Are U.S. schools preparing our students to compete in a global society? According to Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and someone I had the privilege to hear speak a few weeks ago, even the most elite of our K-12 educational institutions are not teaching our kids how to succeed in today’s world. His interviews with corporate executives and firsthand observations in classrooms at some of the country’s most prestigious high schools led Dr. Wagner to conclude that the U.S. suffers from The Global Achievement Gap. This also happens to be the title of his most recent book. The way our students are taught in school leaves them ill-prepared to succeed in today’s workplace.
One of Wagner’s more profound influences was journalist Thomas Friedman, and specifically his book The World Is Flat. Friedman’s premise struck a chord with Wagner: any job that is routine will eventually become obsolete either due to outsourcing and/or technology. Haven’t we already experienced this phenomenon and seen some dramatic changes in the labor landscape during the past few years? Though partly accelerated by the recession, job loss has also been a function of more fundamental changes in our work environment. Those who succeed are nimble and creative thinkers, i.e., adaptable, entrepreneurial and embracers of change.
What does that imply for the way we should be teaching our kids? Success is no longer about what we know; it’s about how we think. Yet the focus in the classroom is still about test taking. Students are not encouraged to ask questions for which there may be no clear answer. They are evaluated on right answers, rather than creativity and inquisitive thought. Until we shift the focus, we will fall further behind other countries in productivity and innovation.
Such profound change rarely comes easy, but Dr. Wagner proposes 7 key survival skills for careers, college and citizenship which he asserts are imperative if we are to begin to reverse the U.S.’s slide vis-à-vis our foreign competitors. In a nutshell, students today need to learn how to think critically and problem solve, work collaboratively across networks, be agile and adaptable, take initiative and be entrepreneurial, communicate effectively, know how to access and analyze information and lastly, have curiosity and imagination. Though you may think much of this sounds familiar, we still fail to properly teach these skills, in school, leaving our kids ill-equipped when they enter the workplace.
Critical thinking is really about asking good questions, evaluating different points of view, and seeing the connections of cause and effect. It is not about knowing the answers. The shortcomings of AP exams are a case in point. There are no essay questions on these exams. The test is graded (one to five) on the accuracy of the regurgitation. As Dr. Wagner points out, the tendency is to teach content, not competencies.
Successful people are those who embrace Wagner’s 3 C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration. They are also willing to push boundaries. Creative risk taking leads to innovation, which is increasingly important as change comes faster and faster. Did you know that Google gives and expects every employee to spend 20% of his or her time just messing around, free thinking while not working on any specific project? What Google has discovered is that this is how its most innovative ideas are developed. Imagine such an approach in our schools!
How should we adjust our thinking as parents? How we hold ourselves and our institutions accountable must shift to outcomes. The measure of accomplishment for our schools should no longer be making the grade by sending more students to highly selective colleges. Seeing more students graduate and with the tools that they need to succeed is the more meaningful yardstick. No one says it will be easy to make such wholesale changes to our educational institutions. However, recognizing that we are not adequately preparing young people for today's world is certainly a start.