The Critical Role of Play, Passion & Purpose for 21st Century Learning & Why Rethinking…* is Greater Than Inventing

“What must we do differently to develop the capacities of many more of our young people to be innovators?”

In this talk from the 2012 TEDxNYED conference, Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and author of several books on transforming education for the 21st century, argues that in the new global ‘knowledge economy’, where knowledge has become a commodity, “what the world cares about is not what you know but what you can do with what you know, and that is a completely different education problem.” The question then becomes, “what must we do differently to develop the capacities of many more of our young people to be innovators?”

Wagner identifies a set of seven core competencies that  “every young person must be well on the way to mastering before he or she finishes high school, not just to get a good job, but to be a continuous learner and an active and informed citizen in the 21st century”. They are:

  1. Critical thinking & problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks & leading by influence
  3. Agility & adaptability
  4. Initiative & entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral & written communication
  6. Accessing & analyzing information
  7. Curiosity & imagination

Wanting to learn more about how these seven core competencies could be facilitated and cultivated, Wagner interviewed a wide range of young innovators in their 20s across various disciplines and industries as well as their parents to uncover any potential patterns in the young innovators’ upbringing and learning culture. He also asked each of the young innovators whether there had been teachers or mentors who had made a significant difference in their lives. Rather shockingly, one-third of all the innovators interviewed could not identify a single teacher or mentor. Also alarming, when Wagner went to interview each of the teachers and mentors that the other two-thirds of innovators had identified, he found that every single one of them was an outlier in his or her institution.

After conducting the interviews, Wagner did see a significant pattern emerge in how these adults had fostered the skills and motivation necessary to become innovators in the young people he had interviewed: “play to passion to purpose.”  Which led him to conclude, “the culture of schooling, as we have grown up with it, is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators in five essential respects.” They are:

  1. Celebrating individual achievement vs. Teamwork
  2. Specialization vs. Interdisciplinary
  3. Risk aversion & penalizing failure vs. Taking risks, learning from mistakes, iterating
  4. Culture of learning is about passive consumption vs. Culture of innovation is about creating real products for real audiences
  5. Extrinsic incentives for learning vs. Intrinsic Motivation

What I found particularly interesting about Wagner’s talk is the fact that while I agree 150 percent with the insights he shares about the direction education and the learning culture should be taking in the 21st century, I fundamentally disagree with his opening remark, when he says, “I would like to respectfully suggest that our schools are not failing, they certainly don’t need reforming. The system is obsolete and needs reinventing, not reforming.”  This notion that we must start from scratch, begin again or create a new foundation in order to achieve something innovative and thriving is one that keeps coming up and which we find unrealistic and detrimental, here at rethinked…*. It should come as no surprise given our name that the belief that rethinking is greater than inventing is a founding principle that underlies all of our work. So often these days, especially in the education reform debate, we hear people calling for a complete reinvention of the system–do away with classrooms, do away with teachers… These solutions are often unrealistic in terms of widespread implementation and rarely account for the wide spectrum of learning styles and differences in our students. Starting over is a luxury that we do not have. To be fair, Wagner does emphasize what each one of us can do as individuals–whether as parents, mentors, or teachers–to bridge the gap between the current culture of schooling and the culture of learning that fosters innovators (hint: model the desired behavior). And when he speaks of the need to reinvent the system, he’s talking about the underlying principles of our education culture rather than the brick and mortar educational system. Yet, the notion of sustainability does have an important place even in the sometimes abstract world of ideas. While it is disheartening to think that of all the young innovators Wagner interviewed, only two-thirds could identify a significant teacher or mentor, and that in every single case, these mentors were outliers in their fields, the fact is, they were still there–they are already a part of the system. It’s not so much about reinventing the wheel as much as finding ways to amplify, cultivate and facilitate the nuggets of potential already strewn throughout the system. I’d love to hear your take on the rethinking vs. inventing debate in the comments section below.

Play, passion, purpose: Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED | via TEDxTalks, published May 30, 2012.

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