Wagner argues that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which attempts to close the achievement gap between our best and worst schools, has instead left us with schools that are less effective than ever in preparing our children for college, work and life. Our schools are still mired in educational content and methods from the industrial age; our children get more of the skills they really need outside of school, from extracurricular activities, personal exploration and social networking, if they are fortunate enough to have those opportunities.
Today's corporate work environment consists of clusters of business expertise distributed globally and connected via high-speed communications links. Workers collaborate in their local team and with other teams around the world to define and solve open-ended problems. In today's fast-changing, complex environment, teams are given broad objectives and asked to find the best way to achieve them. There are no pre-defined "right answers" in the business world, only profitable and unprofitable strategies. Similarly, there are seldom any "right answers" in politics, or healthcare, or any other aspect of society - including education. As adults, we have learned that history is always a selective interpretation of past events, and that the most effective communicators often break the established conventions. Yet in our schools we drill on facts and basic skills, and seldom encourage or even tolerate questioning, innovation, exploration, or collaboration.
Wagner presents seven "survival skills" that students should be learning in school in order to prepare for college and adult life:
* Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
* Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
* Agility and Adaptability
* Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
* Effective Oral and Written Communication.
* Accessing and Analyzing Information
* Curiosity and Imagination
Yet, according to a NIH study published in Science (2007), 5th-graders in middle-class public schools across the United States spent 90% of their time in their seats listening to the teacher or working alone, and only 7% of their time working in groups. Further, the average 5th grader received 5 times as much instruction in rote learning than they received instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning.
The US high school graduation rate is only 70%, and 40% of all students who enter college must take remedial courses. It is estimated that 50% of students starting college never complete a college degree. Wagner's interviews with students and professors suggest that what is missing is not content knowledge, but competencies. In core classes and even in AP courses, students are drilled in specific content and vocabulary necessary to pass standardized tests, rather than trained in open-ended inquiry, assessment, reasoning, collaboration and presentation.
Wagner takes us beyond the usual complaints about tenure and unions to examine disfunctional structural components of the educational system. In general, degree programs for teaching and school administration suffer the same flaw of content over competencies. Once they graduate, teachers are seldom given more than checklist evaluations, and rarely sit in on one another's classrooms or collaborate for instructional improvement. Instead, Wagner suggests, most teachers have little recourse other than to re-discover effective teaching on their own, in a hit-or-miss manner. As a consequence, not only are best practices not promulgated, but there is little consensus among teachers about what constitutes good teaching.
Wagner also looks at the problem of how our current teaching practices fail to engage and motivate students. Outside of school, our children have team sports and group activities, and are immersed in the Internet world of interactivity, social networking, and visual information access. Despite legitimate concerns about addictive behavior, violent content and cyber-bullying, Wagner points out that our kids online experience, including even gaming, is much more relevant to the kind of activity found in most information-intensive careers. Our children want group connections, open-ended exploration, immediate feedback response, and relevance. Multi-tasking, search, and filtering are natural tasks to them, while they have little patience for long, linear, non-visual texts.
Our schools offer students little of what engages them. Instead of group activity, they get one-way lectures and individual worksheets. Instead of open-ended exploration, they get drills and tests. Instead of rich interactive, multimedia information, they get dry textbooks. Wagner argues that most high-school school drop-outs occur not because the student lacks ability, but because they lack motivation. School does not engage them, and they correctly perceive a lack of relevancy to their current and future lives.
Finally, Wagner offers us some profiles of a few schools that are "doing it right". While it is wonderful to see such examples, they are all small schools. It is probably not feasible nor desirable to open hundreds of thousands of new schools in every neighborhood, and Wagner doesn't offer much perspective on how we can translate these examples to the large schools that make up most of our national school system. But perhaps it is better if we all collaborate on solving that problem! I highly recommend this book by Tony Wagner as a starting point.