Wagner: Help students become smart creatives

Our nation’s high schools need to be remade as places where students collaborate, teachers coach, and the competencies – not knowledge -- are measured, prominent education author Tony Wagner said at the closing General Session of NSBA’s Annual Conference Monday.

Wagner, a former high school teacher and K-8 principal, is Expert in Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab and co-author of the book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.

Even grading should change, according to Wagner. “The only three grades I can justify are A, B, and incomplete,” he said. “You are either competent or you’re not, and sometimes you are excellent.”

To press the point, he asked, “Who wants to fly with a C- airline pilot?”

Schools today are not producing graduates primed to succeed in the workplace or help the economy grow, Wagner said. About 44 percent of American college graduates are under employed and working in jobs that should only require a high school education. “We have B.A.ristas and B.A.tenders,” he said.

And even graduates of elite universities are finding it harder to get jobs at companies like Google, which are looking for the capacity to solve problems creativity. Google uses structured interviews to select employees who can demonstrate desired competencies, and 15 percent of those hired don’t even have college degrees, he said. 

While schools have traditionally used a lecture format to impart knowledge, “we no longer have a knowledge economy,” he said. “Knowledge is a commodity that can be accessed on every internet-connected device.”

Now the world has an “innovation economy,” he said. Employers want individuals with the ability to solve problems creatively “Smart creatives are the new coin of the realm.”

He said five things need to change:

1. While schools typically celebrate and reward individual achievement, they need to use team-based assignments and encourage team-based teaching. Most teachers are “profoundly isolated,” Wagner said, adding that “isolation is the enemy of improvement.”

2. While schools typically teach within disciplines, they need to encourage interdisciplinary work. “Innovation happens at the boundaries of disciplines,” he said.

3. While many classrooms today have culture of “passivity and infantilization” with only one expert in the room, teachers need to become coaches who help students make discoveries.

4. While today’s students and teachers fear failure, schools need to encourage entrepreneurial values. Fearing failure creates aversion to taking risks. Instead, failure should be celebrated as a step to learning how to improve in an iterative fashion.

5. Traditionally, schools have relied on carrots and sticks to motivate students. But schools must find ways to tap into student’s intrinsic motivations to learn about what is relevant to them, he said. For instance, a teacher gave no homework over a weekend except for students to learn something they wanted to learn. One girl of Chinese descent spent the weekend reading about the history of her ancestors’ country.

For ideas on how schools can make such changes Wagner recommended a documentary he worked on called Most Likely to Succeed. To find out more, go to

But the best ideas come from within, he added. He praised New York’s Scarsdale school district for creating an “innovation fund” that groups of teachers could apply to launch interdisciplinary projects.

Wagner compared this to corporate research and development. “What’s your R&D budget?” he asked.

Eric Randall

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