Tony Wagner: Parents and Educators Must Join Forces

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Tony WagnerIn a recent CNN blog, Tony Wagner advocates for students that are college-ready and innovation-ready.

“Merely requiring students to take more of the same kinds of classes will not be adequate preparation. To meet this ambitious goal, both parents and educators must work together to develop children’s curiosity and imagination, teaching them the skills and dispositions that matter most.”

This interview poses several questions for parents and educators alike to encourage children to be imbued with “the spirit of play, passion, and purpose” to do creative works.

For more information about Tony Wagner visit

Zmuda: The audience of your latest book, Creating Innovators speaks to educators and parents as a dual audience. What was the reasoning behind the decision?
Wagner: Educators working alone cannot transform our education system. We need an educated constituency, an audience of consumers who have a better understanding of what to advocate for in terms of changes in school. Also, parents have a huge role to play in keeping alive the children’s capacity to be curious, creative and imaginative by how they interact with their children before they start school and in how parents think about their children’s time after school and on vacations.

Meaningful Involvement

Zmuda: As parents, how can we meaningfully be involved in our children’s education? Where should we press?
Wagner: Knowledge is rapidly becoming commoditized. It’s free on the Internet, and it’s growing exponentially, changing constantly. Certainly, you need expertise, but what’s far more important is what you can do with what you know, which is a completely different education challenge. It involves developing students’ skill and will, or motivation. I propose to parents that there are a handful of key questions for your target audience:

  • For your child: “What are are you curious about? What are you passionate about?”
  • To your child’s teachers: “What skills are you teaching, and how are you assessing them? Are students “creators” or consumers in your classes?”
  • To the school: “What are you doing to improve instruction, and how do you know it is working? How well are your graduates prepared for college, careers, and citizenship, and how do you know?”
I suggest the last question because most schools — public and private — have no coherent plan, for how to assess and improve teachers’ skills. Educators need to have lessons videotaped and receive meaningful feedback in order to be able to improve continuously.
Zmuda: You know, when you’re thinking about what you just suggested, having the parent and the educators really focus on the skills and assessing those skills, you can still do that within the confines of a test-prep driven curriculum.
But you are proposing something much more than that — something that adds meaning and relevance in children’s lives to inspire learning and encourage persistence and resilience.
Wagner: My most important discovery in writing this new book is how important intrinsic motivation is for the capability of being an innovator. Intrinsic motivation is where you get persistence, and it is the backbone of resilience. It’s the reason why you would want to put in 10,000 hours to develop real expertise.
So often in schools, we require students to gain expertise and then figure out what they’re going to do with it, what they are interested in. And I think it’s actually the reverse, that you can gain expertise far more quickly and efficiently, provided you have your own intrinsic reasons for gaining that expertise, motivation.
And that’s where I talk about the importance of play, passion and purpose as a kind of a developmental spiral, that keeps alive the spirit if curiosity, creativity and imagination that we’re all born with.

Digital Portfolios

Zmuda: So, how do you actually create the space for the design and implementation of those tasks? What is your vision of how that might work in a school?
Wagner: You have to give up some content coverage, there’s just no question about it. If you have an entirely-coverage based curriculum, you’re not going to have any time for independent investigations, or projects, or explorations that are driven by students.
I think one of the real challenges for educators is not to over-cover. Educators tend to be very cautious and tend to cover anything that might possibly be on the test as opposed to saying, “what’s the minimum I have to do for the state, and how I carve out more time for student projects, student interest, student research?”
What I’m playing with these days is Google’s 20-percent rule. As you may know, every employee at Google has the equivalent of one day a week, 20-percent time, to work on any project of his or her choice. It’s permission to play on company time, and it’s where all of the best innovations have come from because they’re all interest-driven and employee-initiated.
• RELATED STORY: How Digital Portfolios Document and Motivate Learning
So I’m challenging teachers to implement the 20-percent rule in their classes: to carve out 20 percent of the time whether it’s at the end of a unit or the end of a week. But 20 percent of a student’s time in every single class, to pursue independent kinds of projects and investigations.
Second, we need to question how we are helping our teachers to improve continuously. Take critical thinking, for example. Are we really asking the question of, “What is critical thinking?” How do we see evidence of critical thinking in student’s work? How do we continue to improve our ability to teach critical thinking?
Third, all students should have digital portfolios that follow them through school. There’s a web portal called Pathbrite where students can construct and maintain digital portfolios very easily. I think there are multiple advantages when you have students reflect on their learning in their portfolios:

  • What is my best work? What is work that shows evidence of my growing skillfulness to think critically, to think creatively, to solve problems, to collaborate?
  • How can I use my best work, also, as a tool to reflect on what my learning goals are for the next period of time?
The digital portfolio is, first of all, a tool for students to collect their best work, to reflect on their work, in an ongoing fashion and think about new learning goals. It also is a powerful opportunity to share work, and to get comments and feedback from more than just the teacher. Finally, it’s a tool for teachers to really think about how do you really help students create their very best work.

The Importance of Mastery

Zmuda: Clearly you are passionate about the role of digital portfolio to document student accomplishments, reflect on progress toward mastery, and set new goals.
Wagner: Over time we’re going to find that the world cares less and less about what you study, your transcript, and more about what you have produced. We’re already seeing that in some job situations. For example, let’s take computer programmers. Employers no longer ask where you went to school. They just say, “Show me your code, show me something you’ve done.”
The world is coming to understand that a transcript, even from a very good school, may mean very little in terms of what a student can actually do in the real world. What employers will want to see — and what colleges will want to see — is evidence of mastery.
• RELATED STORY: What’s the ‘Big Idea” at Aveson Charter Schools?
When Microsoft interviews a college student to be an intern, of course, they’re looking at some basic transcript issues, like a GPA, but the interview process is actually a series of with six or seven people throughout the day. At the end of the day, they put a kid up in front of a white board and say, “Show me how you would design a circuit that would connect an alarm clock to a computer so that you could use the computer to set off your alarm.” And the kid will start drawing.
Then halfway through, no matter what the kid has drawn, they’ll interrupt him and say, “Okay, we don’t think that’s not going to work. Show us another way.” So they’re really testing agility, adaptability, capacity to problem solve and think critically in a pressured situation, which is of course, what’s going to be required in the workplace.
So, I want to see all kinds of evidence of progressive mastery in that digital portfolio: projects, papers, presentations, summer internships, reflections on learning experiences outside of school, trips: whatever shows evidence of progressive mastery of the core competencies that matter most in the 21st Century as well as evidence of a capacity to reflect on prior learning and set new learning goals.
Zmuda: So, from an educator’s perspective, have you found that many schools or school positions have an idea of what mastery looks like?
Wagner: No. I think the challenge is to look at student work, as well as to look at the world of adults in college and careers and say, what is the standard of proficiency for communication skills to be successful at college or the workplace? What should we expect out of a graduating senior as a standard of proficiency, in communication, critical thinking, collaboration? How do we backwards map that performance standard, for a graduate, to end of eighth grade, and then end of fifth grade?
That’s the really difficult challenge. A few schools have taken it on, like High Tech High in San Diego, which is my favorite school, where kids have digital portfolios, and do work-based internships, and service learning projects in teams. But for the most part, educators still are so preoccupied with trying to raise students’ scores on state tests, which really mean almost nothing as evidence of any kind of mastery. Their time is kind of taken up trying to solve the wrong problem.

Focused on Play

Zmuda: So, let’s turn our attention back to the parents now. One quotation that resonated from me was Christine Saunders, “I want my daughters to have more time to breathe and think and use their imagination. But I really feel like I am in the minority and swimming against the tide, compared to how other parents arrange their children’s lives.”
It made me reflect that the goal of a parent and educator on a daily basis is not to fill time, but rather have kids have the “space” to play, problem, solve, and fail.” How can we reclaim play as part of the classroom and home experience?
Wagner: I think many parents are very frightened for their children. They see a far-more competitive future, far-more competitive college admissions and job markets and they believe that they only way they can give their children a competitive advantage is to start helping them construct their resumes when they’re choosing a preschool. And it goes on and on and on — how do I give my son or daughter something that distinguishes him or her for his or her resume, first to get into college, and then afterwards?
I think what many parents do not yet understand is that the student who is self-motivated, the student who has found a passion, and has learned self-discipline and persistence in pursuing that passion, and learned to make mistakes and recover from those mistakes, is going to be far better prepared for life than kids who got a 4.0 GPA and have never made a mistake, never tried anything new, never did anything that was less than perfect.
• RELATED STORY: The Power of Play – Tinkering Leads to Learning
I want to get rid of the word “fail” because I think it’s an obstacle for both parents and educators. I rather instead talk about “iteration.” The difference between a failure and an iteration is intentionality. A failure is something that happens, I think, most often because of lack of effort or lack of focus or lack of intention. An iteration is something where you make an effort with intentionality.
It may come up short in some way; it may not complete, it isn’t as good as it could be. But you reflect on that experience, that learning, and that reflection is then baked into what you do next. It’s an iteration. I think the more parents can understand that a young person who is self-aware, who can reflect on his or her learning, who can set learning goals, who can kind of reach high and if he or she in any way falls short, learns from that experience and sets new learning goals, that young person is going to be so much better off.
I also think that parents over-estimate the value of a named brand college degree. It’s increasingly clear to me that if you’re really worried about name brand degrees, graduate school matters a lot more than undergraduate. And, again, more and more the world doesn’t look so much at your college degree, they want to know what you’ve done in the world, what kind of internships you’ve had over the summer, what kind of skills and initiative you bring to a job. A diploma from a name-brand college doesn’t guarantee any of those things.

The Reality of Risk

Zmuda: Can you share one or two anecdotes from Creating Innovators to illustrate more what you mean about creating self-aware, self-confident children?
Wagner: I think of the woman and her husband who started Zip Car. They really gave their kids permission to progressively explore the city that they were living in. First, it was permission to cross the street and go to the park. Then it was permission to bicycle to a nearby store. Then it was permission to take the subway to the urban center — recognizing that to some extent there’s always a risk there.
When you bring a child into the world, that child is always at risk; you never can protect that child from everything. But the greater risk is to be a helicopter parent and to be so overly protective the child never gains the self-confidence and the wherewithal that comes from exploring the world and feeling comfortable and confident in that world. So that was one thing that really struck me. There were a lot of parents that wrestled with that whole question of, How do I give progressively more opportunity for my kids to explore the world but with a certain kind of safety net, or a certain set of limits?
Another one of my favorite anecdotes is from Annmarie Neal. She talks about how her son when he was four wanted to redecorate the Christmas tree. He wanted to take all of the ornaments off and put them on in a new way. So she was talking about the limits between going ahead and letting him do that versus not letting him pull over the tree. You don’t pull the tree over and hurt somebody. So her basic rules were don’t hurt anybody and play fair. But within those limits, you go explore.
Zmuda: So what advice do you have for both parents and kids to start tapping into desire?
Wagner: I think it’s a parent-child conversation that needs to happen all the time. Parents need to provide kids with a buffet of opportunities to explore interests, whether it’s scouting, or sports or dance or a craft. Parents need to be constantly listening for, and trying to understand what really intrigues this child. And then I think for the child it’s throw yourself in, let yourself try something new, even if you don’t think you’re going to be good at it, even if you don’t think it’s going to lead anywhere.
Give it a try, take a risk, take a fling. Listen to yourself and see what intrigues you, what interests you, what draws you in, and pay attention to it, and value that voice within you.


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[…] who is over Harvard’s Innovation Lab was a recent featured innovator on the Just Start blog (see Tony Wagner: Need for Parents and Educators to Join Forces). He shared that knowledge is rapidly becoming commoditized, it’s free on the Internet, and […]