The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 8, 2010


Tony Wagner speaks on “Overcoming the global achievement gap”

Tony Wagner spoke at Concord-Carlisle High School Tuesday night about the skills children need to close the student achievement gap and succeed in the world economy. He strongly recommended teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills, promoting curiosity, imagination and collaboration. Students need to follow their passions. “Innovation comes from project-based and interdisciplinary learning,” said Wagner.

Wagner spends his time in schools building systems that improve instruction. He pointed out that this generation needs to feel they are making a difference in the world. “They want to be challenged, not just entertained in the classroom.”

What’s needed?

“It used to be that attaining content was the goal,” commented Wagner. Then he held up a small electronic device and said content has become a commodity, alluding to all the data on the internet. He said the ability to access and analyze that data is the new skill. “Textbooks are obsolete by the time they are published.”

“Our schools are now failing. Our education system is obsolete,” said Wagner. Adding later, “I think college is an extension of the obsolete system.” Students need to read and write effectively. Wagner worries that students have gotten very good at multiple choice questions because so many tests use that form. Students need to excel in open-ended questions and learn to communicate verbally.

With more and more Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school, teachers spend more time teaching to the test. “AP teachers are prisoners of their curriculum.” As teachers are asked to teach more and more content, there is less time for exploration and hands-on activities. These activities are the exact pastimes our kids need to engage their interest and curiosity. Wagner said students get better at test-taking, but he questioned whether they are developing the skills they will need to succeed.

Wagner defined what was needed. Besides critical thinking, collaborative networks led by peers need to be formed, where diversity is respected. Team projects need to be done. He felt all students should do an independent research project. Students need to be agile and adaptable, particularly in the present economy. There is a need to foster the entrepreneurial spirit. Wagner gave the example that the worker who sets five goals and achieves them all is not as valuable as the worker who sets ten challenging goals and only achieves eight. “There is no innovation without trial and error.” He then asked the crowd: How do we incorporate this concept with learning in school? Traditionally, school has not been a good place to take risks, it’s “very risk-adverse.”

Wagner prompted teachers to ask themselves what skills are they teaching and how effectively those skills are being assessed. When asked about evaluating teachers, Wagner said, “I don’t see a place for tenure.” He believes in accountability. He feels that administrators do not spend enough time in the classroom. He feels it is important to continually improve lessons, which can be evaluated by seeing if the students are improving. He feels interdisciplinary work is very important.

Wagner challenged Superintendent Diana Rigby, who was in the audience, to tell him what system was in place to teach teachers to teach better. He pointed out, “Education has been one of the most isolated professions.” He recommended, “Teachers need good coaching.” [See RSC article. CCHS Math teacher June Patton spends half her time coaching teachers in technology.] Rigby replied that teachers need more quality time to collaborate.

“How do we motivate our young people?” asked Wagner. He noted that Bill Gates and several other highly successful people dropped out of Harvard to pursue their innovative goals. “What would Harvard have to do to keep them?”

Advice for parents

Wagner prompted parents to find out what their children are passionate about. What interests them? “People who pursue their interests have a huge competitive advantage.” With all the time Wagner has spent in schools, he has found that the “B” students “are more independent, more thoughtful. They won’t go to Harvard.” But he felt they were more likely to pursue their passions and understand the value of learning.

Wagner said parents are obsessed with getting their child into the “right” college. Wagner said, “I didn’t go to a name-brand college.” He said what is much more important are summer internships and what graduate schools they go to.

“Technology is a double-edged sword,” stated Wagner. The internet is there 24:7. Kids want to be connected. It is discovery-based learning. It enables students to find information. “This generation is spending a lot of time on electronic devices,” roughly seven hours on top of what they are doing for homework. They are multi-tasking. They need to develop muscles for concentration. He mentioned several times that he is also concerned that kids are not getting outside to play.

Other countries lead on PISA student assessment

Wagner told the crowd about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. It is an assessment that focuses on 15-year olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics, literacy and science literacy. It also measures general or cross-curricular competencies such as learning strategies. It is organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries. The tests are administered every three years. (see In 2006, 57 countries participated. The U.S. came in 35th in science and 39th in math. Wagner said, “It is not a multi-choice test.” The questions are open-ended and students need to apply what they learned. He stated that some private schools are moving towards PISA rather than AP classes.

Wagner explained that Finland is the highest performing nation with the smallest gap between the top and bottom students, only 5%. He said there are 45 languages in Helsinki. “We could learn a lot about how to educate students [from them].” They don’t test every year. He pointed out that testing every year is very expensive.

Wagner has always worked to improve schools. Along the way, he was a high school teacher, a principal and a college professor. He is the Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group (CLG) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He consults with public and private schools, districts and foundations around the country and internationally. In addition, he has served as a Senior Advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for eight years. His newest book is “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – And What We Can Do About It.”

This talk was sponsored by the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School Parents Association.∆

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