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In our discussion, we primarily focus on the need to change education and hope that's on the horizon - specifically the Mastery Transcript Consortium (of which Tony serves on the board.) Our emphasis on grades, unwavering class times, age segregation, and more have led us toward a stale curriculum which does a disservice to students. Instead, why not flip the entire model by reimagining college admissions?
Today we're joined by Dr. Tony Wagner. Tony is a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute who has served at Harvard University for over twenty years. Tony has worked in K-12 education as a school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor in teacher education, and is the founded the Educators for Social Responsibility. An author of many thoughts including Creating Innovators, The Global Achievement Gap, and Most Likely to Succeed (documentary now available on iTunes) - Tony has been a perpetual driver of innovative educational practice.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Things Fall Apart here at the Human Restoration Project. My name's Chris. Thanks for joining me today. To start us off, a special thank you to two of our patrons from Patreon that make this podcast and our work possible, two of which are Jenny Lucas and Annette Laughlin. Thank you so much for your support. You can learn more on our website at humanrestorationproject.org and follow us on Twitter at HumResPro. You can also go on our website to find a variety of resources and more pertaining to progressive education. Today we're joined by Tony Wagner, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. Before this, Tony had many positions at Harvard University for more than 20 years and was founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for 10 years. Tony was also a high school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor in teacher education and is the founding executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility. His books, including Creating Innovators and the Global Achievement Gap, as well as his book-term documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, describe why we need innovation in education.
?: For Chris and I both especially, we sort of believe that the term innovation is oftentimes it's taken as investing in the latest technology or tech tools, swapping out furniture, things like that, which in many ways are not bad, you know, they can definitely help, but a majority of your work focuses on innovation through thought. Are there any particular facets from your books and your work in general that you believe are most connected with creating innovators?
Tony Wagner: Well, it's an important question. As you know, I began more than a decade ago talking to senior executives from a wide range of companies about the skills they needed and the gaps they saw, which resulted in the book The Global Achievement Gap, but as I continued to talk to folks, what I came to understand is that I'd missed something, that people were still talking about the so-called knowledge economy, but really we were at the dawn of the innovation era, and I hadn't written about that. So I then sought to write another book about what is innovation and most importantly, how do you prepare young people, all young people, to be innovation ready by the end of high school, not just, or perhaps instead of college ready. So again, I started interviewing folks and came to understand that there are really two very different kinds of innovation. The conventional thinking about innovation is, as you suggested, you know, bringing new possibilities to life, usually involving technology, but there's another kind of innovation that is just as highly valued, and that's about creative problem solving. Now we can't all be born of steep jobs and create a new iPhone, but you know, we are all born curious, creative, imaginative. We all have creative problem solving capabilities that I believe can be nurtured, educated, and developed. So to me, that's the really exciting part of what I learned in creating innovators is that there is this other kind of innovation for which we can, and I believe we must, prepare all young people.
CM: And it seems like there's a lot of change on the horizon in terms of making that creative problem solving a reality. I'm not sure if everyone that listens to our podcast is familiar, but your work with the mastery consortium seems incredibly promising since being able to redo the college admissions process so it's not focused as much on standardized testing or at all on standardized testing and grading will allow for a lot more innovation to occur. Could you just kind of talk about your work with that organization and what you hope to achieve?
TW: Sure. Well, let me back up a half a step. The fundamental transformations that I see as needed, and there's a number of them, but one of the fundamental transformations is moving from a curriculum that's all about content coverage almost exclusively, particularly at high school, to a curriculum that's far more about competencies. And think kind of the merit badge approach to learning, right? You don't get a merit badge from the Boy Scouts in camping by taking a multiple choice test on the history of camping or the parts of a tent. You actually have to do things. The world doesn't care how much our kids know anymore because Google knows everything, but the world cares about is what our kids can do with what they know. And so the real exciting aim of the Mastery Transcript Consortium is to create an entirely different kind of high school transcript to give to employers and to colleges, a transcript that really documents the development of competencies. In the simplest form, the idea is that there'll be a one-page summary of the merit badges that a student has earned at a particular school, you'll click on those badges, and then you'll see what were the performance standards the students had to meet to earn that badge. Again, think Scouts. And then you click on those performance standards and it will take you to the actual digital portfolio that students have created that really demonstrates their mastery. To me, the theory of change here is that we start with the most elite private schools. This just began a little over a year ago with about 40 schools. Now there are something like 250 schools that have joined, including many of the most well-known private or independent schools in this country. The theory being that, first of all, college admissions dictates the high school curriculum and has for a century, more than a century, ever since the Committee of Ten in 1893. The only way to break that is by enlisting the united support of leading independent schools to push back and say, hey, in effect, you've discouraged us from innovating for decades, and we're going to offer you a different way of looking at students. Take it or leave it. Of course, you know, these colleges are not going to suddenly stop accepting these kids from these, you know, high schools, right? So the theory is you use the independent schools to kind of break new ground, and then you open it up to everybody. And I'm really proud and excited to say that as of July 1, the mastery transcript consortium membership is open to any high school, public, private, charter, parochial.
CM: That's great to hear. I'm curious then, do you see it being at least widely or readily adopted by public schools? And if not, what changes need to happen in order to make sure that occurs?
TW: The real challenge here is what schools, public or private, are willing to take a risk. And initially, we believe that everything has to be choice based. In effect, these independent schools that have signed up are going to really be offering two transcripts. And the interesting thing is we're saying you can't switch back and forth between transcripts. You've got to choose one or the other. So it'll be a choice based decision for families, children, to decide whether or not they're willing to risk having a completely different kind of transcript. With public schools, I think there are going to be many more challenges to educating parents and kids about the risks as well as the benefits. Public schools, many of them don't necessarily have a reputation they can ride on. And so it may feel riskier, and so the adoption process may go more slowly.
CM: Yeah, and I would imagine as well, since the consortium doesn't really focus at all on grades or any of the traditional means of assessment, it's going to require relearning and possibly training for many different public school teachers and administrators, etc., that are so encaved in that old system that they need to rely on really intrinsic motivation to learn to just create things and make things. That's so far different than some schools in the United States, at least.
TW: No, it's a very important point. We have acculturated kids to expecting rewards and punishments for learning, and teachers, of course, it's the only system they know. We teachers teach in the ways we've been taught, and to disrupt that is extremely difficult. And so you're absolutely right that teachers are going to have to learn a different kind of way of assessing, but what we often forget in schools is how do people assess in the adult world? You know, do you want to fly with a C-minus airline pilot? No, of course not. There are only three grades that matter in the adult world, A, B are incomplete, or they're equivalent. We expect competence from professionals, that's a B. Rarely, but sometimes, we see genuine excellence. Well, that's an A. From my point of view, unless and until someone has achieved a level of mastery, they haven't failed, their work is simply incomplete. You get a pilot's license when you've shown mastery. You don't fail, you just simply haven't met the performance standard to get your license, and with a driver's license. So I think really the challenge is to rethink what is the purpose of grading, and why do we grade, and particularly in light of the fact that one of the core contradictions between the culture of innovation and the culture of schooling revolves around this idea of failure. You know, we've created incredibly risk-averse kids who fear failure, right? Because we penalize failure. And yet, when you really think about it, guys, we learn the most from our mistakes. You know, I ask this question in every talk I give, how many of you have learned more from your mistakes than your successes? Every hand goes up. And it's the same in the world of innovation. Everyone demands that you make mistakes, that you take risks, and that you learn through trial and error, or what they call iteration, rapid prototyping, going from 1.0 to 2.0 and so on. That's how the world of innovation works. The world of innovation looks a lot more like how kids are learning, you know? You fall off your bike sometimes, so you figure out what went wrong, and you do it again. So I think that's really going to be the most fundamental challenge for folks in schools, is to, as I'd like to say, really get rid of the F word, ban the F word in schools.
?: Let me ask you, that's a perfect kind of a segue here. There's something else that I find that when you couple it with mastery learning, has a hard time making sense or fitting into a traditional school model, and that's self-paced, right? So a lot of our schools, hopefully more non-traditional schools, are seeking out how to make their classes self-paced. But the issue I see when I start assessing this or looking at it, is that if you have a self-paced classroom, say for instance, it's an English one or just an algebra one, you really think to yourself, well, it's self-paced insofar as it can last one year. There are some kids who I think that maybe it's going to take them two, three, or four years to really grasp some of this stuff, whereas others maybe only takes them a few months. So I feel like when we look at mastery learning and then we look at self-paced learning, the two almost can't seem to coincide together if they're placed inside the framework of a traditional model. Unless I think we-
TW: I think it's a great point.
?: Unless you scrap the entire, what you're looking to assess is completely scrapped.
TW: Well, again, you go back to the model of scouting or getting your certification as an airline pilot or as an automobile driver. Nobody's timing you. Nobody's saying you've got to do this by a certain age or in a certain number of hours. You get, in effect, a certificate of mastery when you show proficiency. I think a high school diploma should be a certificate of mastery where students have shown proficiency in a variety of both required and elective competencies. Now, let me be clear. This is not content versus skills. The only way to learn how to think critically, for example, is by being challenged with rich and challenging academic content. So I believe academic content still matters. Students need to know stuff, but skills matter more, competencies matter more, and something we haven't talked as much about is that motivation, I think, matters most. And so the idea of not having timed or aged cohorts having to master a certain thing by a certain time is we're really motivating students to go at their own pace, to not feel as though they have to perform under pressure because some kids do that well, others simply don't. They freeze up. And it's a completely different learning environment, as you pointed out.
CM: Yeah. And building off that motivation idea, something I'm curious about then is how do you go about ensuring that the mastery consortium, really any kind of college admissions, doesn't become, I don't want to say too much of a gold standard because I don't think that, I think that students should aim towards doing very well at competencies, but there's also this unnerving, low social behavioral trait that many of our all-A students have, which is obsessing over getting into the right school or obsessing over getting into college. And that's, it's kind of almost motivation for the wrong reasons. So I'm curious how you go about navigating that with also this new system, as well as how it currently stands.
TW: Well, I think a competency-based approach tends to encourage and reward intrinsic motivation to a greater extent, that you feel yourself acquiring competence and proficiency, and that tends to be its own reward to a very substantial degree. And let me be clear, this new transcript isn't just for colleges. It's I think equally valuable for employers. Oh, cool. You know, a lot of kids, a growing number may decide that college is no longer the return on investment that it once was. We've got 43% of our recent four-year college graduates underemployed. What does that mean? Too many of them are baristas, bar tenders, kids with BAs who aren't earning BA wages and can't pay back their very considerable debts. So I think we're going to find a lot of kids sort of saying, well, you know, maybe not college or maybe not right away. And, you know, I want to get some merit badges that equip me to go out and get a decent job out of high school. That's what Finnish kids do. You know, it's very interesting. Fidlin, which is, I believe, the highest performing education system in the world, gives students a choice beginning in 10th grade. You can follow a conventional academic curriculum, which is very explicitly prepares you for the university, or you can follow a career technical education curriculum, which more particularly prepares you for a job through internships and mentorships and so on. It also enables you to go to university. But the point of the second choice is that you're really qualified to get a very good job right out of high school. And nearly half of all Finnish kids choose the second path. And it's not, there's no stigma attached to it. And you can frequently sort of cross back and forth to a degree.
?: You learn all this material, all the book learning of what is a this and what is a that and taking tests and the history of, but then it's time to put your hands to it. And when the rubber meets the road, you don't have any experience in that field. So all these people ahead of you or behind you, rather, who spent their life doing what you were reading about are getting these jobs. And you're sitting there frustrated because the only way to get experience is to get a job. But the only way to get a job is to have the experience.
TW: So yeah, I think that's one of the good news possibilities of this new transcript, because kids could do internships as a part of showing or developing proficiency for one of their merit badges. And schooling suddenly is no longer confined to the classroom or confined to 180 school days a year. You know, it can be summers, it can be vacations, and students can document their learning those times. And it's really interesting, increasingly, employers are saying they really don't care whether or not you have a degree, they want to know about your work experience, they want to know about your internships. And so having internships as a part of your learning, I think has become incredibly important and is a real competitive advantage for many young people.
CM: This work that's being done with the mastery consortium, I mean, all of it sounds absolutely fantastic. And I can't wait to see it come to public schools. But I'm curious how and if it's reaching any audience or targets in schools that are from low income neighborhoods, considering that a lot of times when we see low income neighborhoods, the schools that enter there are the radical opposite, they're some of the most traditional charter schools. Is there any kind of outreach towards neighborhoods that probably need it most?
TW: Not all charter schools that serve economically disadvantaged kids are the so-called no excuses charters.
TW: High Tech High serves kids about 50% on free and reduced, two-thirds are from minority backgrounds. In fact, there's a consortium called the Deeper Learning Initiative that represents 10 networks of schools that serve predominantly low income kids, envisions, edvisions, and others. And many of them have shown great interest in becoming members of the consortium. In fact, High Tech High, I believe, was one of the very first public charter schools to join this past month.
?: So I'm glad you mentioned High Tech High. Your work that you've done with High Tech High, your documentary and book, Most Likely to Succeed, I kind of wanted to just ask a quick, well, this is not going to be quick at all, but maybe your answer is.
TW: No education question conversation really.
?: Yeah. And honestly, that's extremely true. Is it possible to convince traditional educators, educators that are seeped in very traditional values to adopt ideas such as the mastery transcript and letting kids have a great lot of autonomy and power in their learning? What is your response normally to the people that tend to naysay or put down your documentary and book, Most Likely to Succeed?
TW: You know, I respect their criticisms and skepticism. I long believe that you got to listen carefully to the skeptics because frequently there are idealists who've been burned. What you whom you don't listen to are the cynics and there's a real difference and you can hear it in the tone. But let's, let's zoom out just a little bit. We are a highly risk averse profession. The temperament of many teachers is to not be risk takers and that's not a criticism. It's simply an observation. You know, we didn't go into teaching because, you know, we like the thrill of the of the chase and, you know, the high stakes stuff. So that's point one. Point two. All of the ways in which we're trained sort of continues to increase risk aversion. We're isolated in our work, guys. And you know, isolation is the enemy of innovation. It's the enemy of improvement. Anybody who's isolated alone all day, every day with no opportunities to bounce things off of peers and colleagues is going to be even more risk averse. Teams will consistently take smarter, more thoughtful risks than will individuals. So it is a structural problem here, as well as a problem of disposition or temperament. And finally, you know, we teachers, as I mentioned earlier, teach in the ways we've been taught. That's not our fault. It's all we know. You know, you're not going to change your teaching because you've read a book. I'm sorry. Or seen a movie. It's not going to happen. We need many, many more existence proofs or laboratories for educational innovation. That's why, you know, I think it's so important to know about High Tech High and the deeper learning initiative and these other networks, because I see them as doing educational research and development. They need to be far more widely known and understood. Ed Dintersmith, my colleague's new book, is called What School Could Be, just out. And what he did was travel to every state in the country with a movie to show it and met the most incredible educators. And his book is a very hopeful kind of description of many of the interesting and wonderful things that teachers are doing all over this country. The other thing I want to let your folks know, your audience, is that as of today, most likely to succeed is on iTunes. So everybody who's been dying to see it and hasn't yet shown it in their school, which they really should, by the way, can now rent it or buy it on iTunes.
CM: Final question for you. Is there a particular topic or topics that you think should be standardized? By topic, I don't mean skills. I mean traditional content. Is there a certain thing that you think is useful for everyone that should say the same?
TW: Let's talk about the math curriculum. I think having all kids learn algebra, let alone even calculus and all that stuff, is a total waste of time because you never use that math in everyday life. Never. Not even engineers use that stuff anymore. I mean, come on. When was the last time you factored a polynomial or solved a quadratic equation? Right? Having said that, it is, to me, crystal clear that every student needs to know statistics, probability, estimation, computation, and be financially literate.
?: Sorry. So sorry. One more to branch off that. What is the response when the answer to that is, but as much as I would like to do that, there's state testing. There's mandatory state testing. There's mandatory, you know.
TW: Of course, we have to talk about that. I mean, I think our accountability systems are the biggest obstacle to innovation. College admissions is a serious obstacle. State testing is even worse because it incents bad teaching. It incents teaching to tests that are predominantly multiple choice, special recall tests that measure absolutely nothing about college work or citizenship readiness. They are an abomination. And we've got to really work together as professionals and band together with community leaders, business leaders, and parents to say we need accountability 2.0. Hold us accountable for what matters most. Hold us accountable for students mastering core competencies instead of passing ridiculous tests.
TW: But your work is what truly matters. I just write about it. I don't teach anymore. You know, educators like yourselves who are willing to take risks, willing to collaborate, and willing to try to kind of communicate more broadly to peers who are going to make the real difference.
?: Well, thank you so much.
TW: You know, I've written six books on education. I have no new arguments to make, but I have lots of stories to tell. So, you know, I'm telling the story of how this kid who was told he shouldn't come back to his middle school, was a high school dropout in his senior year, and then dropped out of two colleges before finally finishing and going on to actually get a master's and a doctorate from Harvard. How did that crazy kid, who is me, survive and thrive? So I'm writing a memoir, a story of my early learning as well as my first decade of teaching, and I'm having a blast doing it, and I suspect that there are a lot of folks like you who may find something in it of use.
CM: Hope you enjoyed this podcast. We want to connect with you and hear your thoughts. Follow us on Twitter, YouTube, Medium, and other social media, and be sure to check us out on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. If you want to support us in our endeavor of starting a movement towards progressive ed through high-quality resources, consider supporting us on Patreon. Thanks again!