Voices in Education

A Conversation with Tony Wagner
Leaves are falling and we’re well into the new academic year, but before you get too immersed in the daily routine, scan the faces of the students your classes. Try to imagine the day when they leave high school. Will they really be ready for what comes next?

That’s the question at the top of Tony Wagner’s mind as he makes the rounds of signing parties for his new book, The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner, featured in the lead story of the Harvard Education Letter’s September/October issue, is a passionate advocate for teaching 21st Century skills as a way to jump-start the economy and children’s minds.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Tony and get his thoughts on how educators might take advantage of a new school year to prioritize these skills. Here’s what he told me:

“Schools need to be “weaned off” teaching to the tests and instead focus on students’ mastery of the skills that matter most. The few schools that focus on developing skills over content do better on tests anyway, while at the same time preparing kids for "college, career and citizenship.”

“When I was an English teacher, I said to my students, these are the four things you are going to be good at by the time you finish this class: You are going to write an analytic essay, write expressively for your own interest, conduct a powerful discussion around a piece of literature and do independent research. Not, ‘We are going to read 10 novels,’ or ‘This is a survey of British literature.’

My view is that we should describe the skills that students will be expected to master—rather than just the content they will memorize—in every discipline, for every grade level. In the 21st century, where information is constantly changing and readily available on any PC, competencies matter far more than content coverage."

He suggests educators look at the list of “Seven Survival Skills” in his book or Deborah Meier’s Five Habits of Mind and pick one or two skills to focus on during the year. Post these skills on the walls of every classroom. Devote every faculty meeting to talking about what the skills mean, how to look for them in student work, and what kind of assignments provoke them best. Then, look at your district’s “attainment data” like post-secondary reports for your district from the National Student Clearinghouse. Organize focus groups with recent graduates, ask them how well your district prepared them for what they did next.

“I can tell you what most kids are going to say,” says Wagner who's done these. "If they’re in college, they tell me, 'I didn’t have the skills, I didn’t know how to organize my time, I couldn’t write well enough. I couldn’t do a research paper.' And if they are not, they say, 'If only they had told me in 9th grade what I would need in order to get into college—and why it was important. If only they had encouraged me to really think about what I wanted to do with my life---what my dreams are.'"

About the Author: Nancy Walser is Assistant Editor of the Harvard Education Letter. Tony Wagner has served as Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group (CLG) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education since its inception in 2000. He is also on the faculty of the Executive Leadership Program for Educators, a joint initiative of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Business School, and Kennedy School of Government.
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