Recently I read two very compelling books that offer some of the best recent synthesis of our current state of change in education. One focuses more on changes at the learner level and one takes a global perspective. Both come to similar conclusions as to where we should be heading. Given my enthusiasm for each book, I would like to give each their due – so I will be reviewing one below and the other in next month’s post.
Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era is the title of Tony Wagner’s latest book, co-authored with Ted Dintersmith, who offers a helpful innovation/business perspective. The authors point out that our method of education is a surviving remnant of the industrial era and humorously points out: “It’s quite striking that, almost without exception, the great contributors to civilization were educated as apprentices, not as note-takers.” In other words, there is nothing sacred about the current way we educate and perhaps we could learn much from earlier methods, even including the one room schoolhouse. The familiar themes of student engagement (it’s not getting better as we go up the grades!) and teacher engagement (last among professions in a recent Gallup survey in terms of opinions mattering and trust of supervisors) are explored. The authors point out the deficits of the current college experience and question whether kids will continue to incur high levels of debt when the story isn’t working – only 40% find an entry job above $45,000 for example and 45% of recent grads return to live with their parents.
Wagner and Dintersmith make a strong argument that basically the college system is broken and out of touch – for example, 96% of provosts believe college is doing a great job of preparation, while only 11% of business leaders agree. The authors suggest we should seriously reconsider our curriculum choices in high schools. For example, if only 5% of students ever use calculus in life, why are we not spending more time on statistics, probability, and estimation? They propose creative re-thinkings of other subject areas that focus more on application of critical thinking/reasoning and habits of the mind that are essential life skills. What are the concepts we value instead of so much focus on content?
While sometimes high schools hide behind the “that’s what colleges require for admission” argument to resist change, Wagner and Dintersmith report that a growing number of colleges are changing admission requirements – over 800 colleges and universities no longer require standardized test scores – including many top tier schools. Furthermore they are not relying as heavily on GPA or advanced courses. The authors are highly critical of AP courses: “The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”
Teachers can begin to make changes to an increased emphasis on critical skills – a process for collaborative peer conversation, review and feedback is given and would be relatively easy to implement. The conversation around prioritization of content is a critical one for educators to have on a regular basis. The authors suggest two questions must be kept in mind – shallow or deep learning and a primary focus on content or skills? Engagement in the process by students remains paramount.
I was very happy to read of the authors’ recommendation of the Deeper Learning Network schools (see my previous blog posts), and in particular singling out the Expeditionary Learning network as a great example of self directed student learning that incorporates rigor and moral development. They conclude the book with a very helpful and practical process for working through these very significant changes with your broader educational community. I believe this book should be required reading for all educational leaders and is the best and most comprehensive summary I have read recently on the topic of educational change.