Wagner: Schools should retool, teach ‘survival skills’

ORONO – The world of the 21st century is a world that requires its citizens to be critical thinkers, collaborators, effective communicators, entrepreneurs and continuous learners.

It’s a world that requires a largely different skill set from the skills citizens needed to be successful in the 20th century.

Yet public schools in the United States continue to teach a curriculum that, for decades, has largely escaped change. They test their progress using largely multiple-choice exams that don’t emphasize higher-order thinking skills.

Tony Wagner speaks at the 2011 Positive Youth Development Conference.
Tony Wagner at the Positive Youth Development Conference.

That’s the assessment of Tony Wagner, author of “The Global Achievement Gap” and the first Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard University’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center.

“If you don’t have intellectual skills in this global knowledge economy, you’re not going to be able to get a job that pays more than minimum wage,” Wagner said July 26 at the Positive Youth Development Institute at the University of Maine. “They’re skills that, for the most part, we don’t know how to teach nor test.”

The challenge for schools today is not about successfully implementing another reform that boosts test scores, Wagner said. It’s about taking time to frame the problem, and then deciding how to change the paradigm so schools are teaching students what they need to be successful.

“Our schools are not failing, but our system of schools, which is more than a century old, is obsolete,” Wagner said. “And it doesn’t need reform. It needs reinvention.”

Wagner spoke at a three-day conference aimed at sharing research and practices for engaging students in their learning, increasing graduation rates and reducing dropout rates, and boosting students’ academic success. More than 200 educators from schools, after-school programs and the juvenile justice system attended.

In “The Global Achievement Gap,” which was published in 2008, Wagner identifies the “Seven Survival Skills” he says students should learn in school for the 21st century. He gleaned those skills from conversations in which he asked business leaders about what they look for in employees.

Those skills are:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving;
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
  • Agility and adaptability;
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship;
  • Effective oral and written communication;
  • Accessing and analyzing information; and
  • Curiosity and imagination.

Even the United States’ best schools aren’t teaching those survival skills, Wagner said.

“Education is arguably the most isolated profession in the modern workplace. We work alone all day,” said Wagner, a former high school English teacher. “How are we, working in one of the most isolated professions in the modern world, going to teach collaboration to our kids?”

In some ways, Wagner said, the United States’ education system works against developing some of those survival skills. For example, it’s set up to discourage failure.

“In the world of innovation, failure is prized,” Wagner said. “There is no innovation without trial and error.”

U.S. schools need to move the emphasis away from a model in which teachers transmit information to students. Instead, Wagner said, schools need to teach students how to engage with and process information at a higher level than they’re used to. Part of the solution, he said, is more group work for students in which students tackle complex problems, much as employees do in today’s workplace.

“We’re moving from what I call an information-based learning system … to a transformation-based learning system,” Wagner said. “The world doesn’t care about what you know. What they care about is what you can do with what you know.”

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How can Maine schools retool to teach Wagner’s “Seven Survival Skills?” How are they doing it already? Share your comments in the space below! Read the Maine DOE Newsroom’s comments policy first.

4 thoughts on “Wagner: Schools should retool, teach ‘survival skills’

  1. The methodology espoused here by Wagner is a warmed over old idea called Inquiry or(Discovery) Method promoted in the 1970’s. It didn’t promote learning then and it won’t now, for it is based on a false premise which requires every student to personally “reinvent the wheels” of fundamental knowledge which is necessary to enable young minds to engage in any “critical thinking” and “problem-solving”.
    We would still be traveling by walking in sandles if everyone had to figure out how to make a car before he/she could take a drivers’s test.

  2. Unfortunately, Wagner has the “cart before the horse.” Before higher order thinking can be done, one must have a basic skill set which previously called the “3 R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. Many consultants like Willard Daggett have changed these to the new 3 R’s of rigor, relevance and relationships, which is flashy but will not work until one has mastered the fundamentals of reading (decoding), writing (encoding), and math. A child cannot rely on other children in his or her collaborative group to transfer their knowledge of the 3 Rs by osmosis. Each child must master this basic skill set, and as E.D. Hirsch has pointed out for years, basic knowledge is essential as well. I highly recommend his short book, “The Knowledge Deficit,” available free at the website of AFT’s magazine.

    Because info can be accessed via internet, many educators and education consultants want to take shortcuts and bypass the students’ brains. It’s hard work to teach a child multiplication tables, vocabulary, and decoding skills. It’s easier and more fun to show the child how to access “information,” but accessing it without possessing the necessary knowledge base leaves one without proper discernment and forever vulnerable to manipulation by those with knowledge. This results in “shallow” reading and “shallow thinking.” Welcome to the 21st century “Shallowlands” of a dumbed down global workforce.

    I highly recommend these two books on the subject: Mark Bauerlein’s THE DUMBEST GENERATION, from which I quote, “The technology that was supposed to make young adults more astute, diversify their tastes, and improve their minds had the opposite effect.” A review of the second book, THE SHALLOWS by Nicholas Carr, asserts : “We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.” The Common Core State Standards Initiative is totally dependent on expansion of internet usage, and its direction in assessments will exaccerbate, not solve, our current problems. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is being replaced by NVLB (No Vendor Left Behind).

    Betty Peters, AL State School Board member

  3. The change begins with national law and policy. Schools are now stuck in a system of test scores as proof of effectiveness. Getting a good test score isn’t on the short list of survival skills, is it? What if schools were judged as effective or not based on a rubric that included ratings of academic relevance, social relevance, positive impact on the community, student engagement and satisfaction, and academic achievement?

    If it were so, my school would have no grades, just groups of students with common interests and common instructional needs. We would see community needs and develop service or scientific projects that would benefit the real world. We would ally with community groups, churches, town officials, anyone who could teach and learn along with us.

    Academic achievement is important. We need to keep track of basic reading, writing and math skills development. There must be direct, systematic instruction in these areas, followed by real life application of these skills.

    If, hopefully when the national policies and laws change the definition of successful schools away from a one-size-fits-all, everyone meets the same standards (how ridiculous) approach measured by test scores, we will have real transformation in education.

  4. I agree that accessing and analyzing information is very important. That is one skill that school librarians ( library media specialists) focus on with students. Even in the elementary school, students are learning how to locate information and how to analyze it.

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