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on January 7, 2009
Wagner argues that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which attempts to close the achievement gap between our best and worst schools, has instead left us with schools that are less effective than ever in preparing our children for college, work and life. Our schools are still mired in educational content and methods from the industrial age; our children get more of the skills they really need outside of school, from extracurricular activities, personal exploration and social networking, if they are fortunate enough to have those opportunities.

Today's corporate work environment consists of clusters of business expertise distributed globally and connected via high-speed communications links. Workers collaborate in their local team and with other teams around the world to define and solve open-ended problems. In today's fast-changing, complex environment, teams are given broad objectives and asked to find the best way to achieve them. There are no pre-defined "right answers" in the business world, only profitable and unprofitable strategies. Similarly, there are seldom any "right answers" in politics, or healthcare, or any other aspect of society - including education. As adults, we have learned that history is always a selective interpretation of past events, and that the most effective communicators often break the established conventions. Yet in our schools we drill on facts and basic skills, and seldom encourage or even tolerate questioning, innovation, exploration, or collaboration.

Wagner presents seven "survival skills" that students should be learning in school in order to prepare for college and adult life:

* 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

Yet, according to a NIH study published in Science (2007), 5th-graders in middle-class public schools across the United States spent 90% of their time in their seats listening to the teacher or working alone, and only 7% of their time working in groups. Further, the average 5th grader received 5 times as much instruction in rote learning than they received instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning.

The US high school graduation rate is only 70%, and 40% of all students who enter college must take remedial courses. It is estimated that 50% of students starting college never complete a college degree. Wagner's interviews with students and professors suggest that what is missing is not content knowledge, but competencies. In core classes and even in AP courses, students are drilled in specific content and vocabulary necessary to pass standardized tests, rather than trained in open-ended inquiry, assessment, reasoning, collaboration and presentation.

Wagner takes us beyond the usual complaints about tenure and unions to examine disfunctional structural components of the educational system. In general, degree programs for teaching and school administration suffer the same flaw of content over competencies. Once they graduate, teachers are seldom given more than checklist evaluations, and rarely sit in on one another's classrooms or collaborate for instructional improvement. Instead, Wagner suggests, most teachers have little recourse other than to re-discover effective teaching on their own, in a hit-or-miss manner. As a consequence, not only are best practices not promulgated, but there is little consensus among teachers about what constitutes good teaching.

Wagner also looks at the problem of how our current teaching practices fail to engage and motivate students. Outside of school, our children have team sports and group activities, and are immersed in the Internet world of interactivity, social networking, and visual information access. Despite legitimate concerns about addictive behavior, violent content and cyber-bullying, Wagner points out that our kids online experience, including even gaming, is much more relevant to the kind of activity found in most information-intensive careers. Our children want group connections, open-ended exploration, immediate feedback response, and relevance. Multi-tasking, search, and filtering are natural tasks to them, while they have little patience for long, linear, non-visual texts.

Our schools offer students little of what engages them. Instead of group activity, they get one-way lectures and individual worksheets. Instead of open-ended exploration, they get drills and tests. Instead of rich interactive, multimedia information, they get dry textbooks. Wagner argues that most high-school school drop-outs occur not because the student lacks ability, but because they lack motivation. School does not engage them, and they correctly perceive a lack of relevancy to their current and future lives.

Finally, Wagner offers us some profiles of a few schools that are "doing it right". While it is wonderful to see such examples, they are all small schools. It is probably not feasible nor desirable to open hundreds of thousands of new schools in every neighborhood, and Wagner doesn't offer much perspective on how we can translate these examples to the large schools that make up most of our national school system. But perhaps it is better if we all collaborate on solving that problem! I highly recommend this book by Tony Wagner as a starting point.
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on December 2, 2008
I graduated as a valedictorian from a high school that is not known for its academic excellence. I did not feel much pride in my achievement - though I know I should have because it indicates I worked hard in school. I was lucky and had quite a few great teachers that did try to teach me to think -- not just memorize stuff. However, I had many more teachers that I could describe much less enthusiastically. I was valedictorian though and took and passed several AP classes too. But I did horribly when I got to college because of the poor preparation I was given in high school. The skills I needed to get that valedictorian status was not enough for even a 3.0 average my first semester of college.

The Global Achievement Gapdoes a great job of discussing how we need to change schools today so that the students are better prepared for college and work - not just to pass tests. He discusses how teachers should use content to teach kids to think - and not making the content the goal. He discusses different ways students can be taught to speak and think for themselves, to be able to question things around them and be able to solve problems on their own. While reading this book, I kept thinking about how *I* could have benefited from these had I had an education like he described. However, as an adult looking at the big picture, I have a hard time believing that such a big change to cover *everything* he describes is realistically feasible in our world. Maybe we can take small steps toward that goal but the changes he described for the schools and the teaching education and profession are huge and require significantly more money. It will also require changes to current political system in place for schools.

The most useful purpose of this book is for parents and teachers to think about how they might start making changes in the way they are educating the students today so that students today can start reaping the benefits of an education that will prepare them properly for their future. The survival skills Mr. Wagner describes are definitely important and can be taught in every home and every classroom.
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on September 9, 2008
Finally a text that outlines school reform without the need of an masters degree to access it. Wanger recommends that schools focus on teaching mental processes by teaching content rather than making content the end goal. The need to develop competencies will prepare our students for a global economy where they will compete with students in and outside the US.

All teachers, administrators, school boards, universities with teacher certification programs, parents, business owners, community leaders, and policy makers who are frustrated but optimistic about school reform should invest time to read this book because it lays out causes of the global achievement gap, identifies core competencies, and highlight schools that serve as models for an achievable school reform.

In addition to the large implications this book might have for the education world, it is valuable for helping me transform my approach to teaching.
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on October 17, 2011
The title pretty much sums up the book. I began reading this book over the summer. I was about 1/3 of the way through and decided to stop reading the book and return it to the library. Why? Because there was so much great content that I was spending more time writing out my notes than actually reading the book.

I recently purchased the book for my iPad so I could highlight and type my notes. This proved a much more productive method(and lead me to a thought on education practices) and allowed me to not only take away key passages, but also allowed for fluid reading.

There is so much great info in this book. As I currently help operate an online global project with 600+ elementary students, I found many things in this book to hold merit and raise valid questions about education. Combine this with my recent visit to High Tech High(which was included in the book) and not only understand the need for some change to education, but demand it to happen. The great thing is that change is happening.

Essentially, the author discusses 7 Essential Survival Skills that all students need.

Wagner presents seven "survival skills" that students should be learning in school in order to prepare for college and adult life:

* 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

Throughout the book he examines how these skills are being taught on the global scale and how much America has fallen behind the ranks in these skills. What is so great about his rhetoric and writing style is that it is not an all out bash on American schools. Being a teacher myself I have read plenty where teachers are just ripped apart. He focuses more on where things are going wrong and providing examples of schools that are on the right path to making change.

The skills shared here are all skills that everyone needs for whatever avenue of life they choose. Some parents and students are stuck in schools that they cannot escape. The great thing with these skills are that they can be taught at home.

Staying current with the development and changes in education I think things are moving in the right direction. I teach at a fantastic school and we even realize that changes need to be made.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an investment in education(which is pretty much everyone). You will walk away from this book with a better understanding of what is needed for our students and nation to get back to the top.

I will be using my 23 pages of notes for future blog posts on education, but since this is a review of the book I will save those rants for another day. A must read education book.
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on March 13, 2009
I wanted to like this book and while Dr. Wagner made some good points, especially about the shortcomings of typical student assessments, these strengths could not overcome the books many weaknesses. For instance, the gathering of opinions about what students should learn in school, passed off as "research," and then coverted into the hopelessly vague "Seven Survival Skills for Teens Today" reveals a biased methodology that undermines the work's credibility.

Furthermore, the "Seven Survival Skills" continue the recent trend of suggesting that the goals of education are simply generic process skills. While I have my issues with E.D. Hirsch's work, I do agree with him that education is not content free and that any claims to the contrary are misguided. (By the way, if you read the list of seven skills closely, it becomes apparent that more like a dozen process skills are seen as essential - one of Dr. Wagner's editors must have decided that seven was more marketable and combined similar, but not identical learning domains to reach the marketing target.)

Dr. Wagner's discussion of improving the education profession also fell short. He continues to perpetuate the insular view that there is something unique about working in schools compared with all other lines of professional work. There is not. Workplace contingencies are basically the same everywhere and in every profession. What matters is arranging the contingencies of work to get high performance. He does not enlighten us on that point.

The book fails us again when Dr. Wagner presents his examples of exemplary schools that work. The schools he cites may, in fact, be very good schools but they are not replicable on a large scale and their methods do not translate to the large school settings common across the United States. What we need is guidance on how to make the schools we have as good as they can be, not admonitions to make schools that can not be.

I could go on, but you get the point. Dr. Wagner is firmly rooted in the current fashion of educational romaticism that grips our national reform debate. He offers yet another unrealistic model for educational reform based on faulty assumptions. If you are looking for insight into useful school reforms, I suggest you look elsewhere.
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on July 27, 2011
The effects of teaching to tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and other movements, are alarming and Wagner details these well. And his concerns are vital. But the book doesn't read much differently from so many other works about education I've read as a college teacher the last 25 years. Like them, it is full of optimism and statistics but also is superficial. Buzz words are praised, testimonials given, stats cited--and not much else. How many times have we heard repeated words like "creativity" and "relevance" without any serious exploration of what they might involve?

What it fails to do is demonstrate its primary subject, critical thinking. He only tells us without exhibiting its possibilities. Process is praised without analyzing the process or putting it in any context or giving it real purpose. I would have liked examples analyzed, say, of how corporations are using such skills today, but we are given little. Nor are students or their schools or teachers, their lives and realities, closely examined.

Much of the writing is just PowerPoint presentation. In the chapter on the new technology, he just lists benefits and problems without weighting them or probing their implications or weighing one against another. And yet somehow he promotes the technology without making any kind of critical argument.

The book also is shortsighted, looking only at the last 10-15 years. There was a period of experimentation in the '60s-'70s that tried to counteract rote teaching. What happened during this time? I don't know, and the book doesn't tell me.

Nor is there any discussion of any kind of core values or cultural knowledge that might be valuable to students and the society as a whole. And if future employers know what's best for our students and our schools, we have to take his word for it.

A good counterexample would be Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America's Educationally Underprepared which does all these things.

But most, he still is arguing for measurement and testing, just testing of a different sort, rather than fostering an environment where the skills he promotes might actually happen, with students and teachers alike. These tests, on a mass scale, will be standardized and watered down for widespread evaluation--and defeat their whole purpose.
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on November 8, 2008
As a part time college professor, I've been a big proponent of quality education for decades. Quality education leads to quality employees and that attracts well paying jobs. That, in turn, increases the local tax base which funds better roads, sewers, parks, along with more police officers, firefighters, EMS, and improves the overall quality of life in the community. Tony Wagner's book, The Global Achievement Gap, is a tour de force for anyone interested in America's school system. We are fast becoming a nation of underachievers in a society which rewards mediocrity. We are graduating students without a basic understanding math, English, science, or history. We've all but cut out art and music from their curriculum. But whatever you do, don't interfere with their sports programs! Mr. Wagner delves into why our children are failing behind the rest of the world and what we can do about it before it's too late. The dumbing down of our children has to stop now. I urge everyone interested in our school system to read Mr. Wagner's book now!
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on July 21, 2009
There's a lot one could say and there are multiple constituencies that would find the book very engaging: teachers, students, recruiters, managers, et al.

My focus is on the first, teachers. As an adjunct at multiple universities, I am amazed at how much (and how fast) some traditional universities are catching up to some of the leaders in nontraditional education. For myself, The Global Achievement Gap underscores the need to create excitement and innovation in the classroom through activities (yes, activities... for those of you who are 100% lecture!) that engage learners. As I come upon the next term of classes, I am working towards restructuring elements of my courses that incorporate even more aspects of 'working in teams', critical thinking, and other elements of Dr. Wagner's recommendations to enhance learning outcomes.

In summary, I highly recommend this book (especially to teachers). Chapter 1 is a fascinating overview that is backed up by anecdotal narratives and sufficiently good notes/bibliography for those that want to go further to the sources. Subsequent chapters go a bit deeper into each of the 7 elements but, chapter one is potentially 'class-altering' reading.
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on July 23, 2010
Tony Wagner's latest book (2008) does a very good job at analyzing the important issue of rigor, and how today, American society has confused the quest for large amounts of knowledge sold in a shallow package (a mile wide but an inch deep) as the answer to our nation's educational woes. Just like a shallow river, this approach looks impressive on the surface, producing a lot of froth and whitewater, but is not very navigable. This merit-badge approach of padding transcripts with "rigorous" classes comes at a steep price. While students (many in our "top" schools) grind through advanced classes, preparing to pass tests, they forgo the opportunity for deep analysis and practical problem-solving (this coming from the students themselves). In an age of informational abundance, the skills and competencies businesses need most (by their accounts) like the ability to use information well, are missing in many of today's graduates.

Wagner looks at alternative assessments that measure students' abilities to problem solve, manage information, and apply content knowledge to real issues. He talks with students, staff; visits schools, and presents programs that have eschewed the shallow approach favored by most schools today. Unlike the uncritical flybys that we are used to seeing during most school visitations where everything is choreographed for the visitor, Wagner, having been a teacher and administrator, looks beyond the facade and is not afraid to speak his mind. Speaking in a frank yet balanced tone, he argues convincingly that we need a better definition for "rigor"---one that looks beyond mere content, while not ignoring content's importance.
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on September 28, 2014
The fundamental premise of this book is that the world has changed and all students need the following 7 news skills for college, career, and citizenship:
1.Critical Thinking and problem solving
2. Collaboration (incl. emotional intelligence)
3. Agility and adaptability
4. Initiative and 'entrepreneurialism'
5. Effective oral and written communication
6. Accessing and analyzing information
7. Curiosity and imagination

I feel these 7 have some degree of overlap and can be further reduced to the 4Cs:
1. Critical thinking (incl. problem solving, analytical thinking, information synthesis, asking questions)
2. Collaboration (incl. emotional intelligence, service & social responsibility, ethics, listening, influence, delegation, cultural sensitivity)
3. Communication (oral & written that is concise, focused, and passionate)
4. Creativity (incl. 'entrepreneurialism', curiosity, achievement orientation, self-starting action that drives results, adaptability, goal setting, time management)

Techniques for improving education from the book include the following:
1. Taking learning walks to observe both instruction and (especially) students demonstrating new skills
2. Encouraging students to ask questions and teachers to answer
3. Designing group work where every student is accountable
4. Do not teach to the test with rote memorization and formulaic writing. Instead "develop higher-quality, open-response, competency-based tests that can be given less frequently to a representative sample of the student population
5. Train teachers by viewing and discussing videos of teaching
6. Use ACTIVE case studies with inquiry and discussion (like in business school, law school, or medical school)
7. Provide teachers with expert coaching and regular critiques
8. Hire and train the right teachers since "The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its workforce."
9. Provide teachers with professional development time (and hold them accountable for how that use it)
10. Encourage kids to explore their interests
11. Apply cohesive, cross-discipline, project-based (rather than textbook-based) learning
12. Call out, with attribution, examples of great work. Show, anonymously, examples of deficient work (from other classes)
13. Require students to do internships (after their junior year)
14. Pair veteran and new teachers and ensure they meet regularly
15. Maintain continuous improvement by (a) conducting focus groups with employers to understand critical skills and skill gaps (b) funding education R&D
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