You Don’t Have to Go to the Moon to Improve Learning

“This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers…. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait.” – John F. Kennedy, 1962.

A couple of years ago, some colleagues and I were introduced to the idea of developing a school moonshot vision by Scott McLeod. As the name suggests, this is no easy task, but it’s a really worthwhile, provocative exercise. The moonshot idea is based on the groundbreaking 1962 speech by John F. Kennedy in which he articulated a bold vision for putting a man on the moon. This seemingly impossible vision expressed a concrete target and rationale – using technology that did not yet exist – to execute a compelling objective, one that was achieved 8 years later, on schedule.

A moonshot involves identifying an audacious goal without initially concerning oneself with how it can be achieved. The idea is to look for a potentially transformative target that will not be easy to achieve, but worth doing nonetheless. Like McKinsey’s Three Horizons of Growth, this requires moving from your current context to a radically new, potentially untrodden one, without worrying about the bridge or strategy that will get you there until you have determined your destination. That second horizon – how we will reach our target – too often prevents us from embracing a bold ambition in schools.

Many of my colleagues are keen to take a huge leap, if not a moonshot. How about a target that identifies some major challenges facing the world and structure learning around these? The following could be a good starting place: 1. Equality. 2. Hunger. 3. Pollution. 4. Peace. 5. Happiness. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are ready-made for this kind of authentic approach to problem-solving and interdisciplinary work. As in the much misunderstood Finnish system of schooling, disciplines do not need to be dispensed with. In fact, this approach to learning makes them even more critical. No student is going to question the point of science or math or communication skills if they are deep in research on nuclear proliferation or how we are destroying our oceans. Tom Vander Ark has written extensively about some very thoughtful ways to make these goals truly impactful for learners, extending the SDGs to a broader, more precise context.


We know intuitively, I believe, some of the ingredients required to make such an approach to learning a reality:

  • A culture of supportive risk-taking and open learning for students and teachers.
  • The creation of truly agile, interdisciplinary teams working within a flexible schedule.
  • An alignment with discipline-based standards so students are not missing required learning targets.
  • Parent education and involvement in the development and showcasing of the work.
  • Connections with the local community and experts spending more time in school.
  • Authentic audiences for the final products and a commitment to specific, ongoing actions.
  • Students as partners in the assessment and documentation of learning in dynamic portfolios.
  • Student and teacher agency to determine and reshape learning targets and contexts.

This felt like a moonshot when we first conceived of the idea, but we increasingly feel as a team that this target, though hugely ambitious, is within reach. At the very least, we believe we should have the courage and conviction to give it a shot. Learning is the worst thing that could happen. These things can happen incrementally, but not cautiously. You don’t have to go to the moon to improve learning, but we do need to take some audacious leaps if we ever want learners to be able to do the same one day.

Vander Ark, Tom. “Equipping Young Leaders to Take on the 32 Most Important Issues of Our Time.” Getting Smart. August 27, 2017.
“What is Moonshot Thinking?” X, the Moonshot Factory. February 1, 2013.

Image Credit: Photo by Kid Circus on Unsplash