Part One: Almost anything by Tony Wagner
If you go on YouTube you only need to watch a Tony Wagner presentation once. He has one presentation and it is 90% the same every time he gives it. He is a “thought leader” who has been repeating his one piece of “research” over and over for at least a decade. I’m not sure if he is aware of YouTube, or if the people who book him are not aware of YouTube, but everyone should stop booking him: just watch a YouTube clip. Just in case you’re worried about my superficial engagement with this man I have actually read a book by him. I read it about five years ago with a positive frame of mind, but was turned off by its assumptions towards the end.
Every one of his go to presentations starts the same way. He quotes Einstein – “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than the solution”. This is so he can tell us that reforming education is the wrong question: present education is actually obsolete and needs to be reinvented. Also, weirdly, he often starts with a suit jacket on and then takes it off in the first minute and then rolls up his sleeves at a certain point. This, I think, is to tell us that he’s getting down to business and telling it like it is.
So, our current education system is obsolete. You can actually get the gist of his ideas from this simple sentence. Obsolescence is a word that applies mainly to technology but to his way of thinking it is now technology that has made education obsolete. He has done this presentation around the world and I wonder if he thinks all education systems are identical and that they are all totally obsolescent? I guess so. Or maybe he’s doing that white man thing of saying opinions like they are facts.
Let’s run through his main points anyway one by one:
Knowing stuff, memorising facts is not needed now: “The world no longer cares about what you know; the world cares about what you can do with what you know.”
- Memorisation is a form of knowledge that enables you to work more quickly to higher thoughts. Without internalising knowledge like this so that it is at your fingertips I doubt that you can make creative leaps at all.
- Memorisation is also a form of cultural knowledge that prioritises the oral recounting of history and wisdom, and his flippant remarks here downgrading that type of knowledge is yet another cultural denigration of oral cultures.
- The world has always cared about what you can do with what you know. People do not go to a knowledgeable person to hear a recitation of data points, they go because that person can apply their knowledge in a useful or powerful way.
The world is flat. Any job that is routinised will be off-shored or done by machines.
- I once listened to Mark Osborne tell a hall of teachers how Google Cars were coming for the jobs of taxi drivers and long haul drivers and there was nothing that could be done about it. Actually there is plenty that can be done about it, and it is not impossible to imagine people legislating against this kind of job loss as damaging to society just as people try to legislate against wanton pollution.
- Off-shored. It’s a word you might only notice because of its ugliness, but think about the implication. It suggests a hierarchy of people. There will be those saved in the rich countries by a new kind of education that gives them highly-paid jobs, and then there will be robots and foreigners. It tells you everything you need to know about who is audience is and how Tony thinks.
There is a global achievement gap between the seven things he says “matter most” and what education is delivering. Here is the list of things that matter most:
- Critical thinking and problem solving (the ability to ask really good questions)
- Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
- Agility and adaptability
- Initiative and entrepreneurialism
- Effective oral and written communication
- Accessing and analysing information
- Curiousity and imagination
All students should leave high school “well on the way” to mastering these core competencies.
- He says he spoke to a wide range of people to establish what these core competencies are but you suspect he mainly talked to a certain kind of business person.
- The ranking he uses is clearly wrong. Good luck doing any critical thinking of any kind without five and six coming second and first.
- These competencies are of course not subjects which is his intention: after all, subjects are about knowledge building and remember – you can just Google it so memorising is a waste of time. He is not suggesting (if you read more of his stuff) that we get rid of subjects exactly, but that we run project-based classes that cover a wide range of subject areas and that these projects will help to develop the core competencies which are the actually important things.
- Well, there are just all kinds of problems with this based on my personal experience of being involved in this kind of work. Also – can I add – being a leader in this kind of work. I wasn’t being a dick about it and looking for flaws the flaws just exposed themselves so often that it got really hard to ignore them. There are two big areas that are concerning in this approach: (1) Whenever I contributed my subject knowledge to a project the learning in my domain rarely felt enriched. At best it came out neutral, but often it was negative (the subject knowledge was severely diluted). (2) Projects can’t really cover some things because they don’t really fit in a project. This really impacts Science and Maths a lot, but it touches all subjects at different times. Good luck running a cross-curricula project that includes algebra.
- The likely outcome of this – at its best – would be a bunch of students who have these core competencies (but haven’t “mastered” them because that’s ridiculous), and have pockets of knowledge based in the projects they did that worked well. This doesn’t seem a good outcome.
Some places do this stuff well: High Tech High, Olin, D.School and the MIT Media Lab.
- Only High Tech High is a school, the other three are at university level and all of those three are at wealthy universities where elite units that are highly specialised in media and engineering have been established. High Tech High is a well-funded charter school with small classes. In other word: fuck off with this list. Give any school anywhere this much money and these students and teachers will do well.
- These “schools” also seem highly specialised and please don’t tell me you can get into Stanford’s D. School or MIT’s Media Lab without having learned a lot of detailed subject specific stuff and memorised it. Once you reach a certain level you can’t just Google it because even if you found the detailed information you needed you wouldn’t understand it unless you had an already strong backbone grasp of the fundamentals.
“But the culture of schooling is all about becoming a specialist.”
- No it isn’t. You take multiple subjects at school. Stanford’s D. School and MIT’s Media Lab sound very specialised. Your regular student takes many different subjects, and is often a member of different groups or sports teams as well. Looking for ways for students to work in a cross-curricular way twice a year is a good idea that I would fully support, but I guess that is just “reforming” a system Tony thinks is obsolete.
This is the point where I have to stop and switch focus because I start getting bogged down in the detail and lose sight of the bigger picture. That big picture is to do with the underpinning ideologies he is peddling. He has a little sentence he puts in near the start of his presentations about the big issues of the day being inequality and climate change. This is just noise because his proposed education system is about perpetuating an elite and hoping they can innovate their way out of the consequences of capitalism’s darkening path.
His stories make it clear who he is talking to. How should we raise our imaginary children? Encourage play. Give your kids simple toys; old fashioned toys. Limit screen time. Give your children a “rich buffet of things to try out”. He’s describing affluent educated parents catering for their privileged children. This child-rearing he describes will allow your children to find their “passion” (or “element” if you’re Ken Robinson) and leads to a wonderful job. Sounds grand. What if your parents are both working shifts on zero hour contracts and there’s no money for rich buffets? “What if” a whole bunch of things.
Tony’s vision – like Ken’s – is not revolutionary. It can be boiled down to this: the job market has changed so we should change the education system. Problematically the underlying system on which the jobs are all based is leading to terrible social and environmental problems. Tony’solution? Prepare your kids for the best possible jobs in this system so they can mitigate the social and environmental costs with their fabulous incomes.
Part Two: Tony Wagner speaking to principals in Wellington, 2018