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Finally some sense about 21st century skills--part two, the Wagner book

My wife was enjoying a quiet flight back to Washington after a week off in California when I, sitting next to her, started thrashing around. I was reading a book, but in a way that any person would find disturbing. I was marking and remarking pages. I was filling margins with unreadable scrawls. I was flipping back and forth. I was talking to myself: "Whoa! No! Yes!"

"What is that?" she asked.

It's a good question. The simple answer is: the latest book by school improvement activist Tony Wagner: "The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need." Wagner is co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also a great writer and speaker. I consider this book more of an experience than a read.

My habit is to write on the last page, next to the inside of the back cover, any column ideas that come to me from a book. The last page of my copy of
Wagner's book is a maze of my jottings. I have been making fun of the 21st century skills movement as a high-cost, high-level, often incomprehensible conversation among people who have forgotten to explain what it means to teachers.

Last week I praised education policy expert Craig Jerald for his new paper, which provides many of the insights I sought. Wagner's book goes even further, taking us deep into existing schools that demonstrate what the movement is, or at least should be, about.

It is 290 pages, but a very quick read. I was so taken with it I forgot my embarrassment at not opening the book until a year after it had been published. It is the latest addition to my Better Late Than Never Book Club, for volumes I should have reviewed long ago. I promise if Wagner does a sequel I will get to it sooner.

He starts in the usual way. He summarizes what our students need for the new economy, what he calls the "seven survival skills"--(I am shortening his longer labels) critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, entrepreneurialism, effective communication, analysis, and imagination.

He follows with an account of "the old world of school." He was a high school teacher and a principal, in two Washington area schools and a New England school that sound familiar but he doesn't identify. That's just as well, because he is not always kind, which adds to the enjoyment for the reader, at least this one.

He rips into the current state of testing and is mostly right except for one little problem that I will get to later. He quickly moves to a crucial issue, extracurricular activities, although he frustrates me by offering no data in support of some strong statements. Is it true that "students have far less time for extracurricular activities and electives in high school today, compared to even a generation ago?" I don't know. I would love to dig into the study that says this.

Finally we get to his chapter on reinventing the education profession, exactly what I was looking for and did not get from previous efforts to explain how teaching 21st century skills should work. I would like to hear teachers' reactions to this chapter. The ones I talk to most often would be in sync with most of it, and its great examples.

Wagner admires the Japanese model in which teachers "typically spend only about half of their day teaching" and much of the rest of the time with colleagues "planning and perfecting lessons." But that is just a small part of what he offers here.

The next chapter, on motivating students, is also a winner. It emphasizes the importance of projects in school and collaborative ventures outside the classroom. Then comes his "Schools That Work" chapter, a remarkable piece of education reporting. He describes, based on long visits, two of the most important public school models in the country for more effective teaching, particularly for students without the natural academic skills that get the most praise.

These are High Tech High, a growing network of project-based-learning schools born in San Diego, and the Big Picture Company, an even larger network of schools that began in Providence, R.I., and is designed to teach students through internships. This part of the book is a must read.

Do I have quibbles? As my wife could tell, I do. Wagner reveals himself to be, as far as I can tell from the book, a knee-jerk Advanced Placement opponent who says nothing about the College Board's efforts to deepen AP tests or the project-based AP+ learning approach pioneered by teachers in Bellevue, Wash., Des Moines, Iowa, and elsewhere. He misreports a 2006 USA story about AP tests' relation to college success and fails to mention the shaky methodology of one unpublished research paper on which he hangs much of his anti-AP argument.

He also has a failure of nerve--very odd for such a brave book--when discussing who should decide what factual content is important to teach, and what should be cut to leave more room for thought and analysis in class. He suggests we leave this up to the professional educators' associations, even though they are among the culprits who have given us such overloaded content standards in the first place. Committees like that are going to try to include every member's favorite topic, and that is not what Wagner wants.

I think he will realize that soon enough. He is a likely leader for the new era, if he can stifle his instinct to trash programs and ideological opponents he doesn't like, and look for ways to include them in the march forward. He and I have already begun an email discussion that will be part three of this series.

He knows a lot more than he had space for in this book, so tune in next Friday. You will find him saying things that will both please and enrage you, just as his book did to me.

By Jay Mathews  | December 11, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Tags:  21st century skills, Advanced Placement, Big Picture Company, High Tech High, Tony Wagner, achievement gap, new global economy  
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Rather than identify core survival skills, which aren’t necessarily strictly the domain of students, but anyone in the workforce or going into it, the focus should be on core academic skills that are measurable, definable, and attainable. I have outlined these core concepts in previous posts. How do you judge adaptability? How do you judge imagination? These survival skills don’t necessarily lead to academic success since a person can be successful without being imaginative. A student does not have to adapt to improve, nor do they have to be entrepreneurial.

His own two limited visits to schools seem to be to prove his points; but what about schools that do not use his approaches? Aren’t they successful? Can’t schools succeed without having these skills identified? It seems to be another book with a certain thesis that is proved by their own limited date and the conclusions were what they were starting with in the first place.

Posted by: ericpollock | December 11, 2009 7:45 AM | Report abuse

It is interesting that the content organization chosen to denigrate was the National Council for Social Studies. If you have seen these standards, you would know that they are curriculum standards and NOT content standards, which this organization is wise enough to leave to the content experts. Also interesting is the lack of comment on the move to establish national content standards.

Posted by: paltoff | December 11, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Please do look at the National Council for the Social Studies standards. They are the antithesis of the laundry lists properly disparaged by Mr. Matthews, and reflect years of an emphasis by NCSS on the importance of what students DO with content once they have acquired it.

Syd Golston, President
National Council for the Social Studies

Posted by: sgolston | December 11, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I agree all of the survival skills you describe Wagner as supporting are important components of a quality education. Indeed more than a decade ago some were incorporated in Washington state law to direct education and curricular reform. Many of the concepts have long been valued as goals of good pedagogy.

However the current mania for educational accountability (aka financial efficacy) has pushed aside any teaching not directly tied to content measurement. Schools must measure their students' knowledge of core curriculum to attain numbers high enough to satisfy politicians in order to be funded. Politicians demand this to satisfy their constituents and their own misguided notions that doing so will promise future college accomplishments and therefore economic success.

The kicker is how do you measure collaboration, imagination, adaptability? Washington state attempted to measure critical analysis in state-developed math and reading tests. These tests are long, expensive, of dubious validity and have been subject to much criticism and revision. An argument can also be made that some of the valued skills require higher level thinking skills for which average K-12 students are not developmentally ready.

The additional requirements that some states like Washington have, that students pass graduation tests, means the goals of education have been diverted from a well-rounded, diverse curriculum which can nurture many of the desired skills, to acquisition of narrow content. Time for extracurricula? You bet there's less time, and money. Have you heard of pay to play? Schools are already saying good-bye to music and art programs. Even good vocational programs are getting the squeeze so students can take remedial classes to pass graduation tests or the classes for college entrance requirements.

Posted by: speakuplouder | December 11, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

My apologies to the NCSS. I was apparently thinking of another organization that was loading up the history list in some states.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 11, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

and i just removed the reference to the NCSS.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 11, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Well Jay here is a comment from a VETERAN TEACHER:

This 'project based learning' is a huge scam and failure AS PROVEN by the very example you gave, Dennis Litkky's "BIG PICTURE" schools.

Litkky was the founder of Thayer Academy in NH, which went under because in this model, based on another failed idea (Theodore Sizers CES) the inmates run the asylum.

When are you education industry scammers going to stop selling your snake-oil to the public?

Posted by: username | December 11, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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