Friday, May 15, 2009

Tony Wagner in the Des Moines Register

Yesterday's Des Moines Register featured an interesting Q&A with Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change in Leadership Group at the Harvard School of Education. The piece focused on Wagner's book The Global Achievement Gap, and looked at some of his thoughts on key issues revolving around the Iowa Core Curriculum.

A quick synopsis of the book: Wagner like many others feel American schools are fundamentally set up wrong, not like they should be in the 21st century. He identifies what he refers to as '7 survival skills' that are the critical elements for student. Those are-

  • Critical thinking/Problem solving
  • Collaboration (and leading with influence)
  • Adaptability and Agility
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  • Effective Communication (both oral and written)
  • Gathering and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

This list, of course, looks to identify the famous 21st century skills, and you'll see a lot of overlap with lists by Angela Maiers, Stephen Downes, and the Partnership for the 21st Century Skills. He also weighs in on the core-content vs. 21st century skills debate to say that content should be secondary. In the article, Wagner mentions:

We have been focused on state standards. The problem comes with the definition of standards. What we have done is create content standards. The thinking is if students master more content, they will be better prepared for college and careers. That is fallacy.

Mastering more content doesn't equate to more competency. The research is very clear that breadth of scitentific exposure in high school does not prepare students for college. Only when you go into content in some depth do you begin to understand conceptually what science is.

What's interesting is Wagner doesn't necessarily see this to be in conflict with the Iowa Core, which identifies a core content. Partly, this is because the Iowa Core includes "21st century skills" as one of its subsets (along math, literacy, science, and social studies). But also because of the focus on instruction, not just content, that the Iowa Core has, which will get students to those 7 survival skills.

The most salient point from the article in my opinion is that we need assessments which measure those 7 items. Wagner says it thusly, "What gets tested gets taught". And since we test on lower-level comprehension and inferential type questions, that's what we end up teaching in class.

Wagner combats the notion that these skills are too fuzzy to assess. He points to the PISA and the Collegiate Learning Assessment as two assessments that do this. In this, he echoes what other local advocates for 21st century teaching and learning have mentioned, including Scott McLeod.

The article is definitely worth a read if you haven't checked it out already. In addition to discussing the necessity of 21st century skills over core content, Wagner has some discussion-starting thoughts on teacher-preparation programs, teacher evaluation, teacher salaries, and the Obama administration.

Wagner will be coming to Iowa to speak at the Polk County Convention Complex on September 16, sponsored by School Administrators of Iowa.

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