21st century skills; collaboration; interdisciplinary; hands-on, real-world; portfolios; risk taking-- the Edworld's buzzwords have penetrated so deeply into our culture that they've even seeped into the Wall Street Journal. Consider an article from the front section of this past weekend's Weekend Edition, written by Tony Wagner, a former high-school teacher and the Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Entitled "Educating the Next Steve Jobs," Wagner's piece argues that:
Though few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs, most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do. A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills—places like High Tech High in San Diego, the New Tech high schools (a network of 86 schools in 16 states), Olin College in Massachusetts, the Institute of Design (d.school) at Stanford and the MIT Media Lab. The culture of learning in these programs is radically at odds with the culture of schooling in most classrooms.Wagner cites no evidence showing that these programs are actually succeeding in teaching innovation; the only evidence he cites for any of his claims comes from interviews of "scores of innovators and their parents, teachers and employers." Since it's too soon to say whether the students in these programs qualify as innovators, Wagner's evidence, such as it is, doesn't apply here.
Wagner then tendentiously invokes what's supposedly happening everywhere else:
In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation.Wagner seems to think that most classes are about innovation. But in systematic subjects like math and science, trial and error (Reform Math's guess and check) is not necessarily something to encourage. Even when trial and error is the best route, if the final product still contains errors, shouldn't assessments reflect this--as they do in the real world?
Wagner, like so many others who haven't visited enough actual classrooms, seems to be laboring under an antiquated notion of public schools in which students primarily lose points for wrong answers, as opposed to losing points for not explaining those answers in words or pictures, and not being sufficiently "colorful" and "creative."
When it comes to universities in particular, Wagner is right about one thing:
The university system today demands and rewards specialization. Professors earn tenure based on research in narrow academic fields, and students are required to declare a major in a subject area. Though expertise is important, Google's director of talent, Judy Gilbert, told me that the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to teach them that problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline.But is the answer to make all courses interdisciplinary (as opposed to simply encouraging coursework in different disciplines)?
At Stanford's d.school and MIT's Media Lab, all courses are interdisciplinary and based on the exploration of a problem or new opportunity.Like other STEM enthusiasts, Wagner implicitly biases his recommendations towards engineering, especially the business side of engineering, forgetting about math and science, where advancements depend less on hands-on, interdisciplinary activity and corporate marketing, and more on ever scarcer analytical reasoning skills:
At Olin College, seniors take part in a yearlong project in which students work in teams on a real engineering problem supplied by one of the college's corporate partners. The teams present their plans to a panel of business leaders who assess their work.
At High Tech High, ninth graders must develop a new business concept—imagining a new product or service, writing a business and marketing plan, and developing a budget.
What Wagner thinks of as his biggest conclusion--based presumably on those "scores of interviews"--is total Edworld boilerplate:
In conventional schools, students learn so that they can get good grades. My most important research finding is that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. The culture of learning in programs that excel at educating for innovation emphasize what I call the three P's—play, passion and purpose. The play is discovery-based learning that leads young people to find and pursue a passion, which evolves, over time, into a deeper sense of purpose.So are his concluding remarks:
The solution requires a new way of evaluating student performance and investing in education. Students should have digital portfolios that demonstrate progressive mastery of the skills needed to innovate. Teachers need professional development to learn how to create hands-on, project-based, interdisciplinary courses. Larger school districts and states should establish new charter-like laboratory schools of choice that pioneer these new approaches.The larger question is whether any Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc., is ever the product of classrooms, regardless of how "innovative" they are.