If you want to be an astronaut in Japan, you are eventually going to spend an entire week in the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) version of The Big Brother House — living and sleeping and eating in close quarters with 10 complete strangers under the constant surveillance of a team of psychologists and psychiatrists determined to learn more about who you REALLY are by watching your every move.

As Mary Roach explains in Packing for Mars, “An intelligent, highly motivated person can hide undesirable facets of his or her character in an interview…but not so easily under a weeklong observation.  In the words of JAXA psychologist Natsuhiko Inoue, ‘It’s difficult to be a good man always'” (p. 23).

Manipulating five cameras from a second story observation deck, teams of examiners look for evidence of leadership and conflict resolution skills in the actions of each candidate.  Teamwork and cooperation — essential behaviors for astronauts trapped in space with one another for long periods of time — are also tracked.

Some observations are logical — spotting candidates who have trouble following the rules can prevent expensive disasters on Space Stations orbiting 200 miles above the surface of the Earth.  Others — like asking candidates to fold 1,000 paper cranes in just over four day’s time and to string their cranes in order from the first made to last — seem more than a little absurd.

But everything — including the paper crane making — has a specific purpose.  “It’s forensic origami,” writes Roach.  “As the deadline nears and the pressure increases, do the candidate’s creases become sloppy?  How do the first ten cranes compare to the last?  ‘Deterioration of accuracy shows impatience under stress,’ Inoue says.”  (p.26)

The most important part of the entire JAXA selection process, however, happens when the candidates are flown to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to meet with NASA astronauts for an informal conversation.

While one purpose of the cross-continent field trip is to assess the English speaking skills of the Japanese candidates — an important prerequisite for anyone hoping to fly on the International Space Station where English is the official language — the primary goal is to find partners who click with one another.

“The heart of the process,” explains NASA consultant Ralph Harvey, “is the interview where they sit you down with a couple astronauts and you just talk.  You’re someone they may end up stuck in the equivalent of a tent in Antarctica with, for not just six weeks or six months in the space station, but maybe ten years as you’re waiting to fly…They’re picking a buddy as much as they’re picking a work partner” (as quoted in Roach, 2010, p. 37).

That’s an INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT lesson for the leaders of professional learning communities, y’all.

As hard as it may seem to believe, the professional qualifications of the candidates that you are screening for openings AREN’T the most important factor that you should consider if you are committed to building a team instead of filling a roster.  Sure, hiring qualified individuals matters — every Japanese astronaut that makes is to Houston is capable and accomplished — but the personal fit between the existing members of a team and anyone that you choose to bring on board is the true key to the success of any collaborative group.

Think about it this way:  In today’s ever demanding school environments, teachers — like NASA astronauts and their JAXA counterparts — are often paired in the professional equivalent of Antarctic tents for ten years too.  That means the people you hire have to be MORE than work partners if you expect meaningful relationships to develop between the members of your learning teams.  They have to be buddies.

How much time do YOU spend thinking about personal fit when hiring new teachers for your school?  More importantly, are YOU involving your teachers in the critical process of selecting the peers that you are asking them to work, learn and live with?



Related Radical Reads:

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Love Labs?

How Much Does the Composition of a Learning Team Matter?

Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent


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