The Global Achievement Gap

The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need — And What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner

This is definitely the best book on education I’ve read all year. It has energized me at the same time as it has shown me how very far we all, especially me, have to go in order to give our students what they need.

One of the book’s main ideas begins with the fact that so many of today’s best jobs did not exist even twenty years ago. Everything to do with the internet, for example. And that rate of change is only going to accelerate. So we need to prepare today’s children to be ready to do jobs that don’t even exist today. Their minds need to be supple and flexible, adaptable. Focusing on this reality, Wagner named the Seven Survival Skills that all students need to deal with this reality. They are:

  • 1) critical thinking and problem solving,
  • 2) collaboration,
  • 3) agility and adaptability,
  • 4) initiative and entrepreneurialism,
  • 5) communication,
  • 6) accessing and analyzing information, and
  • 7) curiosity and imagination.

Don’t you just read that list and think, “Of course! Of course everyone needs those skills!” But really, none of them are to be found in most current curricula, not even in the Common Core State Standards. Especially not #7. Standardized curricula hate #7.

Generally, he advocates students learning through completing projects gathered in a portfolio system, evaluated on performance based rubrics. His approach fits well with project-based learning and other current trends in education. He wants students to be able to prove what they can do. He’s against standardized multiple choice tests, and even disparages AP as shallow learning that privileges breadth of knowledge over depth. He wants learning to be real-world relevant, and talks about bringing in adult experts to help evaluate student portfolios–local authors to judge student writing, engineers to judge science projects, etc. The work feels more important to students when it has an audience outside of the classroom. There are many descriptions of schools and classrooms where these things are already happening, along with opinions from students, teachers, and administrators of these programs.

He points out the gaps in the current teacher training system, and suggests a new way for teachers to enter the profession and become experts. He suggests the National Board Certification process as a model, because it requires teachers to do much of the same kind of work that he wants students to do: building a portfolio that includes student work, videos of lessons, unit plans. He praises some of the profiled schools that have developed teacher training programs to further improve their teachers’ skills, and points out that teachers in these programs spend more time teaching than they do acting as students. It’s obvious how much more of a comprehensive, fair and rigorous process this is compared to current methods of licensing, evaluating and rating teachers.

One of the biggest problems Wagner sees in education today is that we teach in isolation. Visits to classrooms are rare, so what really happens there is a secret between individual teachers and their students. Wagner advocates administrators (and anyone, really) taking walks through schools, just looking through classrooms to observe what’s going on, and teachers regularly opening their rooms to all comers. He wants teachers to be able to work together more often. Some of the profiled schools do things like scheduling a full half day a week for collaborative lesson planning. I mean, the students go home, and the teachers have 3 or 4 hours just to work together within the normal, paid work week hours. Every week. No wonder these schools are able to have such amazing programs.

The idea of teaching these survival skills and organizing learning in a project-based, portfolio-based, authentic way really appeals to me. It excites and energizes me. It’s easy to get discouraged by the institutional barriers to teaching in this way–the emphasis on standardized tests, for example–but I hope I’m able to keep this vision in front of me as I plan and organize lessons and projects for my students.


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