Tech Salad

With Crunchy Bits and Bytes

“There Are No Wishy Washy Astronauts”

I drove home yesterday listening to the tail end of Terry Gross’s interview with Commander Hadfield on Fresh Air (audio and transcripts available at the NPR website). I have blogged about his willingness to share and its value to the education community. There is much more than science to learn from Commander Hadfield.

“There are no wishy-washy astronauts,” Hadfield tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “You don’t get up there by being uncaring and blasé.”

You don’t get anywhere, really, by being uncaring, blasé, or wishy washy. It is not just about being a famous astronaut. It is about having goals and making an effort in whatever path you choose for your life.

Earlier this week, I was part of a team that visited Warrior New Tech Academy in Henry County. (Read about the New Tech approach to education at their website) The car ride there and back was excruciatingly long, but well worth the time. We heard students talk about the difficulties of changing their mindset and having to work harder than ever before to be successful in their new, project-based environment. These students knew that a large component in their failure or success in school was their own effort, resourcefulness, and determination to improve.

The key term used in New Tech environments is agency. Students have all necessary resources available to them: books, networked computers, search tools, team members, experienced teacher facilitators, a project plan, and time to execute it. Whether they use all these resources to learn is entirely up to each student. The growth and success of each student depends on how wishy washy a student chooses to be, or not.

To be or not to be. That is, supposedly, the question. I think a better question is, “Are you aware of how much effort you are making?” At one end of the scale is apathy. The scale progresses through wishy washy-ness and finally gets to awesome motivation on the other end. Grades don’t reflect this. We all know some kids can make very high grades without breaking a sweat, some work very hard, and some say, “my teacher gave me a __” without really giving it much thought. Grades don’t reflect effort accurately, therefore grades are not a reliable motivator.

Last night, with all this floating around my head, I spoke to a group of students in Dr. Gretz’s class (blog) . They are all teachers, and they were discussing how to best measure nebulous attributes like motivation and effort. I don’t know that there is a way to quantify motivation, but I think there is a way to get students thinking about the level of effort they make and how it affects their performance: Ask students to write a reflection.

Ask students to be honest with themselves and just write it all down without worrying about grammar and mechanics. Ask students to write in an authentic voice and in a safe environment. Assure students that this will not detract from any grade you have given them. You might even ask the students to read what they wrote themselves and never turn it in to you. Make students think about the work they did, what was good, what could have been better, and how they plan to improve in the future.

We cannot keep working under the assumption that students know what they need to do in order to succeed when nobody takes a look at what’s inside their heads. This is what the students at Warrior New Tech were telling us. They never knew how much they could do until they self-assessed how much of their success was dependent on them and independent of their teachers.

I think this is what Chris Hadfield is saying: We can get to where we want to go if we understand the effort that is required, and if we are willing to make that effort.

There are no wishy washy successful people.



  1. Mrs. Cantor, I am one of the students in Dr. Gretz’s class. I am a title 1 math teacher now, but I was in the classroom for 23 years before my move. I loved listening to your discussion about project based learning. I really wish it was something that more teachers would take a risk and try. I understand that it is work and it takes courage to let children explore and learn things independently. I believe our students today need this type of learning. It will help them become more independent and responsible and more in charge of their learning. I also liked using the reflection piece with the students. This will really help a teacher understand their students. Thanks again!

    Sheila Cotman

  2. Hola Bea, Soy Adán. I´m Adam, the Spanish teacher you spoke with from Dr. Gretz´s class. I’m in my 17th year and still trying to figure out the best way to do things. I completely agree with the idea that the students need to reflect on what they learn, how they learn, etc.

    My struggle these days seems to be really striking a balance between proficiency-based mastery of the language (which is a skill that needs to be drilled much like a sport) and exploration of the language and culture at the risk of not reaching the grammatical and syntactical mastery I’d love for them to have. I totally think there is a place for project based learning, which makes the students better learners. But how to synthesize that with the more traditional approach that is more skill building is what I spend most of my days thinking about… sadly.

  3. Hi Bea,

    I am one of Dr. Gretz’s students. I enjoyed the discussion on project based learning and strongly believe that students benefit from this model in so many ways. I have taught elementary school for 17 years, primarily 3rd and 4th grades. I am a first time kindergarten teacher this year. Our school has a STEM lab and I have been incorporating design briefs and STEM lessons into instruction for the past 3 years. I am a big believer in teaching to all learning styles while providing right and left brain activities in order to reach all students. Moving through a lesson or unit involves students being “hooked” and motivated to learn by providing a real-world connection, then information can be taught, projects can be planned and the teacher becomes a facilitator while students learn by doing/creating. Reflection is an important component of PBL. The reflection piece helps students make connections and extend their knowledge. I think through reflection, students are able to access the amount of effort made and they begin to realize that effort is tied to the overalll outcome of the project and to what they as learners take away from the experience. Project based learning is fun and exciting which in turn is motivating. I believe educators have the power to create dynamic learners through Project Based Learning.

  4. Mrs. Cantor, I am also one of the students in Dr.Getz’s class. I currently teach 5th grade in a private school in Henrico County. After hearing your input on project based learning, and our class discussion, I was inspired to do our own project for our next Science unit. I broke students up into groups and had them create a project on either rocks, minerals, or metals of the Earth. I gave the students checkpoints that they had to show me and let them get to work. They loved doing this and it was a great way to hear them learning, without actually teaching them. I know one of the questions brought up in class was time, and, some of the research my student did was some of the same things they would have heard me teach them. Not only that, they wrote their own quiz questions, and some wrote the same questions that will be on their summative assessment. It was great to see them focused, working together, and learning on their own…who would have thought! After they present this week, I am going to have them reflect on what they did and how they worked in a group. If things go well, we may make this a regular thing in our classroom. Thank you for the inspiration!