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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Lessons from a Starman: Commander Hadfield at #fisa2016

I recently had the privilege of presenting at the 50th anniversary conference of the Federation of Independent Schools of British Columbia, Canada (#fisa2016). My session went well and I met a lot of incredible educators (see my Storify of tweets here) My highlight, however (aside from the student marimba players), was of course the closing keynote by Colonel Chris Hadfield, Commander of the International Space Station and the first Canadian to walk in space! He was humble and entertaining – a master storyteller with a legit backstory! More intriguing to me, he stressed the arts in education and our personal lives and even gave us a taste of his musical stylings with some live guitar and singing.


Here are my main takeaways from his talk, not in any particular order:

Complex Machines are Really Remixes of Risks and Ideas

This was a wonderful reminder and really reiterates the work I do on remix and mashup. Thinking of the most complex machines as a compilation of many individual ideas (which start as risks) makes them seem less daunting, but also empowers us to indeed take more risks and pursue our ideas, because they might become a pivotal part of something larger and more profound.

Increase the Size of Our Rooms: Expand Our Umwelt

When Cmdr. Hadfield used this expression, Increase the size of your rooms“, he was alluding to the fact that we are all cocooned in a way in our own weltanschauung – our own narrow world view. The wonderful neuroscientist David Eagleman talked about the umwelt concept in his TED talk, and I think it applies here. Not many of us will get to experience the perspective that space travel provides, so it’s imperative we take this challenge on in other ways. How do we explore others’ perspectives so that our minds are broadened and we learn to embrace differences? As educators, how might we help students grow their “rooms”?


It Takes a Village…to Remind Us How Similar We Are

I loved the anecdote about flying over a Canadian town then, 45 minutes later an African town and realizing how similar they were. Humans are basically the same all over, but we forget that with all the superficial cultural trappings – and often to the point of violence. Hadfield insists that the commonalities far outweigh the differences. Perhaps that is why music is the perfect medium to fuse this underlying connection (check out the Playing for Change project)


The Arts and Science are a Happy Marriage

More and more, I am becoming aware of this happy juxtaposition of the arts and sciences. A few months ago I came across a quote by exomoonologist David Kipping:

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.52.36 AM

Storytelling, poetry, music, and the visual arts are such an essential part of being human, and really intensify the empathy and knowledge one can have for something more complex or overwhelming. Cmdr. Hadfield it seems, feels a strong sense of obligation to share about his inexplicable experiences with others – to teach them, to to offer not only an intellectual but an emotive understanding. Aside from the fact that music in particular is therapeutic (he says the psychologists insisted on keeping a guitar in the Space Station), it can also serve a troubadour-esque function. After my History for Music Lovers YouTube project, I realized how significant music coupled with lyrics can be in sparking an interest and/or making content memorable. I hope more teachers incorporate song, dance, poetry, and the visual arts in their non-humanities subject areas.

Practice is Disproportionate to Doing

Coaches and music instructors have always harped on about practice, sometimes much to the student’s chagrin. But there is truth to both bodily and mental muscle memory. The more something becomes part of your daily routine, the more skilled you will be over time. It’s often very nuanced, and results aren’t evident until you take a large step back and compare your “old” work or behaviour to your new. I found it intriguing that most of an astronaut’s career is just build up. Hadfield said he practiced for 20+ years for a few months’ stint in space. This is good to remember, because practice is often tedious, our attention spans are taxed, and we are frustrated at not seeing results in a timely fashion. I hope we can give our students this encouragement as they struggle with acquiring new skills.

The Mundane Might Lead to Major

Cmdr. Hadfield wowed us with something so simple- he tried to wring out a sopping wet face towel to no avail. It was cool, to be sure, but he followed it with – “Imagine what happens to your insides?

Space travel is fascinating because things behave differently sans gravity, and it simply mesmerizes us. But Hadfield reminds us that sometimes investigating the mundane, seemingly insignificant, can lead to more grand discoveries. This is a wonderful takeaway for the classroom…imagine creating these analogies using everyday objects or phenomenon…and using them to explain the more complex or esoteric. This is also, by the way, how innovation works- so often inventions or theories are due to the creator taking note of something he might encounter on a daily basis.


Live in the Why Not

Cmdr. Hadfield is much loved and revered, but as a speaker he came off as down-to-earth (odd for a space-man!) and possessed a refreshingly honest humility. That being said, he stressed “having a vision for perfection” and, in essence, shooting for the stars. It struck me when he encouraged us to “stop building walls on expectations”. I think too often we – and our students- are unfortunately confined to the lined paper of life. In other words, we need some utter white space to imagine the possibilities and push towards what most would say unthinkable let alone unachievable.

And yet, when we achieve, Hadfield cautions we should not “sit tight in our own level of expertise”. I particularly like that, because it pushes us to be continually curious…to find our way back to wonder. Throughout my life I’ve found that the most competent “experts” are indeed the must humble – they live in self-doubt and are on a daily quest to understand more, and better.


Thumbs Up Before You  Throw Up

We got giggly when  Cmdr. Hadfield related stories about the re-entry and his experience (in cheap-o lawn chairs) in Russia. But I thought it was rather poignant when he said something about keeping his “thumb up” for the photo moment (something he said was very Canadian, much like a sort of “keep calm and carry on”). It was all “thumbs up and throw up later” (he admitted to really wanting to get sick due to the stresses on his body). I think that can be a metaphor for so many other things in life…when we just have to plow through for duty or appearance’s sake and live in private torment, postponing unpleasant reactions until later.

Teachers (and students!) go through this all the time. Being a teacher is a bit unique in that the people who are with you all day see you often as a family member or even parental figure in some cases. It’s a bit like a “the show must go on” mentality as well- we must carry on for our “audience” (for want of a better word, since I think of students as co-learners), despite what ails us. But you know what? It goes both ways…the best decision I ever made was staying in the classroom whilst going through chemo (and radiation, and surgeries..) for breast cancer. The joy of my students and of learning in general kept me pre-occupied and positive. The few times I couldn’t handle the physical stresses (like running to the loo to get sick), my students realized I was indeed human with faults and weaknesses, and we became closer for that. I think, too, they cultivated empathy for other teachers and even their parents.

Victory du Jour

Lastly, I appreciated Chris Hadfield’s approach to daily life – he says he tries to be victorious every day. Now that might sound incredible, but he qualified it by saying he sets a “low threshold of victory“, and that he sees even the most ordinary accomplishments as something to celebrate. This might be waking up on time, having a nice meal, staying warm through the night, or chatting with a good friend.

This starman has seen grand wonders most of us will never have the privilege to witness, yet he appreciates the most raw, simple pleasantries of life on this planet. And that, for me, is the big takeaway. I think it’s sad that one only comes to realize this when one’s life has been compromised (for me, cancer, for Cmdr, Hadfield, having a 1 in 38 chance of dying during his mission). I hope everyone at the #fisa2016 conference takes this to heart, and shares with students.

We’re all just stardust after all…let’s shine before we burn out. 


My Tribute

For my session on Creativity, I planned quite a few break out activities. I knew it would be difficult getting people back to focus on the slide presentation, so I created this little animation in honour of the great David Bowie and of course, Cmdr. Hadfield, who sung this while in space and to us at the conference.

Thanks to all #fisa2016 organizers – especially Elizabeth Moore who believed in me and my lovely friend Brenda Ball who took care of me.

#fisa2016 #bowie #davideagleman #canada #astronaut #davidkipping #education #chrishadfield #cmdrhadfield #federationofindependentschoolsofbritishcolumbia #amyburvall #learning

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