Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are Schools Teaching Kids to Be Innovators?

Tony Wagner thinks schools are failing today's kids, but not for the reasons we may think. We've all heard the horror stories about underfunded schools, overworked teachers, and overcrowded classrooms, but under all those problems, Wagner sees an even more critical problem: kids aren't learning the skills they need to become tomorrow's innovators.

The majority of today's classrooms teach kids to become good test-takers, but among the many possible problems with this approach, the one that concerns Wagner the most is the fact that this kind of teaching strategy is only meaningful to kids because of extrinsic motivations, like the promise of good grades. Wagner argues that students are more likely to become passionate about their learning when they are given hands-on experience solving real-world problems. But is this really the best way to prepare them to be innovators?


Wagner suggests that one of the major advantages of problem-based learning is that it provides students with a real reason why they should bother learning the basics.  For example, if the students can imagine a real-world goal that they might like to achieve, like starting a business, then that goal alone provides the motivation for learning the math skills needed to formulate a budget and the writing skills necessary to draft a coherent business proposal.

In many ways, Wagner is lending support to a model which has provided a lot of the current impetus behind greater integration of games in children's education. Games like the previously discussed Code Hero explicitly embody this mentality of using a problem that kids will want to solve (playing games and making games) as the motivator for more basic learning (computer programing). Likewise, the game that I'm currently developing also relies on seeking motivation beyond the players' own desire for self-improvement. And alternative education programs like New York's Quest to Learn schools were developed by game designers as a way to incorporate hands-on problem solving and design-oriented tasks into a standards-based curriculum.

As Wagner points out, this model is more likely to help kids learn to become good collaborators and good problem solvers.  And it also allows them to learn the most valuable lesson of them all: how to survive failure.  Most standards-based education penalizes kids for failure, but more project-centric curricula allow children more opportunities to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and gain confidence by learning that they will survive their mistakes. Even though these are all undeniable advantages, I cannot help but worry that too much focus on supplying problem-based motivators and not enough focus on teaching kids a breadth of skills regardless of whether they have obvious justification can have drawbacks.

You won't get any argument from me that it would be better to see today's kids approaching their education with confidence and passion, instead of acting like miserable, grade-grubbing drones. But what about the subjects who don't obviously lend themselves to a problem-based learning approach?  What about history, philosophy, literature, and the arts?  As a student of the humanities and social sciences, I have all too often listened to these subjects get denigrated for their lack of social utility.  In many people's eyes, only the STEM subjects, science, technology, math, and engineering, are considered worth teaching these days.

I don't believe that Wagner would endorse a view that leaves the humanities out of secondary school curricula, but I'm also not sure that the teach-toward-innovation strategy he advocates leaves much room for them either.

One of the reasons we send kids to school is to give them breadth of knowledge, and expose them to material that they would not necessarily otherwise explore on their own.  The child who loves computers will likely voluntarily pursue programming and math outside of the classroom because he knows that he loves computers. But perhaps what he doesn't yet know is that he loves 19th century French literature, too.  And he may never know that he loves it if his only education is problem-based.  Not only is he unlikely to need to consult a work of literature for whatever problems are posed to him but the whole structure of problem-based teaching itself tells him that knowledge is only valuable insofar as it solves an immediate problem.

Of course, the cynic might say that it's better that this imagined child never learn to love 19th century French literature, for woe to the foolhardy soul who gets a doctorate in Literature rather than Chemical Engineering!  But surely it would be a mistake to neglect the arts and humanities over such an exaggerated  worry.  And if preparing kids to be innovators is Wagner's biggest worry, then it's worth keeping in mind that innovation is not solely about technical proficiency or social marketing savvy.  Innovation requires inspiration, and breadth of knowledge and learning provide the best opportunities for inspiration.

I agree that more problem-solving should be taught in our schools and that kids should be given real-world examples of how to apply their knowledge.  But I think they must also be led to believe that all knowledge has intrinsic value. If we teach our students that knowledge is something that is only valuable on a need-to-know basis, then we may eventually end up crippling tomorrow's innovators in a far more insidious way than our current standards-based system ever could.

1 comment:

  1. This is an amazing piece of writing. How I wish that people should aim towards such a balanced approach towards education rather than the so-called 'bigger-picture' philosophy of imposing problem-solving as a duty on others.

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