Mark Desjardins, Head of Holland Hall in Tulsa (and newly appointed Head of St. Johns in Houston) introduces Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, a book which has been a huge influence on my thinking about the necessary reform of high school education to meet the changing demands of a fast changing world.

Mark tells a story of Dr. Wagner’s visit to Holland Hall.   During an evening presentation Mark had an interesting conversation, where some of the attendees were parents who were opposed to school progress and reform at Holland Hall.   One of those parents sought Mark out, and one of them asked Mark why he hasn’t moved MORE swiftly to adopt the reforms Dr. Wagner advocated, to which Mark responded: “If I had adopted all of the changes Dr. Wagner advocated, you wouldn’t have only wanted to run me over in the parking lot, you would have actually have run me over.

Tony begins, with a note that it is hard to follow Dan Pink–“I hate following that guy.”  Most of the below are direct quotes from Tony, but my comments are in italics:

Teaching matters, learning matters more, mastery matters most! This is so important– too often we conceptualize the project of schooling to promote and ensure good teaching, but we have to try harder to keep the focus on good learning.   I myself almost find myself shrinking away from talking about teaching as a project at all, but instead prefer the terminology faciliatating learning.   Over on the twitter feed, other attendees are also appreciative of Tony’s recognition that the name of this conference, Teaching Matters, is a little tiny bit off-base. 

I am a recovering independent school student, teacher, Head, and parent.

Einstein: “The formulation of the problem is often more important than the solution.”

What is the crisis in American education, and why should you care, why does it matter?

We are caught in the middle between two forces, the rock and the hard place.

Rock: In the new global knowledge economy all students need new skills.  Hard Place: This generation is very differently motivated to learn and to work.

We need to fundamentally rething and transform K-16 education for this century, just as we did at the beginning of the last century.

The ideas of Freidman’s The World is Flat started much of this re-thinking, Tony says, and Friedman is still writing terrifically on this topic, as in a article called The New Untouchables.   For research, Tony spoke to a whole lot of people– corporate heads to college students: he found that the habits of heart are still very important, and there are a set of core competencies that are essential to thrive in the new century.

Critical thinking for instance, is now required not just by the elite, but by everybody.  We are not teaching it, and we are not assessing it.    The most important aspect of critical thinking is the ability to ask really good questions.  The problem is, school today asks much more of students they have good answers, not questions!

Tony provides a compelling, passionate, evocative overview of his seven skills:

The Seven Survival Skills for Careers, College, & Citizenship in the 21st Century

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

How do we educate for innovation, educate to provide students these skills?   What would it mean to create an innovation culture in our schools?   This is what I want to work upon in my new book, Tony says.  This is a core project of our work at St. Gregory too, where I work: We have established a new slogan and motto, Creating Leaders and Innovators, and a new institute for focilitating our students’ growth as innovators.

Tony tells of visits to very good public high schools, well funded, surbuban , well run schools, at each of which he conduced what Tony calls “learning walks,” because calling them walkthroughs would sound to teachers too much like “drive-bys.”   At one school, the superintendent reflected that they went 0 for 8 for the day– not one of 8 classrooms was faciliatating the learning kids most need.   One another outing, to 3 schools and six classrooms each: and they found one, out of 18, classroom that “worked.”

Chris Bigenho directs me, via Twitter, to an interesting site for those who want to think more about the value of “learning walks.”

Increasingly, in US schools, public and independent, we have one curriculum– test prep.   We are teaching too much to the test, and the problem is that too many tests, especially AP teachers, demand too much content coverage. It is possible to get through the AP curriculum without ever writing a research paper.   Tony gives here a great shout-out for the IB curriculum, something I am a huge fan of. Among other things, an IB diploma requires a completed 20 page term paper.

Motivating the Net generation: Kids today are very different.  They are motivated differently, not less motivated.   They are accustomed to always being on-line. They use  the web for interest driven, self directed learning, and for self-expression.   They want to use the internet for learning, and they want to intergrate that tool into their school learning.

I have to say that this talk is faster and more furious (in good ways) than almost any other talk I have blogged; I am finding it much harder to keep up with, not because Tony is talking too fast, but because his content is so chock-full of value, to my ears.

Tony draws upon some great ideas from a Cisco report on moving from Education 2.0 to Education 3.0

Cornerstones of School Reinvention:

1. Holding ourselves accountable for What Matters Most.

  • Use the CWRA.
  • Survey recent graduates, and go beyond surveys, conduct video focus groups to show your faculty.
  • Monitor your student college graduation rates, using the National Student Clearinghouse.

2. Doing the new Work: Teaching and Testing the Skills that Matter Most

  • Start with the Three C’s: Critical Thinking, Communications, and Collaboration: in every class and at every grade level.
  • Require all students to do internships and group service projects, and consider

3. Doing the New Work in New Ways

  • Every teacher on teams for collaborative inquirey.
  • Video teaching, supervision, and meetings.

I want to see schools using for students Digital Porfolios, from K-12 , publishing each year  four or five published, public documents on-line.  And then we can link these fine published work to a teacher’s digital portfolio.

The flip video camera is the most disruptive (in a GOOD way) technology for teaching and learning today!   We must videotape every lesson, and review them regularly with our colleagues.

A question is asked about how to define critical thinking, and Tony directs people to the Mission Hill School website, a project of the legendary Deborah Meier, which features this discussion of critical thinking.

1. Evidence: How do we know what’s true and false? What evidence counts? How sure can we be? What makes it credible to us? This includes using the scientific method, and more.

2. Viewpoint: How else might this look like if we stepped into other shoes? If we were looking at it from a different direction? If we had a different history or expectation? This requires the exercise of informed “empathy” and imagination. It requires flexibility of mind.

3. Connections/Cause and Effect: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before? What are the possible consequences?

4. Conjecture: Could it have been otherwise? Supposing that? What if…? This habit requires use of the imagination as well as knowledge of alternative possibilities. It includes the habits described above.

5. Relevance: Does it matter? Who cares?

Question from the audience: Can teachers still lecture if we adopt this new mode of facilitating learning?  Tony answers  YES– if they are passionate, if they are powerful, if they are compelling, if they are being stimulated to think! But we need to work to find out whether kids are learning, and we need to do so by asking them.  Students should be able to give feedback and review to teachers mid-way through every semester.

A question is asked about how can teachers better collaborate with administrators to make these changes, and Tony asks both Mark Desjardins and myself to comment on this topic.   Mark spoke about the great conversations he has had with his faculty, and how they at Holland Hall have worked on this project one step at a time, one department after another.

I spoke mostly about two things: our work as a school, having read Tony’s book, to develop and publish our own list of Survival skills, what we  at St. Gregory are calling our Essential Goals for Gregorians (or Egg), a list we drew from consideration of Tony’s list, the NAIS list of essential capacities from Schools of the Future and from the Partnership for 21st century skills.     The second thing we have done is provide our students a late-start every Thursday, a win-win for our students sleep needs, and and we are using the weekly Thursday hour-long times exclusively for faculty collaboration.  One of the tools we use for these Thursday slots is the methodology of Critical Friends Groups, and administrators join teachers in these CFG’s for honest and reflective conversation about practice.