“Grade F is the new Grade A: Discuss.” Schools and innovation


Q: What do Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, Bill Gates all have in common? 

A: They were all school drop outs.

With the tail end of summer comes the annual reflection on the standards our young people achieve in schools, and the seemingly ritual arguments over whether standards are slipping, or goalposts have moved. This year GCSE grades fell marginally for the first time in 24 years. Never knowingly giving the kids a break, the papers concentrated not on celebrating 23 years of progressive rises in A* to C grades, but rather centred on the overall tiny fall (69.4% compared to last year’s 69.8%) and dug deeper into statistics to show A*-C grades in both Science and English Lit had fallen by 2%.

That wasn’t the only bad news about our nation’s youth, though. The Federation of Small Businesses gazumped the announcement by a couple of days to announce that eight out of ten businesses (from 2,774 survey respondents) don’t believe school leavers are ready for work, and saying more should be done to help prepare them for employment.

Two thirds of FSB members said that improving basic literacy and numeracy skills would better prepare young people for work.

59 per cent who already employ 16 to 17-year-olds reported that their young employees had poor literacy skills. 55 per cent thought numeracy was poor, and 56 per cent said communication skills fell short of what was needed. 77 per cent also stated that school leavers’ general business awareness was poor. In addition the FSB called for better careers guidance, and the training of young people in CV writing, time-keeping, problem solving and team working.

Two thirds of FSB members said that improving basic literacy and numeracy skills would better prepare young people for work.

Two thirds of FSB members said that improving basic literacy and numeracy skills would better prepare young people for work.

John Walker, the FSB’s National Chairman, said: “These are the skills with which young people need to be equipped with to be successful in today’s tough jobs market. We want to see schools give these skills a higher priority by embedding them in all teaching from an early stage. All schools should be offering work experience to their pupils and engaging with local small businesses to ensure that young people are getting the work-related learning that they need.”

The timbre is one of frustration, maybe exasperation, and the implicit demand for schools is “do more of everything, and better, please”. The accompanying press release mentions nothing that schools are doing right, nor offers any real solutions.

However these problems might not be as intractable if you take the assumption that the system doesn’t need reforming, it needs reinventing. This is the conclusion that Tony Wagner has come to.

Tony Wagner was a high school teacher for twelve years, a principal and then a university professor in teacher education, and has taken that vast experience to write on innovation and entrepreneurship. Now, as Harvard’s first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center, and one of the United States’ top educationalists, he states “the world doesn’t care what you know, but what you can do with what you know” and has researched and distilled industry needs into seven clear and meaningful statements that can guide educators, schools and policy makers alike to engage with the entrenched and institutional imbalances and blockages in young people’s learning experiences.

Wagner lists the seven survival skills that young people need to masterTony Wagner describes the core skills that young people need to master today, asking “In a world where any job that can be turned into a routine can be offshored or automated, what skills matter most today, what’s most important?” Wagner interviewed scores of employers and innovators from as far afield as Apple, Unilever, the US army, community leaders and entrepreneurs and discovered overwhelming consensus. “I came to understand there is a set of core competencies that every young person needs, not just to get a good job, but to be a continuous learner and an active and informed citizen in the 21st century” he states, calling them the seven survival skills. It’s a different approach to the FSB, and offers a useful framework with which to address the challenge.

In his book The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner describes these seven interdependent survival skills.

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

It’s the ability to ask the right questions that businesses want. Business leaders told Wagner “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems. It’s not about incremental product improvement anymore”. Just upgrading and improving current product lines isn’t enough.

  • Collaboration Across Networks, Leading by Influence

Whilst the FSB calls for more teamwork in schools, Wagner goes further “Team work isn’t about working with others in your own building, it’s about collaborating across networks, being comfortable with virtual teams and what’s more influencing and negotiating with those in your team, wherever they are. Kids lack the ability to influence” says Wagner.

  • Agility and Adaptability

A large proportion of the job roles out there didn’t exist five years ago, and the pace of change won’t slow down. Careers advice has tended to focus on seeming iron-clad roles and rigidly straight career path progression. This doesn’t prepare young people for a world where the job you get hired for won’t be there for much longer. They need to be taught agility and adaptability to glide nimbly through the new world of unpredictable work patterns and roles, rather than just given more careers advice.

  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

One of the problems with large companies is risk aversion, and Wagner found a surprising number of businesses recognise this, and look for new entrants who will challenge and re-examine the way things are done, bringing fresh perspective.

  • Effective Oral and Written Communication

Wagner goes further than the FSB’s criticism of Reading and ‘riting. Young people have difficulty in communicating not only verbally and through writing, but also lack presentation skills. To Wagner this isn’t necessarily about grammar or spelling, it’s about being clear and concise. Students don’t know how to write “with a voice”.

  • Accessing and Analysing Information

Today’s new workers in the knowledge economy have no shortage of information and data. The trick is how to navigate and analyse selectively, researching and coming to appropriate conclusions regarding veracity, often on subjects beyond your immediate expertise. There is an astronomical amount of data and coping with that complexity is a survival skill.

  • Curiosity and Imagination

Of course none of the previous six principles can be approached without the motor of curiosity, nor exploited without imagination. It’s here that art and design competencies can really be seen to be key to preparing our young people. Imagination is muscular, and if you don’t exercise it, atrophy can set in. It’s the wellspring of innovation.

Tony Wagner’s books call for the reinvention of the school system

Tony Wagner's books call for the reinvention of the school system

Tony Wagner’s books call for the reinvention of the school system

The challenge of inculcating innovation skills runs through Wagner’s writing. “The culture of schooling we have grown up with is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators” he states. He points to five key issues that he believes schools need to address.

Firstly, Schools tend to celebrate and reward individuals, when “innovation is a team sport”. Accountable teamwork and collaboration should be embedded throughout the curriculum.

Secondly, our curriculum leads to specialisms with separate and often parallel tracks, culminating in separate faculties at university, when the world of innovation is interdisciplinary. “Problems can no longer be solved nor even understood within the bright lines of academic discipline” says Judy Gilbert, Director, People Programs and Systems at Google.

The third issue to Wagner is about how schools are often structured to be risk averse. He paints a picture of how they can often penalise failure, and pupils are motivated to figure out what the teacher needs, so as not to fail. However the motto of the innovator is fail early, fail often. We need to get used to failure, and learn how to recover from mistakes, not fear them. We need to reframe the concept to talk about iteration not failure. For innovation, “F is the new A” quips Wagner.

The fourth is the scourge of passive consumption that can be part of both our schools and our general culture. We are all brought up as consumers, but we need to gain the propensity to be active creators and cultural producers, creating and sharing the real products of our imagination. Passivity is the enemy of creativity and innovation.

This brings us on neatly to the last key issue. Schools tend to rely on extrinsic incentives for learning, carrots and sticks, trying to motivate students to produce good grades, (cold cash has been tried in at least one school in the States) rather than encourage more personal motivation through exploratory play and experimentation. Wagner found the real innovators tended to be those students who had gained the intrinsic impulse of innovation, developing a passion and a purpose for themselves.

Creating-Innovators-Book-by-Tony-WagnerOf course Wagner’s experience is of the American system, and it may well be our system is more adaptable and pliable, because we can all name good practice where all these qualities happen in isolation, but Wagner’s point is the system was not invented to accommodate these issues, which makes it painfully hard to innovate, and much harder than it should be. His seven survival skills are a useful measure and guide and take us beyond the impasse of just demanding that schools ‘Must Try Harder’. It seems to me that we need to also add one more item to Wagner’s list of ways to foster a new innovation culture in our young people, and that is to raise the status of the teacher, and to celebrate those motivated paragons who surmount the barriers and walls of the current system.

That would be a great Press Release to see!


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