Tony Wagner On School Reform

As far as education reformers go, Harvard education professor Tony Wagner is king. Several months ago, I read his most recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World.

“The long-term health of our economy and a full economic recovery are dependent upon creating far more innovation,” he writes. “New or improved ideas, products, and services create wealth and new jobs. Business leaders, in particular, say that we need many more young people who can create innovations in the areas of science, technology, and engineering.”

I am captivated by Wagner’s plan for creating an innovative economy, and I’ll leave it to you to read his painstakingly researched book, which relies heavily on detailed interview notes on successful innovators and risk takers.

But I want to learn more, and I reach out to Wagner to get a better understanding of his mindset. I ask what he thinks about sustainability efforts, and if schools are doing enough to promote good environmental stewards. I’m especially interested in hearing his response, since I live in South Florida, and scientists estimate that because of the quickening pace of melting polar ice caps, my home, and much of the state, could be under water in 20-30 years.

“No, not at all. I think that’s a huge education issue,” Wagner tells me.

I ask him how we can try to improve.

“I think ecology ought to be a required science to study instead of biology and chemistry,” Wagner says. “I think that we need to understand the ecosystem we live in. It’s a part of human health and wellbeing. We teach health and wellness, but we don’t teach planet health and wellness.”

I’m intrigued, and I ask Wagner if he thinks teaching ecology is more important than teaching chemistry or biology.

“Absolutely, I do,” Wagner says. “Part of it, we don’t understand ecology without some understanding of the other sciences, but I think we need to teach the relationship of things as opposed to things separately and discretely.”

I then ask Wagner about a March 30 New York Times op-ed by Thomas Freidman, “Need a Job? Invent it.” In the piece, Freidman speaks with Wagner about the need for innovation.

“My generation had it easy,” Freidman writes. “We got to ‘find’ a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to ‘invent’ a job. (Fortunately, in today’s world, that’s easier and cheaper than ever before.) Sure, the lucky ones will find their first job, but, given the pace of change today, even they will have to reinvent, re-engineer and reimagine that job much more often than their parents if they want to advance in it.”

I ask Wagner if he agrees with Freidman’s remarks.

“Oh, absolutely, I do,” Wagner says. “I think that we’re moving to a time when conventional careers are disappearing or being altered substantially. It will require young people to take more initiative, to pursue opportunities, or to create them.”

With the world changing so quickly, I tell Wagner that I worry that teachers can’t possible prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow—many of which don’t yet exist. He puts me in my place.

“I don’t think we train them for jobs,” Wagner says. “I think we give them sets of skills that enable them to create new opportunities or to pursue areas of interest. I think intrinsic motivation, grit, as well as the skills that I’ve written about in The Global Achievement Gap—willingness to take risks, to make mistakes and learn from them–all of those qualities, I think, are what young people will need to get in new kinds of jobs.”

As I speak with Wagner, I’m reminded of my discussion with Nikhil Goyal, 17, author of One Size Does Not Fit All: One Students Assessment of School.

“If you don’t fail when you’re younger, if you don’t fail constantly and continuously—and you continuously recover from those mistakes—then you’re going to be faced with a number of life crises when you’re 40 or 50 years-old and you’ve never failed at anything in your life,” Goyal says.  “We’re conditioning children to not take risks and do bold things.”

I’m not surprised that Goyal and Wagner are friends, and I’m happy to learn that they are working on a new documentary series together. I wonder, though, to what extent teachers can and should encourage students to take risks, especially with a growing emphasis on standardized tests.

“It’s not just tests, it’s the fact that there are such high stakes on these tests that then generate a whole round of practice tests and test preparation,” Wagner says. “I think assessment and accountability is fine, but when it’s high stakes, you’ve really changed everything for people in terms of what’s at stake.”

I stick to the topic of assessment, and I ask Wagner what he thinks about grades.

“There are only three grades I can defend, A, B, or Incomplete,” he says. “I believe in establishing a performance standard in every class that every student should be expected to meet. You hold that standard constant, but you vary the amount of time or support young people need to achieve that standard. You don’t want to fly with a D minus airline pilot.”

We discuss the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. There, students have complete autonomy as to what and how they learn. I’m pleased but not surprised to hear that Wagner thinks that this endeavor is “fabulous.”

I wonder why the Independent Project isn’t even successful, and why similar project-based initiatives aren’t ubiquitous across the country. Wagner tells me that most parents want schools to look like the ones they attended, and that’s it’s hard to embrace something radically different if you’ve never seen or experienced it.

“I think it takes time for some kids to rediscover their intrinsic motivation,” Wagner says. We’re born with it. It’s in human DNA to be curious, creative, and imaginative. That is often schooled out of us. In fact, so many people are complaining about senior projects in schools saying, ‘All they do is goof off.’ Sure, if we’ve never given them any opportunities to learn by themselves, we can’t expect to magically flip a switch and assume that all kids are going to take advantage of this great new opportunity.”

Before we part ways, Wagner gives me some final food for thought.

“What gets tested is what gets taught,” he tells me. “We have to align the accountability system with the skills that matter most.”

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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