I got the chance to talk to Tony Wagner when I was presenting at the College Board AP National Conference in Orlando last July!
Basically, Wagner is to the education profession what Thomas Friedman is to the business world. He provides a relentless voice to the argument that our schools are adapting too slowly to the reality that we must help students learn differently than they did 30 years ago, resulting in a widening gap between our graduates’ competitiveness in the global marketplace. Wagner cites Friedman’s work frequently, reminding us that routine work is going away as an option for a well-paid career and knowledge is growing exponentially, changing constantly, and rapidly becoming a free commodity. In short, “sage on the stage” content delivery teaching circa 1975 prepares students for careers that no longer exist.
In his previous book The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner cited seven “survival skills” that should drive our teaching instead.
1. Critical thinking and problem solving
2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
3. Agility and adaptability
4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
5. Accessing and analyzing information
6. Effective oral and written communication
7. Curiosity and imagination (p.12)
This is a very high bar for a rather conservative social institution like public education. Wagner tries to make the challenge more manageable by spending the bulk of the book profiling students and teachers who embody this type of work in real schools. As a public school administrator, I was honestly discouraged to read the majority of the amazing students profiled went through private schools. However, there were some public schools in the stories as well, and the students and teachers in all the vignettes were truly inspiring, ranging from the product manager for Apple’s first iPhone to a kid who led an internationally recognized effort to save endangered sea turtles. Through these amazing stories, Wagner illustrates his view of what schools should look like by starting with the most outstanding products of our schools and working backwards. He interviews the students, their parents, and their teachers to identify common threads in their learning experiences that might build larger lessons for the profession.
Wagner concedes the challenge this kind of change presents for American schools, providing a concise review of the profession’s history to acknowledge how the conservative foundations of our school systems are significant.
Educational institutions are inherently conservative, especially at the high school and college level, for some important and valid reasons. Our education system is charged with an essentially “conserving” task—preserving and transferring our knowledge “capital” to the next generation. Such knowledge is essential for “cultural literacy”-a term coined by E. D. Hirsch—to be an educated adult, and it can be a source of enormous personal satisfaction as well. Knowledge is also essential in order to innovate. You need foundational information to be able to discern what can and must be improved upon or changed. One problem with this traditional approach to learning, however, is that the way in which academic content is taught is often stultifying: It is too often merely a process of transferring information through rote memorization, with few opportunities for students to ask questions or discover things on their own—the essential practices of innovation. As a result, students’ inherent curiosity is often undermined-“schooled out” of them, as Sir Ken Robinson and others have written. Additionally, research has repeatedly shown that too many students graduate from even our most elite universities with little or no conceptual understanding (p.141)
Wagner also points out how outdated this approach is, once we reflect on how exponentially knowledge is being created and obsoleted in the digital age.
Another equally serious problem with the traditional model is the exponential growth of information. One cannot possibly cover all of the academic content in a given area. The more a teacher tries to do this, the more the curriculum becomes a kind of forced march through the material. The result is that far too many of our students graduate from high school and college knowing how to pass tests, but less motivated to learn and lacking essential skills. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today. All successful innovators have mastered the ability to learn on their own “in the moment” and then apply that knowledge in new ways. (p.142)
This idea that “what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know” becomes the shorthand for Wagner’s prescription for reforming our schools. If a canon of knowledge is no longer enough to make our students successful, we must equip them with the ability to create and work with knowledge, not just consume it. His vignettes identify that these skills are most often learned by tapping the more intrinsic drivers of learning: passion, purpose, and iteration. He describes how students today are far less motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments and far more inspired by the opportunity to attempt something, fail, and attempt again. It is no surprise, then, that a common thread in the learning experiences of the students profiled is the emphasis on problem-based learning that places value on inquiry and the application of knowledge.
It is striking, too, that both Shanna and Kirk had experience with a transformational project~based course that was hands-on, interdisciplinary, required teamwork, and encouraged risk-taking. For both, the opportunity to collaborate and build real products with others was the most exciting and motivating part of their education—and something they had never previously experienced. These courses enabled their passions to evolve into a deeper sense of purpose. In the model of how the qualities of innovators are developed that I introduced at the end of the last chapter, the culture of these courses continued to develop their intrinsic motivation, as well as their creative-thinking skills, and expertise. And both courses were taught by iconoclasts who did not fit the conventional academic mold. (p.69)
These “iconoclast” teachers that are featured so prominently in the lives of the inspiring students in the vignettes have different backgrounds and approaches to their classes. One characteristic that I found common among them all, however, was their comfort in shifting the power dynamic in the classroom to the student. They were willing to give up control of the learning process and allow for that scary moment where students are asked to struggle with a problem without a clear answer. One such teacher profiled was Ed Carryer who teaches a design class at Stanford that has produced many students who have become true innovators.
My goal is to empower them. I want them to feel like they’ve taken command of a body of material and can do things with it. We have lectures, and they are jam-packed-—-always overflowing—but the real learning goes on when they get into the lab, where they have to actually apply what they have been hearing and reading about—build circuits, write software, make it work. And most importantly integrate all of these pieces together. I take a very hands-on, application-oriented approach to the material. (p.48)
This is easier said than done. Wagner acknowledges that to retrofit our schools to provide this learning to students on a large scale in public schools, we will need to place a renewed emphasis on pre-service teacher preparation at our universities and intense professional development once they are in the profession. Citing Finland, where a nation revolutionized their schools in a single generation, Wagner calls for a commitment to the profession that can produce “master” teachers at a large scale in order to harness the passion, purpose, and play of all levels of students, not just those talented or privileged enough to attend the elite private schools profiled in much of this book.
Tony Wagner would do our Global Readiness Audit because like Thomas Friedman, he would identify the gap between our practice and global competitiveness along with a roadmap to close the divide.
Next On In A Perfect School . . . Amir Abo-Shaeer would Coach Our Robotics Team . . .