The Global Achievement Gap

Think about this:

The most important skill in the New World of work, learning, and citizenship today — the rigor that matters most — is the ability to ask the right questions. Old World rigor is still about having the right answers — and the more, the better.

In today’s world, it’s no longer how much you know that matters; it’s what you can do with what you know.

So says Tony Wagner in The Global Achievement Gap. The morning portion of yesterday’s Professsional Development Day at Weston consisted of a talk by Wagner, a discussion with him, and discussions of his ideas in small groups of K–12 teachers. On the whole I found him and his book to be apposite, exciting, and inspiring. The main messages that I took away from the morning, the big ideas that I’m thinking about, are that kids need to develop three important skills in order to be successful in today’s workplace and today’s colleges. One is the skill Wagner refers to in the quotation above: question-asking and its partners: critical thinking and problem solving. A second skill is the one he calls “collaboration across networks and leading by influence.” The third is “effective oral and written communication.”

It’s not that any of these are a surprise to me, not would anyone claim that I haven’t believed in them for decades. But it’s helpful to refocus my thinking on them, especially when business leaders in a variety of industries are supporting them. In the past decade the national focus of education has unfortunately been on testing, from MCAS to No Child Left Behind. I’ve written about this issue in many other posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. The testing mania is much more of an affliction in urban school districts, where some argue it’s more necessary, but it’s the high-quality suburban schools that Wagner talks about. His book is filled with good ideas, backed by lots of (unfortunately anecdotal) evidence. He actually cites seven “survival skills for teens toay,” but the three I mentioned in the previous paragraph are those that I found most striking. I think we actually do fairly well on all three at Weston, but there’s a long way to go. In particular, when we find that students are not good at asking questions, we tend to give in to this deficiency and ask the questions ourselves. This vicarious technique for teaching question-asking isn’t very effective; I would like to see a significant change in focus in this area. In a related matter, Wagner writes (and talks) about problem-solving in the context of solving unfamiliar problems. Clearly that’s a necessary skill; students are unlikely to ever see the very same problems that they came across in high school. And in our honors courses at Weston we do a pretty good job of confronting students with unfamiliar problems. But we rarely do so in college-prep courses, since the students object so vigorously. When confronted with mediocre results and whining students, the teacher’s natural response is to give him and write problems on a test that look almost exactly like the ones solved in class. We need to do better! We need to give a much wider range of problems in class and for homework, so that it become natural that the ones on the test are not already familiar to the students. And we need to put up with the complaints that will arise, by clearly and repeatedly explaining the importance of this new approach. It will be a big challenge, but the payoff will be worth it.

Incidentally, Wagner proposes abolishing AP courses, on the grounds that the College Board forces teachers to focus entirely on the tests rather than on learning. Somehow I can’t imagine that Weston parents would put up with that — although some of my colleagues point out that several outstanding private and public schools have succeeded in doing just that.

There were many other things that I liked about the book and the talk: Wagner’s emphasis on principal and teacher training, with a wide range of evaluations instead of the current stilted system; his insistence on rigor, not only in honorss and AP courses; his promotion of teamwork among both teachers and students; his disdain for rewarding self-esteem; his strong preference for leading by influence rather than by authority. In the interest of fairness and balance, however, I should point out that I did have three objections to Wagner’s book, and I didn’t much like his response to my one question after his talk. One of my objections centers on the book’s title, which I suspect was slapped on by Basic Books (the publisher) rather than Wagner. The Global Achievement Gap rarely discusses other countries, and the fewer places where it does so are unconvincing. For example, he cites both Singapore and China as highly successful countries that are emphasizing critical thinking and question-asking rather than rote learning and memorization, but my sources who have visited (and even studied in and taught in) schools in those countries say otherwise. The glaring inconsistency is that Wagner’s information about American schools comes from visiting a great many of them, as well as teaching in a few, but his information about Asia comes entirely from government spokesmen.

My second objection centers on Wagner’s attitude toward mathematics. As a former English teachers, he understandably tends to focus on English and history; I have no objection to that. But in several places he cites the multiplication table as the most necessary math skill, even though advanced high-school math can provide exactly the experience with critical thinking and problem solving that he is so strongly urging.

My third objection centers on the book’s single-minded emphasis on the school as the sole source of learning and the sole cause that’s responsible when students don’t learn. There’s too much else going on in students’ lives, especially in the family and the community, for us to fight this fight by ourselves. I didn’t have this same objection in the live talk, perhaps because the question-and-answer format led itself to a more nuanced approach than a book can provide.

The response that I didn’t like was to a question I asked about the Parker School, which Wagner cited as an exemplary program (in contrast to most schools). I observed that when I came to Weston 12 years ago, I accepted Weston’s offer and rejected a similar one from Parker, even though I had enjoyed my two visits there, felt comfortable with the school, and was intrigued by their approach. Aside from the excessive commute, the reason I turned down Parker’s offer was that their wonderful interdisciplinary collaboration required endless meetings and I knew I would be burned out in three or four years. I could have done that when I was 25, but not when I was twice that age. So I asked Wagner to comment on this observation, and all he said was that the school was very knew when I had applied to teach there, so indeed they had to have far too many meetings, largely because they were inventing an entire curriculum. But now that they’ve written the curriculum, they don’t have to have so many meetings. That sounds reassuring, but I don’t believe it. On this day that celebrates change, I am reminded that any school that believes in change (as the Parker School does) can never have finished writing its curriculum. We do a lot of useful collaboration at Weston — among teachers, among students, and sometimes with groups containing both teachers and students — but even the meetings among Algebra II teachers alone take up lots of time. We don’t have time for interdisciplinary meetings, and I don’t know how anyone does, unless you’re looking for continual turnover with eternally young teachers.

Incidentally, Wagner included a simple activity in his presentation that’s all too rare in formal lectures. At one point he stopped talking and asked us all to discuss a couple of his points with those around us. Aside from being an excellent example of modeling good lecture behavior, of “leading by influence — this activity gave us a focus for subsequent questions and comments. Even though the talk was followed by (and overshadowed by) the historic inauguration, which I know I will remember forever, Wagner’s book and talk will provide a great deal of material for us to think about for years. I am confident that it will have a significant effect on what we do and how we do it. So, take The Global Achievement Gap out of the library and read it!

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning, Weston