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Bookshelf - The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner

Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need

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The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner
Basic Books
If you’ve ever questioned why students don’t seem prepared for life in the modern world, Tony Wagner has a compelling answer in his book, The Global Achievement Gap. More importantly, he has intriguing questions, and that’s his bottom line: right answers may have been okay in the old world, but knowing how to ask the right questions is the key to survival in the new, global world our students are entering. Socrates knew that eons ago. Why have we lost that critical skill, and what can we do about it?

I fully expected to scan this book for concepts that related to adult students, but I found myself hooked before I reached Chapter 1. As a former editor, I always read prefaces and introductions. Editors seem to be among the few who do. The thing is, these first writings explain the mindset of the author and clue you in to the entire point of the book. Wagner’s beginning is no exception. His book is about the loss of curiosity. Whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, administrator, or non-traditional student (likely, if you’re reading this), getting back in touch with curiosity is the key to your success.

For several decades now, Wagner has been visiting classrooms across the country unannounced to observe what’s really going on in them. He has also talked with business people wherever he encounters them, often randomly on airplanes. He asks them the same question, “What qualities do you most want in a potential new employee?” What he has learned may shock you.

Over and over, Wagner hears that the single most important skill is the ability to ask the right questions. Ellen Kumata told Wagner, “Our system of schooling promotes the idea that there are right answers, and that you get rewarded if you get the answer right. But to be comfortable with this new economy and environment, you have to understand that you live in a world where there isn’t one right answer, or if there is, it’s right only for a nanosecond.”

A hundred years ago, when there were few libraries and change was slow, Wagner explains, teaching children the three R’s, and memorization of facts, may have made sense, but in today’s ever-changing environment, where information is available instantly via the Internet and people work together globally, right answers don’t help. Multiple choice tests are teaching our students only how to choose an option, not how to solve open-ended problems. In the workplace, this is unacceptable.

Wagner outlines Seven Survival Skills for today’s students:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  • Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

These skills are essential not only for the successful future of business, but are also imperative for citizenship. Imagine jurors with no ability to solve open-ended problems.

The Global Achievement Gap closes with real-life case studies, profiles of schools that have proven the effectiveness of combining the basics with teaching the seven survival skills. Wagner proposes new approaches to teacher certification and suggests the need for certification for administrators. He also emphasizes the need for new ways to motivate students, suggesting that the high dropout rate is a matter of “will, not skill,” that students are bored learning facts that are irrelevant to their lives or careers.

My only complaint about Wagner's book concerns the title. It makes sense after reading the book, but it didn't make me want to pick it up, and this is unfortunate because it's a book whose time has come. In fact, Wagner's questions are ones we should have started asking long ago.

Education is an issue that touches everyone. If you want to be on the leading edge of education in our new world, Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap is a good place to start. And then get busy asking questions.

About the Author

Tony Wagner is co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He consults to schools, districts, and foundations and served as Senior Advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can find him at www.schoolchange.org.

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