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August 28, 2014

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Need a job? Invent it

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When Tony Wagner, the Harvard education specialist, describes his job today, he says he’s “a translator between two hostile tribes” — the education world and the business world, the people who teach our kids and the people who give them jobs. Wagner’s argument in his book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” is that our K-12 and college tracks are not consistently “adding the value and teaching the skills that matter most in the marketplace.”

This is dangerous at a time when there is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the past generation. Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever. Which is why the goal of education today, Wagner argues, should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready” — ready to add value to whatever they do.

That is a tall task. I tracked down Wagner and asked him to elaborate. “Today,” he said via email, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.”’

My generation had it easy. We got to “find” a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job. (Fortunately, in today’s world, that’s easier and cheaper than ever before.) Sure, the lucky ones will find their first job, but, given the pace of change today, even they will have to reinvent, re-engineer and re-imagine that job much more often than their parents if they want to advance in it. If that’s true, I asked Wagner, what do young people need to know today?

“Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, of course,” he said. “But they will need skills and motivation even more. Of these three education goals, motivation is the most critical. Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

So what should be the focus of education reform today?

“We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over,” Wagner said. “Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become. Gallup’s recent survey showed student engagement going from 80 percent in fifth grade to 40 percent in high school. More than a century ago, we ‘reinvented’ the one-room schoolhouse and created factory schools for the industrial economy. Reimagining schools for the 21st century must be our highest priority. We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference, and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

What does that mean for teachers and principals?

“Teachers,” he said, “need to coach students to performance excellence, and principals must be instructional leaders who create the culture of collaboration required to innovate. But what gets tested is what gets taught, and so we need ‘Accountability 2.0.’ All students should have digital portfolios to show evidence of mastery of skills like critical thinking and communication, which they build up right through K-12 and postsecondary. Selective use of high-quality tests, such as the College and Work Readiness Assessment, is important. Finally, teachers should be judged on evidence of improvement in students’ work through the year — instead of a score on a bubble test in May. We need lab schools where students earn a high school diploma by completing a series of skill-based ‘merit badges’ in things such as entrepreneurship. And schools of education where all new teachers have ‘residencies’ with master teachers and performance standards — not content standards — must become the new normal throughout the system.”

Who is doing it right?

“Finland is one of the most innovative economies in the world,” he said, “and it is the only country where students leave high school ‘innovation-ready.’ They learn concepts and creativity more than facts and have a choice of many electives — all with a shorter school day, little homework and almost no testing. In the U.S., 500 K-12 schools affiliated with Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Initiative and a consortium of 100 school districts called EdLeader21 are developing new approaches to teaching 21st-century skills. There also are a growing number of ‘reinvented’ colleges, such as the Olin College of Engineering, the MIT Media Lab and the ‘D-school’ at Stanford where students learn to innovate.”

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. It's inspiring to read a columnist who still believes in good old American ingenuity. I was beginning to think it was dead. I'm glad to see and hear I was wrong. It is still alive and doing well.

    Carmine D

  2. Many teachers still teach critical thinking, but their number dwindled to near extinction when the NCLB high-stakes accountability testing started rearing its ugly federally fed head. It did not bring about 'educated," students, only automatons, many commercially prepared curriculum that made many people rich, cheating scandals, teacher attrition, and its current state of bewilderment.

    Education and politics - together - deadly.

  3. Well, yes and no. There are employers, universities and schools who understand the changing nature of work and the workforce and see the need for critical thinking as a core skill, but they are in a minority. The labor market in the United States is dominated by retail and services [including our very own hospitality]. For the most part those industries do not need critical thinkers, they need a large number of compliant followers. Eight of the top ten growth careers as projected by the USDoL do not require education past high school or a year of community college. In Texas and in my part of the country, the Pac NW, organized groups are challenging critical thinking as an assault on American family values. By trade I'm an auto and truck mechanic and taught auto technology for four years prior to retiring last year. My trade desperately needs technicians who understand the complexities of technology as applied to transportation devices. Unfortunately most of our institutions turn out a barely serviceable entry-level technician because they lack the science, mathematics and communications skills to succeed. I don't disagree with the need to increase the intellectual challenge of public education. I just don't see that there is any great call for that to happen.