US academic claims the education system is not delivering the skills  or core competencies that  employers want-sounds familiar?


Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,”  discovered, having interviewed  many top  corporate leaders in the States, a profound disconnect between what potential US employers are looking for in young people and what US  schools are providing (passive learning environments and uninspired lesson plans that focus on test preparation and reward memorization).

His criticism of the US system will have some resonance here in the UK.  Most tests are highly content driven  and do not encourage pupils to think about the  content. Students are driven to try and learn on the internet what they don’t  learn in school and to collaborate and explore for themselves. The system must better harness this resource, the internet. It is striking how much time students spend on the internet and how little schools have done to use it as a tool to help develop important skills.

Innovation has to be the real engine of economic growth in future , Wagner says,  but the education system and even  the higher education system is not providing creative students with support. To progress and compete in the global economy  we need to encourage curiosity, and the  education system just doesn’t deliver on this.   The  creators of Microsoft and Facebook had to leave Harvard to release or indeed to realise  their potential . Indeed  the system is not teaching or testing for these appropriate skills . Education is little more in the US  than an elaborate game of Trivial Pursuit ,he says. It  doesn’t help students to apply knowledge to be creative  and to  problem solve.  Tests do not tell us what we  really need to know about students.

Wagner has identified three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy.   First, the ability to apply critical thinking and problem-solving; Secondly ,the ability to communicate effectively; and  finally the ability to collaborate.

In fact Wagner listed seven key   survival skills, though encompassing the three key pillars above. Although he believes in the importance of content, of  more importance  is a core set of competencies that are  much more relevant to the 21st Century   They are:  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. These competencies are not tested and assessed  within the current education system. Yet schools should be accountable for developing these competencies.

Does he think that the US education system delivers on any of  these? Absolutely not. He claims that  if you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes. As Wagner put it, “They took teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge-worker’s job. They have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best.”

Wagner  is on the faculty of the Executive Leadership Program for Educators, a joint initiative of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Business School, and Kennedy School of Government.  However, before Harvard Wagner  was a high school teacher for twelve years; a school principal; a university professor in teacher education; co-founder and first executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility; project director for the Public Agenda Foundation in New York; and President and CEO of the Institute for Responsive Education.

Wagner thinks interalia   that US educators  should create a West Point ( our equivalent is Sandhurst Royal Military Academy )  for teachers: He has said that “We need a new National Education Academy, modelled after our military academies, to raise the status of the profession and to support the R.& D. that is essential for reinventing teaching, learning and assessment in the 21st century.”

Wagner believes we must rethink, reconfigure and reconceptualise  the system and properly harness the internet and digital technology. We  need to see teachers as coaches  and mentors to assist pupils in   acquiring these skills and not simply as  deliverers of the content of a  curriculum  to  enable pupils  to pass tests (many of them multiple choice) that   do not test the real  skills required  by 21 Century employers.  Business can do much to help this reconfiguration  and the education sector must give Research and Development  a much greater priority, similar to the priority afforded  to it by leading businesses.