By Tony Wagner
Much of the current education debates focus on issues of inequity, accountability, funding, and improving access to higher education for more students. While these are all important issues, what is missing is a discussion of the purpose of education in the 21st century. To consider this question, we need to understand fundamental changes that have taken place in our economy.
For the first half of the 20th century, when most people earned their living on farms and in factories, physical strength and manual dexterity were competitive advantages. Then came what Peter Drucker in 1959 termed "The Knowledge Economy." In this new era, brains mattered more than brawn because the ability to access and analyze information became a key driver of economic growth. The more you knew and the more facile you were with your knowledge, the greater the competitive advantage.
As a result, for the past 50 years our education systems have focused on ensuring that students acquire more and more education. First it was completion of high school, and now the emphasis is on getting more students to complete post-secondary education. The nature of this education has changed very little, however. From the beginning of high school and continuing through college, students spend the majority of their time memorizing massive amounts of information. And they are graded on how much of that information they have retained.
But here's the problem. We no longer live in a knowledge economy. The world no longer cares how much you know because Google knows everything. There is no longer competitive advantage in knowing more than the person next to you because what the world cares most about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know. One’s competitive advantage today comes from the ability to bring new possibilities to life or to solve problems creatively — in other words, to innovate. Of course, you need knowledge to accomplish these things. It is necessary, but not sufficient. In the innovation era, knowledge still matters, but skills matter more, and motivation and dispositions matter most.
Our education systems, from elementary schools through graduate schools, have not yet begun to adapt to this new reality. At every level and in every course, the primary focus is on content knowledge acquisition. Rarely do students have opportunities to apply their knowledge, to hone their skills, to pursue their own interests. As human beings, we are born curious, creative, imaginative. The average five-year-old asks 100 questions a day, and most kindergartners think of themselves as artists. But by the time most kids reach the age of 12 or so, they are far more preoccupied with getting the right answers on tests than they are on continuing to ask their own questions. And fewer and fewer think of themselves as creative.
The price our students pay for this kind of education is very high and rarely discussed. We are raising generations of students who are obsessed with getting good grades and scoring well on tests — doing everything they think they need to do to get into a name brand college so they can have a name brand job and live happily ever after. These kids are terrified of making a single mistake, getting less than an A. And in the desperate pursuit of trying to market themselves and be the perfect kid for the right college, they lose sight of who they really are, what their questions are, what they're curious about.
Meanwhile, the kids who don't compete because they'd rather work with their hands or don't think they're smart enough feel like losers. Twenty percent of our students don’t complete high school. An additional thirty percent graduate from high school and go on to minimum wage jobs. Of the approximately seventy percent of the high school graduates who enroll in college, nearly half drop out before they complete any degree, often having acquired enormous debt along the way. Lacking skills or preparation for a trade, most of them can only manage to find minimum-wage jobs.
But what about "the winners," the kids who manage to graduate from a four-year college or university and then head off into the labor market? Having attended schools where acquiring knowledge mattered most, how well are they faring in the innovation era? A growing body of evidence suggests that, in fact, the majority of our college graduates are stunningly ill prepared for the jobs of the present — and even less so for the jobs of the future, when computers and A.I. will have taken over virtually all routine work.
A couple of examples should suffice to tell the story. Back in the early days of Google, when everyone still thought we had a knowledge economy,
the fledgling company sought to hire the smartest kids in the world and so only hired kids with Ivy League degrees and only interviewed those who had the highest test scores and GPAs. But then along came Laszlo Bock. As senior VP of people operations at Google, he analyzed all of the data related to hiring and job performance and discovered that the indices they had been using like GPAs and test scores were "worthless." Today, Google no longer asks for your test scores or college transcript. They don't care whether or not you went to college, and 15% of their new hires in certain departments do not have a college degree. What Google cares about today is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know, and they now use multiple structured interviews to make hiring decisions.
When I learned this, I thought that perhaps Google was an anomaly. But then I was invited to speak by Deloitte to business leaders in Ho Chi Minh City several years ago. Prior to my presentation, I was invited to lunch by the CEO. She knew of my affiliation at the time with Harvard and had a bit of fun with it, telling me, "You know, we used to hire the best students from the best universities, but it turned out that they did not work out so well." She smiled and then continued, "Now, we put prospective new hires through a summer-long boot camp to see how they solve problems collaboratively, and then we decide whether or not to offer them a job."
For college graduates who do not know how to solve problems collaboratively and who lack other essential skills required to succeed in the innovation era, it is hardly the "full employment economy" that everyone touts these days. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, forty-three percent of college graduates ages 25 to 29 are either unemployed or underemployed. What does underemployed mean? They are baristas or bartenders — earning an average salary of about $33,000 — $10,000 less than jobs that actually require a BA might pay. Most have college debt amounting to an average of $35,000 or more. Many are living at home and likely to default on those debts.
The mantra of policymakers for the last decade has been to ensure that all kids graduate from high school "college ready." The assumption is that the more education a student acquires, the better positioned they are to succeed. But the reality is that students today need a different kind of education, not necessarily more education.
The essential education challenge today is to reimagine learning and teaching for the innovation era. We need to work together to understand what we must do in order to graduate all students “innovation ready” — ready for the challenges of work, learning, and citizenship in the 21st century.
Tony Wagner current serves as a Senior Research Fellow at The Learning Policy Institute. Previously, Tony held a variety of positions as Harvard University for twenty years and was a high school English teacher for twelve years.
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Tony Wagner will present “Creating Innovators for the Future of Learning” on Wednesday, October 23 at the Opening Plenary of EDspaces in Milwaukee, WI.