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Reforming vs reinventing

Posted on: June 27, 2012

Video source

If you are involved in any type of educational change, this TEDxNYED talk by Tony Wagner is worth 15 minutes of your time.

Here are my takeaways from the video.

Knowledge is a free commodity so no one cares what you know. Instead what you can do with what you know is more important. To quote Wagner, having the skill and the will to do is more important.

Wagner does not say this explicitly, but I think it is implied: Tests that only measure what you know are irrelevant. I would also argue that tests that make you apply in only test conditions or non-authentic contexts are increasingly irrelevant.

Wagner also outlined some skills that various key stakeholders identified that every student today should master to be “a continuous learner and an active and informed citizen in the 21st century”:

  1. Being able to ask good questions
  2. Collaborating across networks and leading by influence
  3. Being agile and adaptable
  4. Having initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit
  5. Having effective oral and written communication skills
  6. Being able to access and analyze information
  7. Being curious and imaginative

Does this sound like a laundry list to produce lots of Jobs and Zuckerbergs? It is because the demands of the world’s economy are shifting. It used to be about products but is now also about services and timely information.

So what promotes innovation among learners? One common factor from Wagner’s research is the type of mentors (not necessarily teachers) that innovative students had. These mentors were all outliers when put against the backdrop of what constitutes normal teaching.

Wagner then highlighted five elements that focused on innovative learning over outdated schooling:

  1. Measuring accountability in team-based work
  2. Focusing on cross-disciplinary work and problem-based learning
  3. Taking risks and even creating trouble
  4. Creating real products for real audiences/consumers
  5. Nurturing intrinsic motivation by play, passion, and purpose

The last item is complex and needs to be deconstructed.

Wagner interviewed parents of innovative kids. They indicated that unstructured play was crucial to creating passions. I need no further convincing as I see that happening with my son’s play with LEGO and Minecraft.

A passionate individual is one who is driven intrinsically to do something. It might start with a question like “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and evolve to “How might you give back?”.

So does a schooling system need reform? Like Wagner, I think not. I think that most efforts at piecemeal change just re-form the school to do much the same thing.

Schooling needs to be reinvented (razed down and rebuilt based on a different model) to see the innovation Wagner described. But that takes a lot of time and time we do not have.

Innovation lies in those outlier mentors who can be teachers, parents, or experts in the community. As long as we recognize those outliers as essential, we keep that lifeline viable.

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