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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The song must further the story

At present, I have the tremendous good fortune to be spending a few days visiting a friend in Honolulu – I know, life’s tough. On the way over on the flight from Sydney I couldn’t get this song from the Disney movie Moana out of my head.

For those of you who don’t have small children, you may be blessedly unaware of this song…until now. You’re welcome for the ear-worm!

Having this song on infinite repeat for around 9 hours reminded me of a saying attributed to Walt Disney which I used in a workshop a few weeks ago. The workshop was part of a research project I’m involved in with the RAAF and myself and my colleagues were facilitating a workshop about the use of blended learning tools in learning design. One of the participants asked how to select the right tools for the job which prompted me to remark that Walt Disney once said that the songs in Disney movies are not just there for the music but they must also be there to further the story. The clip above from Moana is a good example of this. In the song, Maui, the demi-God of the wind and sky, sings a song with gives his back story and legend for viewers who are not familiar with it in a catchy, fast, and easy to understand way through the song.

In the same way, the tools that we use when designing learning initiatives must also “tell the story” of the learning. Often the new and shiny blended or online learning tool (Kahoots anyone?) is used because it’s just there, or it’s exciting, or managers want it used maybe because they’ve paid a lot for it). It’s important to stop at such points in the learning design process and ask how that tool or approach will further the learning goals – how does it help you to tell your learning story? If it doesn’t push your learning story forward, do you need it? Is there something similar but more effective that you could use instead? The tools that you select may be catchy and appeal to learners initially, but their enthusiasm may pall once they realise that there is an activity or tool there more for the sake of it than for any real pedagogical benefit. Effective learning design should help the learners meet their learning goals in the most coherent and engaging way possible, whether or not the tools used are new and shiny. What you end up with may not necessarily be Shiny but it may well do a better job for the learners.

Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.

References

Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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!