Book Club — Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era
Elsa Fridman Randolph

“The role of education is no longer to teach content but to help our children learn — in a world that rewards the innovative and punishes the formulaic.” (pg. 197)

I think this is an idealistic quote; a prayer almost, of where Wagner hopes to one day see the educational system. However it is not reflective of where our educational system is currently at. “A world that rewards the innovative and punishes the formulaic” only when we leave the confines of academia does this become true. Standardized test scores, whether for the school or the student, is the metric by which success is measured. An innovative learner, with a pioneering idea on space travel might never score high enough on an ACT to see his vision become a reality. A brilliant naturalist that possesses an instinctive gift to see the interactions of natural systems might not have the GPA as a 7th grader to get into a selective enrollment high school. Yet, the student who attends a test prep course and can regurgitate the formula for finding the circumference of an arc is primed for success. I mean “success” only in terms of a high ranking school or prestigious university; which of course is a very limited definition of the word. Obviously you can that these institutions not required for “success” by citing examples of all the individuals who dropped out of school. These Steve Jobs’, Bill Gates’, and even Oprah’s however are not your average students. To be successful in today’s societal structure you need to have a college degree, which is easier to earn if you make it into a selective enrollment high school, which can only be done if you prep for earning a 4.0 GPA as a 7th grader. However, those previously mentioned individuals do have something in common, they all dropped because they were innovative and saw that school was no place for them.

This is exactly what I mean when I saw Wagner’s quote is idealistic, in that we want our schools to be a place where a Gates or a Winfrey could thrive. We want our education system to challenge these thinkers and produce more like them. These billionaire dropouts have not succeeded because of our education system, but rather in spite of it. Do I agree with Wagner that this should be the goal of our education system? Absolutely. I think this should be the goal of a [large] part of our educational system. When the school system was designed in 1893, its function was to help students develop the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed in their world. Its assembly line style and standardized information worked, because it was preparing them for a much different society than we have today. The jobs in 1893 of a miner, factory worker, or laborer didn’t require dynamic thinking and the broad range of knowledge that a content designer or tech developer might today. So I think yes, Wagner is correct in saying that the goal of our system should be to inspire those innovators, because in the world those who are looking toward that horizon get there quicker than the ones who are looking at their feet.

However, I need to say that I don’t think every class in every school should be trying to churn out the next Zuckerberg. There are students who, whether capable or not, have no interest in “innovating” or pursuing advanced degrees. Some learners are content to pursue a trade or a skill that doesn’t require an “institution of higher learning.” The world needs those people, however in today’s paradigm those individuals are shamed and looked down upon; because we push that everyone can and should obtain the highest level of education possible. I worry that if we push along Wagner’s intended trajectory this would only get worse. Not only are schools saying you’re a failure if you don’t graduate college, but soon it will be a failure if you’re not an innovator as well. I think there needs to be a safe and acceptable place for those who choose that this is not the path for them. I’m not disagreeing with his assessment that innovators are rewarded in this world and that the formulaic blue collar worker is “punished” I am saying that there could be a place for both types of students.

I protest the status quo that just because you are a carpenter doesn’t mean you don’t need to be an innovator. Who arguably uses critical thinking more often; an automotive mechanic or a database administrator? School should be a place to teach students, all students, these thinking skills. We sometimes refer to students are ‘learners’ and so then I would argue that its school’s place to teach students how to learn. Education’s goal should be to develop the mind in a way that allows it to analyze and synthesize ideas and opinions. We should able be able to form a critical opinion and support our ideas; if every citizen has a better grasp of systems thinking wouldn’t our society function much smoother? It should be that the function of the educational system is to teach students how to first learn, and then once they have grasped the ability to become a conscious thinker, can they then move into content: whether that’s medical, engineering, coding, or carpentry.

So praise to Wagner when he says “The role of education is no longer to teach content but to help our children learn” The problem with this vision is that, we are so entrenched in our test-based, data-driven system that it’s hard to see what it would be like without those numbers. We’d need to gather “big-data” on critical thinking and try and reduce the achievement of individuals to numbers and statistics, and I fear that it would quickly deteriorate to a parallel version of where we are now. This way of thinking is a total and complete paradigm shift, it cannot be done halfheartedly. We not only need to switch the way our educational system functions, but the very way we evaluate success.


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