Monday #10: School’s Closed

Greetings from the mid Atlantic where we are all hunkering down for Hurricane Sandy. As I sit here looking out the window, it’s just kind of windy and drizzly. From all the sensational media coverage, I’m led to believe that the brunt of this storm hasn’t hit yet although, at the moment, I’m wondering why every school in the region was closed for today. In thinking about today’s school closings, I realized I hadn’t had a post on the topic of education in some time. As it happened, on Saturday I was at Columbia University for the Fall Saturday Reunion and the keynote speaker, Tony Wagner, gave me lots to think about.

Wagner was the founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now holds the position of Innovation Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center there. He is a former high school teacher and administrator, an educational consultant, the author of many books on progressive education and a riveting speaker at conferences. He has some amazing ideas about what’s happening in our country’s public schools and talks about the solutions as needing to reinvent rather than reform. Wagner believes that our schools are not failing but that the entire system is obsolete. Reinvention is what we need. Now.

At the heart of his philosophy is the idea that knowledge has become a commodity. And it’s free. If you spend a rainy, hurricane day like today around kids who have access to a computer, you will know this to be true. Anything that you can think up can be googled in a matter of seconds. Websites like the Kahn Academy, where 6 million students log in each month, provide free and inspiring knowledge on every topic an even slightly curious kid can think up. Kids now use YouTube as a primary search engine on a variety of topics from mathematics, to politics to video games because… well, because they can. There has been no other time in our lives where knowledge is there for the taking, by anyone, at any time, on any topic. No teacher necessary.

On Saturday I got a full 2 hours of Wagner’s vibe. After his keynote, I went to a break-out session designed to be an hour long “conversation” in a smaller auditorium. I was so inspired that I took copious notes and still felt like I couldn’t write down all I wanted to remember. There are two lists I’d like to share with you. The first list is one that gives the reasons the culture of schooling is at odds with the culture of learning that leads to innovation:

  1. School celebrates the individual and his/her achievement. Innovation is a team sport that celebrates–and rewards–collaboration.
  2. School is about becoming a specialist where you are encouraged to know a lot about a little (think college majors and minors). Innovation is about approaching problems from a multi-disciplined mindset.
  3. School is often a passive activity of consumption–sit, be quiet, receive information. Innovation is about creating real stuff for real people.
  4. School penalizes failure and creates a risk adverse environment. Innovation is about taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them, about knowing that you cannot learn without trial–and error.
  5. Schools rely heavily on extrinsic motivation–carrots and sticks. Innovation is intrinsically motived and is more about making a difference than making money (or grades).

Integral to all these points are three critical factors: Play–I’ve written extensively on play as not only important to the enjoyment of learning but proven out as necessary by brain science–Passion–finding the pursuit of your true interests breeds perseverance more than academic achievement–and Purpose–the idea of giving back that evolves into an even deeper sense of purpose and a more adult sense of play. Play, Passion and Purpose.

The second list of Wagner’s that I’d like to share is his list of the seven skills that now matter most for students entering the post-academic reality. Along with work skills and learning capacities, I like that he adds citizenship to what it takes to be a well-rounded individual. Wagner refers to this list of seven as core competencies and the things on it come from years of consulting with experts in many professions and their responses to what kinds of individuals they want in their work forces.

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving. Forget critical thinking as the buzzword it’s become. What does it mean? Leaders looking for workers say it means this: The ability to ask really good questions as opposed to always having the right answers.
  2. Collaboration. Increasingly done virtually in this brave new world, collaboration calls on workers to solve problems in culturally sensitive ways, with a deep appreciation for differences, and empathy for teammates and customers. The most effective collaboration occurs when groups are led by peers rather than supervisors and bosses.
  3. The capacity to be adaptive and agile. Rigid thinking and an unwillingness to change directions does not support innovative objectives.
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism. Leaders worry about how to keep this alive and report that they would prefer to have an employee who sets stretch-goals. Rather than a worker who sets and makes five goals, for example, successful leaders say give us employees who set ten, make five and create the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
  5. Oral and written communication skills. There’s more to this point that you might think. Beyond grammar or oratory excellence, employers want their people to have the ability to speak and write with authentic voice because they know that what makes a difference in this moment is an individual who can communicate with passion.
  6. Ability to access and analyze information. This is the counterpoint to decades and decades of an educational system that is based on memorization. Try this: recite the 50 state capitals from memory while I google them and let’s see who wins. When information like this is free and readily available at our fingertips, it begs the question why memorization?? Being able to locate and effectively utilize this information is infinitely more important and useful.
  7. Curiosity and Imagination. Another pet topic of mine. We are a consumer society that demands innovation but we’ve created an economy that is based on spending what we don’t have for what we don’t need and destroying the planet in the process. Innovation is a viable alternative that will result not only in high tech advancement but incremental changes in everything. Curious and imaginative people will lead the way.

Tony Wagner says what we all know… that schools are now in the business of test prep. It makes me sad that there is a bit of a quiet complacency about this and, to tell you the truth, I am befuddled that the crowd of 2,000 teachers who stuffed them selves into Riverside Church did not rise to give this man a standing ovation. Furthermore, his small break-out session was attended by just a smattering of people, most of whom were administrators who came to toot their own horn about their alternative schools. But, ironically, the Saturday Reunion had little to offer in the way of break-out sessions that were not titled with the words, “common core” or “assessment,” though the classes that had a more creative bent–storytelling, drawing and creative writing– filled up first and I was unable to get into three sessions I would have liked to have participated in because of this.

A whopping 45% of all college graduates are unemployed. Many who are employed have taken unskilled labor jobs to keep them selves in the black, but these jobs will continue to disappear in a society pointed towards innovation. Wagner likes to quote Einstein, that “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” Until education can embrace a new way of thinking, the trust between it and the world of business will remain delicate. Until education can truly deliver on the philosophy that it’s not what you know but what you can do with what you know, students will continue to remain unprepared for the world of work.

The Global Achievement Gap keeps widening but the Common Core will actually begin to demand that we teach other things. Business will suffer unless we move more toward coaching and less toward teaching. It’s a perfect storm, really. When will schools open up to truly new ideas and begin reinventing rather than reforming education? When will parents and teachers rise up and demand that they do? Batten the hatches, everyone.

You can see Tony Wagner’s TEDx talk from earlier this year on YouTube.

TRY THIS WEEK: Get curious and learn some new little thing all on your own.


About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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2 Responses to Monday #10: School’s Closed

  1. Lois M says:

    It’s a big storm – we got the winds and heavy rain Saturday, here on the NC coast. Keep safe – hope you don’t have power outages and trees down. How would you do a children’s book about being safe and not afraid during a big storm like a hurricane? Something to consider?

  2. janzart says:

    Hi Dar, I find your posts very inspiring. I really enjoyed this one. I have a quote on my classroom wall, it is something like –to live a creative life you have to get over the fear of making mistakes. Thank you for posting this Ted Talk. I try to infuse my classroom with creative endeavors Thanks for all of your great ideas.

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