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.
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“Our schools are not failing, but our system of schools, which is more than a century old, is obsolete,” Wagner said.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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