Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner & Ted Dintersmith (Book Review)

Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation EraMost Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a strange sensation, a sort of cognitive dissonance almost, to read a book and agree wholeheartedly with the author’s basic claim–that the way to improve education is to focus less on (temporary) rote memorization of discipline-specific content and more on transferable skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creative problem-solving–and yet be so viscerally irritated by so many of the individual points. Maybe it’s the tone, which is kind of smug and superior. At one point, the authors write, “If we ran our economy the way we run our education system, our GDP would be lower than Haiti’s.” In the margin, I wrote, “If we ran our schools the way we run our economy, we probably would have screwed up the entire global education system a few years ago.” Maybe it’s that one the authors is one of those billionaire philanthropists from the tech world, a category of dilettantes who’ve been meddling in schools with no positive effect for decades. Also…yeah, we know; these are good ideas, but you’re not the first to propose them. Now, try going up against government bureaucrats who are willing to let all the schools burn with the little kiddies inside so long as they can break the teacher unions.

Still, they’re largely right. They’re right about how the focus needs to be on learning rather than results on artificial standardized assessments. They’re right that we need to trust teachers and get rid of draconian accountability measurements. They’re right in their heroic takedown of high school math curricula when they write, “Drilling on factoring polynomial equations gets you good at one thing, factoring polynomial equations.” (I mean honestly, at the school level, it seems like the totality of the math department’s contribution to discussions about educational innovation is proclaiming, “That won’t work in math. Math is different.”) They’re right about schools’ subservience to the testing and textbook industries. They’re right about the lack of validity of rankings for elite colleges (more on that in the next paragraph). Hell, they’re even right about their snarky Bicycle School metaphor, which they impressively commit to for a good five or six pages. I like their ultimate version of what schools could look like, even what teacher training could look like. It’s bold. It’s smart. They just need to bring in the best minds from the field of education rather than just business management, finance or technology to make it happen.

There’s other stuff in the delivery that bugs me too. While they rightfully criticize the world’s obsession with college rankings and elite schools, they later imply that the solution to ineffective teacher training might be to kill off all the education programs that aren’t at elite schools like Finland or whatever did. I guess we just want teachers who were born rich then? OK. Climbing out of that logical hole, I also don’t love how they other portray other parts of the world. I mean Scandinavia, of course, is great, but Asia? At one point, they write, “We compete against nations that take test prep for kids so seriously that teen suicides are rampant.” A: That’s racist. B: Post hoc ergo propter hoc. And later, “Let Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea drill the hell out of their kids and deal with off-the-chart dysfunction and the workforce of robotic clones that ensues.” Look, I’m equally bored with sweeping generalizations about the superiority of Asians… this is still racist. All in all, despite a tremendous attitude problem, the book is on the right side of education reform in the United States. I just wish Wagner and Dintersmith came off more as heroes than antiheroes in their quest for reform.

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