Monday, April 7, 2014

achieve the impossible

Aviation is proof that, given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.
-Edward Vernon Rickenbacker
Upon hearing that a couple of bicycle mechanics in the city of Dayton were working on what would become the first airplane, the editor of a Dayton newspaper responded to the Wright Brothers' news by saying, "Man will never fly.  And if he does, he will never come from Dayton."

We who think we know it all are often surprised.

I've never been happier to pull into a dark high school parking lot at 6:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning.  I was meeting Matt Reynolds and Elizabeth Sandoval to take part in their masterpieces. Elizabeth's is a combination of journalism and photography.  Matt's is aviation.

Matt was about to take us for a flight in a 1960 Piper Tri-Pacer that belongs to his brother's father-in-law, Ed Mandibles.  Ed is quite a story in his own right: the son of the first female DMV examiner in the state of California, Ed is president of a Piper club that draws hundreds of people to the Lompoc airport every July.  He proposed to his wife in the plane we flew; his children have flown it and now his grandchildren do (although he has to pry 5 year-old Aubrey's hands off the wheel when it's time to land, because by then she usually falls asleep).  For 30 years Ed was an engineer at GE, where he

designed and built telemetry systems and components of nuclear reactors in the United States and Japan.  For a few years he lived in Japan for six months at a time.  Today Ed is the unofficial mayor of the runway; as we stood outside his hangar, Stan and a few other retired pilots cruised by on their bicycles (one of which Ed built) to say hello.

When you buy an airline ticket you enter into a contract with a corporation.  You are promised that your pilot will be trained, experienced, and sober.  (Or are you?  What does the fare actually buy you?)  You don't have any responsibility for evaluating talent; most of us never even see the pilot, much less her qualifications.  After a couple mouse clicks you place your trust in the corporation's promise to deliver you and your stuff somewhere under very specific conditions with limited liability.  From jetway to jetway there isn't much except the postcard view out a window to suggest that we are doing anything other than sitting around..
Flying with friends in a tiny passenger plane is a completely different experience.  For starters, there is no doubt you are actually FLYING.  Each updraft is a powerful reminder.  Since the pilot isn't wearing a uniform (although Ed's Alaska sweatshirt did have a plane on it :) you might even be tempted to ask, "Why would you put your life into the hands of a retired hobbyist and -- Egad!-- a TEENAGER?"  I never gave this a thought.  I don't rely on contracts to determine whether someone has the ability to do what they say they can do.  I rely on my own sense-making ability to evaluate training, experience, credentials, and expertise.  Then I decide whether I'm going to place my trust in someone.

Welcome to the Trust Economy.  

I don't sacrifice my Sunday morning bike ride or pancakes with my daughter easily, but I trust Matt and I knew he'd come through.  (I confess I was slightly relieved that we would be accompanied by someone more senior. :)  I wasn't disappointed.  Ed reminded me of my Grandpa, who flew The Hump and The Berlin Airlift.  I know expertise and experience when I see it, and this guy was oozing both.  Plus, as I've experienced with most pilots who understand the physical universe better than most of us, Ed was totally down to Earth.  Kind, humble, absolutely no need to blow his own horn.  (Good qualities for a pilot, since there is really no point in blowing a horn on an airplane.) 

In the second picture above you can see how intently Matt is listening to Ed.  As I watched Matt learn from an expert and go through his pre-flight checklist I was able to focus on the learning (much easier when I'm not sharing content, grading, taking attendance, etc.).  I was again reminded how superficial testing is; I was mentally checking the experience against the "new/improved" Common Core boxes: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity...

The ride was amazing.  Between Ed and Matt, Elizabeth and I got an education on aviation, geography, the history of the region, and the people who live here.  We flew from Lompoc out toward Jalama Beach, then back through Santa Maria (over RHS, but I didn't get a good picture) and then up the coast toward Pismo and over my neighborhood.

Professional educators and policy makers spend too much time gathering and explaining one-dimensional circumstantial evidence.  Multiple choice tests had their day when 1 GB of memory cost $300,000 and no one had any way of documenting real-time interaction or mastery.  Their time as passed.  If you want to know whether Matt Reynolds can take off and land in a 1960 Piper Tri-Pacer, here's the most authentic performance metric there is (this is just my iPhone over Matt's shoulder-- with a better setup [GoPro, audio, etc.], he will be able to document every move he makes and use the video to both improve his own performance and teach others):



As I sat in his single-seat Mooney back in the hangar, Ed told me that what he loves most about flying is sharing his passion with other people.  It is no coincidence that we started this year's conversation about our masterpiece fields of inquiry by asking each other to identify a personal passion that we could share with the world. 

Learning is my passion.  Every time a student shares a new idea for a masterpiece I get to learn something new.  I loved sitting in that little plane and hearing about how Ed flies it to Oregon to visit his sister.  I loved learning how modern batteries have made it possible for him to build a glider with an electric motor (he just got back to it after remodeling his kitchen).  Thanks to Matt and Elizabeth taking the masterpiece plunge, we all got to share a morning we'll never forget.

In Matt's car on the way back to school, I practiced some critical thinking of my own and tried to see high school from his perspective.  He's been admitted to San Jose State, where he's set to begin the professional path to commercial pilothood.  In the meantime he has motive, opportunity, access to an expert mentor, and the tools to tell his story.  He has everything he needs to move forward.  A while back Matt wrote, "For me high school is a waste of time."  Apart from learning how to correct the grammatical errors in the rest of that paragraph, he might be right.  Fortunately it's a problem we can solve.

Your mission is the same as Matt's.  You have chosen an interdisciplinary masterpiece topic that you care about.  Find a way to use this hour, this course, this Open Source Learning process, and this community to achieve the impossible-- share your passion and your progress through digital media with a network of peers, the public, and at least one expert in the field.  You all have the tools to follow Henry David Thoreau's advice: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined.  Don't wait for graduation or Someday, and don't give up.  Your network is here to help.  There is a lot to be said for keeping your feet on the ground.  There is even more to be said for keeping your head in the clouds. 

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