Innovation in Education: How Can We Close the Gap?

My headmaster gave a homework assignment over the summer.  He requested that our entire faculty read Tony Wagner’s,  The Global Achievement Gap, and his newest book, Creating Innovators.  These books examine some of the issues surrounding the lagging achievement of U.S. students in STEM-related courses (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).   Wagner discusses the changing culture of the workplace and points out that the traditional model of schooling is antiquated and that even America’s most prestigious schools could make improvements in preparing their students for today’s world.

In The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner outlines seven survival skills for the 21st century:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks
  3. Leading by influence
  4. Agility and adaptability
  5. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  6. Effective oral and written communication
  7. Accessing and analyzing information
  8. Curiosity and imagination

Wagoner points out that some schools such as High Tech High, and The MET schools are leading the way in renovating the current model of education in ways that do accommodate the acquisition of these skills.

In Creating Innovators, Wagner examines the educational history of some young American innovators who have done amazing things in their short lives.  He points out that “play, passion, and purpose”, were the forces that drove these young people to accomplish their goals.  He contends that school cultures that promote innovation are rooted in:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Multidisciplinary learning
  3. Trial and error
  4. Creating

As an entire faculty, we convened in the first week after summer to discuss these two books as a precursor to forming our strategic planning committee.  Faculty members were encouraged to express their opinions in terms of agreements and points which resonated with them as well as the points that they found challenging or impractical.  The conversations were compelling and it opened a forum for continued dialog.

Clearly our teachers agree that the workplace has changed and that our students need specific skills to engage in it successfully.  The questions then become: How relevant are our current teaching practices?  Are we really giving our students the skills that will enable them to be successful in this modern world?

If learning communities truly want to be renovated, school cultures and practices such as grading and testing must be carefully examined.  Wagner contends that the most effective innovators are intrinsically motivated, yet my current school environment has a focus on grading and testing, and the majority of our students are motivated by grades and are always striving to get the highest mark.

Schools must look at their curriculum as well.  Many of our programs are content driven and teachers spend a significant amount of time on coverage.  I believe that content, to a degree, is important, and students must learn some content.  But are there more efficient ways to deliver it with strategies that tap into a wide range of skills that promote collaboration and critical thinking in the truest sense?

Play, according to Wagner, is an essential element for young innovators.  Currently, in many schools, including my own, student schedules are packed, especially in middle and high school, with only a break for lunch.  After school, students participate in co-curricular activities, music lessons, sports, and tutoring sessions.  Following, many have long commutes back home and then spend time working on homework.  Most of their days are structured moments with little time for free play.  In Wager’s interviews with the parents of young successful innovators, several common threads emerge.  The parents of these young people allowed their children to make decisions on their own.  They allowed them the opportunity and time to pursue their own interests, take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the experiences.

Given the current model of education, obviously many parents are very concerned about grades, end-of-course test scores, SAT test scores, as well as the number of AP classes their children take and how well they do on these tests.  We recently had “Back To School” night in middle school.  This is the third year of a one-to-one laptop environment in my division.  It was interesting that I had several questions/comments regarding concerns over digital assignments and handwriting and the implications for SAT and other tests.  I appreciate these concerns and agree that students should have legible handwriting.  Nonetheless, we are in the 21st century, the future is now, and we have amazing technology availed to us which we can utilize in remarkable ways to better educate our students.  Our culture, the workplace, and society in general is changing at a faster pace than education. This is another example of how the culture and institutions of the current model of education must reform in order for real change to occur.

In the final sessions of our staff development, we were also asked to, based on the readings and conversations, make a list of our aspirations for the coming school year.  My list included:

  1. Include more projects-based activities that encourage iteration
  2. Include more built-in time for “play”
  3. Cut back on homework
  4. Continue to utilize technology and investigate several new digital tools
  5. Give students more choices in how they convey understanding

We ended our two-day professional development with a Skype conference call with Wagner himself.  Some questions that teachers had for him included:

  • How can we engage our students and convey to them characteristics of the workplace of today?
  • How can we balance content and projects-based / challenged-based learning models?
  • What steps, as a school, must we take to get started?
  • How can we involve and inform our parents?

Wagner recognizes that many schools are making bold strides toward reform.  Recognizing the need for change and investigating ways to move forward are important steps in the process.

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About Jamie

I am currently a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at The American School in Japan.
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3 Responses to Innovation in Education: How Can We Close the Gap?

  1. Awesome! These are great conversations that you’re having at ASIJ. I love the idea of whole-staff summer reads, I’ve never been at a school that does that, but I think it’s a great idea! I’m curious about what Wagner said in answer to the questions teachers asked…

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