Thursday, 9 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Tony Wagner

During the first week of the Easter break, I attended the World Educational Leadership Summit in Singapore. This conference caught my attention both because of the impressive line-up of speakers from around the world who are participating, and also because of the conference focus on the future of education and schools.

In the next couple of posts I plan to reflect on some of the ideas, themes and issues that are emerging from the conference. I find blogging to be a really helpful way for me to process and reflect on my learning and thinking, particularly following times of intense input such as conferences. While these posts will not be disseminated to the Inaburra community as my normal e-newsletters, it may be that these ideas are of interest to staff and parents as we continue to think about the future direction of education in general and our school in particular.

One of the keynote speakers on the first day was Dr Tony Wagner, an Expert in Residence at Harvard's Innovation Lab. Dr Wagner's starting premise is that the nature, rate and extent of change in the world requires a reimagination of schooling. The key outcome for students, or the competitive advantage by which they are able to make their way in life, is no longer 'what they know', but 'what they can do with what they know'. The capacity for creative problem-solving and critical thinking will be of vast importance to our young people. The corollary is that an education that does not cultivate this capacity is inadequate.

So far, so good. This premise is generally accepted and unremarkable. Given the changes in the world around us, it would be bizarre if education did not also need to change. However, Wagner's research as published in Creating Innovators: The making of young people who will change the world reaches the disturbing conclusion that the patterns of learning and teaching that consistently produce problem solvers are essentially contradictory with the patterns of learning and teaching that are currently entrenched in school education.

Pause to consider that. Our patterns of teaching and learning may work against the very outcome for which we are aiming. Scary stuff!

Very briefly, these are the five areas of tension, identified by Wagner, between our usual practices and the practices that cultivate problem-solving, creative and innovative capacity.

  • First, our schooling focuses on individual achievement rather than collaboration.
  • Second, education is largely structured around compartmentalised areas of specialist knowledge, rather than complex multi-disciplinary learning.
  • Third, our schools implicitly value compliance, rather than creativity and divergence.
  • Fourth, the entrenched stigma associated with 'failure' in our schools leads to risk-avoidance. A more valuable approach is to embrace trial and error as the essential means of learning, growth and innovation.
  • Fifth, our default motivation for learning is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic; our students so often work to get good marks, rather than because the work is worth doing or meaningful in its own right.
If Wagner's case can be sustained, there is a big challenge here for us. Wagner makes a case that the skills needed to succeed in the current competitive academic environment of our schools are not the skills needed to thrive in the years to come.

At this point I am not convinced by everything that Wagner presents. Apart from anything else, I get nervous when someone presents me with a simplistic either/or dichotomy, one option of which is evidently bad and the other evidently good. Life is usually more nuanced than that! I suspect that a continuum is a more helpful construct, although even a continuum uses too broad a brush to depict the diversity of teaching and learning practices in schools. 

Nonetheless, much that his case resonates with my convictions and with the journey that we have been on at Inaburra. Our formulation of the Inaburra Learner Profile reflects our thinking about the characteristics, capabilities and capacities that our young people will need. Our challenge is to design an education that brings the Inaburra  Learner Profile to fruition in the lives of our students.

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