Hold schools accountable for the right tests in a new world

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 2, 2013 

"F" is the new "A."

While educators are all but comatose with fear that their students will flunk multiple-choice tests, the rest of the world is flying by, with a much different definition of failure.

The real failure is in not stretching the brain. It is not taking risks on new ideas, knowing that most will fail. It is the inability to quantify a problem, much less the solution. It is the inability to think.

So says an education leader from Harvard University who has counseled and learned from the best educators and business leaders across the globe.

Tony Wagner painted an odd picture of our society in his talk last week at the Hilton Head Institute. It's one in which schools -- of all places -- are not teaching students to use their minds.

If America is to brace students for the demands of employment and citizenship in the 21st century, schools must change as dramatically as the world does. Forget the tests. Schools must instead foster experimentation, teamwork, challenging questions, and research.

Schools must be more like the company that urges its employees to fail early and often.

"We are born curious and creative," Wagner said, "until it is schooled, parented or grandparented out of us."


Schools test too much, and they test the wrong things, Wagner said.

The primary curriculum today in public schools and the finest private schools is test preparation.

"I believe in accountability," Wagner said, "but we do it on the cheap, with multiple-choice tests that tell us nothing."

Society no longer cares how much you know, he said, but what you can do with what you know.

Wagner said "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman scared the heck out of him in 2005. It outlined how good, middle-class, white-collar jobs are rushing offshore and being automated. It scared him more when Friedman said he got one thing wrong: how fast the change happened.

Now students leave college with $26,000 to $36,000 in debt and little hope for a job that pays enough to handle that load. Unemployment and underemployment are rampant. Wagner said 5.8 million Americans ages 18 to 26 are not in school, employed or looking for work.

"They're lost," Wagner said.

It's a buyer's market for employers, he said. "They want more skills -- plus the spark of imagination, the innovator, the problem-solver."

Wagner said 70 percent of our economy is based on consumer spending, fueled by more and more debt.

"That's not sustainable economically, environmentally or spiritually," he said. "We need to be No. 1 in manufacturing again. Not of things, but of ideas and problem-solvers, beginning, of course, with sustainability.

"Education is part of the problem and part of the solution."


Schools should test for the "Four C's": critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creative problem-solving. That, plus grit: perseverance, tenacity, self-discipline.

Rather than bubbling in answers on high-stakes tests that 70 percent of teachers think are making schools worse, each student and teacher should be judged on a peer review of an e-portfolio, Wagner said. It would show examples of problem-solving, a speech, a research paper, and teamwork, for example.

In his talk on Hilton Head and in his book, "The Global Achievement Gap," Wagner lists seven survival skills schools must teach:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving. Let students be more curious and whimsical. Teach the inquiry process. Help them learn to ask the right questions and to separate fact from opinion.

  • Collaborating across networks and leading by influence. This includes a deep appreciation of cultural and ethnic differences. In the new business world, it means working in teams led by peers, not middle-management.

  • Agility and adaptability. Embrace new ideas and a blurring reality. Even if there were an absolute right and absolute wrong, it would stay that way for only a nanosecond.

  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism. Employers need self-starters. Some let employees work on their own projects 20 percent of the time. Failing seven out of 10 times is not considered failure. A lot of successful companies are led by dropouts.

  • Effective oral and written communication. Not only to communicate clearly and precisely but to create focus, energy and passion. "The No. 1 reason they can't write is that they can't think," Wagner said.

  • Accessing and analyzing information. Information comes in massive quantities that must be distilled, but it also comes fast, and constantly.

  • Curiosity and imagination. Today the right brain is at least as important as the left brain. Read "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel H. Park.

  • Wagner left his audience with a challenge to advocate for school accountability -- but accountability that aligns with results that matter.

    Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

    Related content:

    Tony Wagner

    Hilton Head Island Institute

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