, lose weight, get fit, get focused….yeah…no…pass the last of the Christmas chocolate.

This is definitely a reflective time of year with the end of one year and the promise of a fresh start for the next. It’s also perhaps the first time in a long while that, if you’re anything like me, you’ve had a chance to just sit still and create some space to reflect. Reflection is something that has long interested me, mainly because of its critical importance to learning. In a world where it is “a truth universally acknowledged” that we learn primarily through “doing”, through experiences and interacting with others. But how does one realise that rich learning? Answer – reflection. Taking some time to think about what you learned from an experience, good or bad. The importance of reflection in learning, particularly at work, is also well theorised in the literature but perhaps not practised as much as it should be in the workplace.

If you’re in a reflective mood at this time of year, have you thought about taking some time to reflect on what you learned in 2017? Often we focus on what we achieved (or didn’t) but how often do you reflect on what you learned outside of a more formal performance review at work? It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I come to the end of my PhD journey. What have I learned from the experience – about workplace and organisational learning, research, and myself? Importantly, what have I learned that I can apply in other contexts? I’ll write more about my learning from the PhD later on but these are useful questions for everyone. In general I think I’d say that in 2017 I learned how to take on feedback in a far more productive way to improve the quality of my work. I also learned, through my sewing hobby, that I can, and should, take chances on new projects that will stretch my skills rather than staying within my comfort zone. Through my sewing hobby I also reinforced to myself the importance of building physical and virtual communities to support my learning and keep me motivated to push forwards which I want to adopt more in my professional practice in 2018.

The flip-side of reflecting on what you’ve learned is to then think about what you hope to learn in the next year. This can seem a bit trite, again somewhat tainted from poor or ineffective experiences of “annual development plans” at work. It’s important to think ahead though. If you consider it, if we learn primarily from experience, what sorts of experiences would you like to have in the coming year and what are you hoping to learn from these? For me, I’m looking forward to consolidating my learning from this year and getting more experience of academic writing (a pretty specific writing genre) as well as the aforementioned building learning communities in my professional practice. I’m also planning on spending more time on my hobbies and returning to some old interests now that I have some more time in order to recover old skills and build new ones.

For those of you who manage other people, it’s also useful to think about how you can facilitate learning through experiences and then reflection to help consolidate that learning. How can you get “out of the way” and let people learn and experience new things? How can you encourage reflection as a normal part of learning and working? This doesn’t have to be detailed or about making people keep learning journals. It can be as simple as asking someone what they learned and how they can apply that to their professional practice in the future.

So, go forth and reflect! Have a wonderful 2018!

 

References

Cressey, P. and Boud, D. (2006). The emergence of productive reflection. In Boud, D.,Cressey, P. and Docherty, P. (Eds.).Productive Reflection at Work: Learning for Changing Organisations. London: Routledge, 11-26  [accessed Jun 10, 2017]. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/298704301_The_emergence_of_productive_reflection.

What has Adriano Zumbo got to do with workplace learning?

I am the first to admit that I’m a bit of a “procrasti-baker” – I will happily bake while everything else goes to rack and ruin. As part of my obsession I’ve been watching a new TV show recently called Zumbo’s Just Desserts which pits amateur dessert makers against one another in a competition which also asks them to face regular challenges of making the devilishly difficult desserts of pastry chef extraordinaire, Adriano Zumbo.

As some might have noticed, one of my other obsessions is learning.  Specifically, how people learn at work. While I was watching the show the other night I started thinking about learning through work which I’ve been writing and talking about a lot lately in my PhD dissertation (nearly there!) and in the Designing Innovative Learning course I teach at UTS. The vast majority of research in the field of workplace learning tends to agree that learning at work tends to happen through the practice of work rather than separate from it in educational institutions or other “formal” courses. Experience, our own or vicariously from the experiences of others, is the single biggest way that most of us learn anything.

Obviously the contestants on the Zumbo TV show have learned through experience, through the trial and error of enthusiasts who are entirely self motivated. At one point, as they worked on replicating a challenging recipe of Zumbo’s I thought about his training.  The hard yards that he spent as an apprentice from his teens, all of the years gaining work experience around the world, and starting his own business. The winner of this contest, like the similar show Masterchef, seems to somehow circumvent this.  They win money, an entrée into work experience with famous chefs in the field, and so on. A short-cut if you will.  I started to wonder, is this fair?  Pastry chefs, along with many other professions, work hard to gain their qualifications and often at unsociable hours.  Is it fair that some hobbyist who was pottering about their kitchen gets all the glory?

More thinking ensued.  Bet you didn’t think that watching a cooking show, ostensibly to relax, could get so deep!

I needed to take a deep breath and remind myself that there is no “right” way to learn something and chastised myself for falling into the trap of creeping credentialism – the idea that learning hasn’t happened unless you have some sort of piece of paper or have done the “hard yards” to “deserve it”.  Nonsense!  This is exactly the sort of thinking that has got organisations into trouble for years.  Thinking that the only learning worth mentioning  must be trackable and measurable – generally a good, old-fashioned course.  How many managers or learning practitioners would (or should) welcome enthusiastic, self-directed, motivated learners who direct their own learning out of interest?  But is this what we reward?  Is this what we foster in making sure that everyone does the same sheep dip training sessions?  Organisations could learn a lot from the enthusiastic self starters on Zumbo’s Just Desserts.  How many of these motivated learners lurk within our organisations now but we’re not enabling them?

So, good luck to the contestants on reality cooking shows. Your learning is just as valid as the world’s top pastry chefs.  As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!