Wagner on What We Need to Assess Today

Advocating change in the leadership of education, Tony Wagner of Harvard University demonstrates why American schools are not preparing students for the seven new survival skills they desperately need in the modern world and offers the first steps to best fix the problem. These survival skills include: 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, and curiosity and imagination.

The desire to multitask and be constantly connected to the net and to friends as well as the hunger for immediate results influence how young people today interact with the world—whether in school or at work or at home or while traveling—and must be taken into account by both educator and employers. However, the ways in which young people are different today as learners may be the most fundamental change we need to understand as we consider how to close the global achievement gap. The use of the Internet and other digital technology has transformed both what young people learn today and how they learn. … It is no longer enough to teach most kids the Three R’s and have them memorize the parts of speech, all the state capitols, and the dates and generals of famous battles. …

We are not going to transform education by simply replacing one administration with another or even by passing new laws. Instituting better assessments is the one most important change we could make tomorrow that would have the greatest impact, but before we can consider a host of other policy recommendations, we first must have a long-overdue dialogue—a discussion that might well start with a simple admission and a question: I thought I knew what students needed to learn and what a good school looks like—because I was a student once and I went to school, and it worked for me. But times have changed. And maybe students today do need something different. I wonder what it is?

If all students are to acquire the new skills for success in the twenty-first century, the change I describe must be systemic, and it must start in individual living rooms and classrooms, in school PTA and faculty meetings and district central offices. I believe it begins with a change of mind and heart—a change that comes about through adults learning together. Above all else, what I have come to understand in this work is that powerful questions are what drive real learning and that such learning is a precondition for lasting change. Following are some of the essential question that we all need to explore together in every school and every community, in every state house and department of education, in Congress, and in our national educational organizations:

  • In light of the fundamental changes that have taken place in our society in the last twenty-five years, what does it mean to be an educated adult in the twenty-first century?  What do we think all high school graduates need to know and be able to do to be well-prepared for college, careers, and citizenship?  And since we can’t teach everything, what is most important?
  • How might our definition of academic rigor need to change in the age of the information explosion?
  • What are the best ways to know whether students have mastered the skills that matter most?  How do we create a better assessment and accountability system that gives us the information we need to ensure that all students are learning essential skills?
  • What do we need to do in our schools to motivate students to be curious and imaginative, and to enjoy learning for its own sake?  How do we ensure that every student has an adult advocate in his or her school who knows the student well?
  • How do we both support our educators and hold them more accountable for results?  What changes are needed in how educators are trained, how they work together in schools, and how they are supervised and evaluated in order to enable them to continuously improve?
  • What do good schools look like—schools where all students are mastering the skills that matter most?  How are they different from the schools we have, and what can we learn from them?

Wagner, Tony. The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—and What We Can Do About It. New York: Basic Books, 2008, pp. 178, 256, 268-270. || Amazon || WorldCat || Kalantzis and Cope website link (suggested)


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