Ep 82: An Unconventional Education

Episode Summary

Tony Wagner, educator and author of several books, most recently his memoir Learning by Heart, joins us this week for a closer look at what really makes a difference in the education of teens. What makes the greatest positive impact on students? How an unconventional education can be advantageous?

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

What do you want your child to learn in school?

Do you want your teen to learn math, science, grammar, and maybe another language? Sure! Why not? But, do these subjects cover all of human potential? What if your teen doesn’t care about the stuff we learn in traditional classrooms?

Encouraging a teenager to study can be the hardest job in the world when school isn’t teaching them anything useful. (Did that get a raised eyebrow from you?)

“But school is important!” you say. You want your kid to practice self-discipline, curiosity, and thoughtful conversations in school, but that doesn’t always happen. The sad reality is that the American school system prioritizes “subjects,” not life skills. 

When students don’t view their education as life skills, they can become unengaged, uninterested, and dispassionate about learning.

Encouraging a teenager to study math is fruitless when that teenager thinks he’ll never use math skills outside of school. You might have a dozen conversations about the value of understanding mathematics, but they are likely a waste of energy for you and your teen if your teen doesn’t care.

If our education system isn’t prioritizing the specific life skills teens need to pursue their passions, what can parents and teachers do to compensate? Thankfully, this conversation has been going on for awhile, and there are a lot of strategies for encouraging a teenager to study that have been battle tested. In this episode, I have the honor and privilege of speaking to the brilliant and prolific author of seven books, including three best sellers: Tony Wagner.

Tony has been wrestling with America’s education system for over 50 years, starting when he was in high school. He’s spent 20 years in different faculties at Harvard University and currently is an internationally sought after speaker and teacher. I was so excited to get the opportunity to talk about his life story as depicted in his most recent book and memoir, Learning by Heart: An Unconventional Education

Tony’s Story

Tony’s bio sounds impressive, right? Maybe not what you would expect from a high school dropout and two-time college dropout. Like many teenagers zoning out in school today, Tony is an incredibly smart person, but was bored to death in the classroom.

If Tony wanted to get something done, it wouldn’t happen in the classroom for credit. Tony liked to read, but he never read any book on the class reading list because he thought teachers ruined the stories for him! He also liked to write, but his high school English teacher was verbally abusive. To get better at writing, Tony sought out another teacher at the school to tutor him instead. He met with this teacher weekly in their free time.

What this teacher did has since defined Tony’s idea of a Great Teacher.

He taught Tony as an INDIVIDUAL.

Every week, this teacher would identify a specific strength in Tony’s writing, and then give some other suggestions to supplement that strength.

When his school-assigned English teacher later cursed him out and called him a “F***-up” in front of his friends, Tony dropped out of high school.

Since the 1960s, our school system has changed for the better in some ways, but not all. Today there could be serious reprimands for a teacher cursing a student out. But there still aren’t measures to ensure that all kids get the experience Tony had from the other English teacher. Teachers might be held more accountable now, but there hasn’t been a notable uptick in Great Teacher experiences.

Seeing Students as Individuals

Encouraging a teenager to study means encouraging that teenager to study. The interests one teenager wants to study can, and should, be different from what the next teenager wants to study!

Tony’s goal isn’t to go after teachers here. He just wants to point out that you can’t individualize students with the current “batch processing” structure of education. Encouraging a teenager to study the same stuff all the other students are studying neglects the fact that teenagers are individuals. They might have completely different passions that school just doesn’t focus on.

School only focuses on a narrow band of skills regarding human capabilities. All other skills can be dismissed as superfluous. Unfortunately, this only serves the kids who have an interest or competency in those specific skills! He says he sees teachers so constrained by a demand to teach “subjects” that they forget that they’re teaching young people.


When it comes to encouraging a teenager to study, Tony desires to see teachers distill what is critically important about their subject. Once those fundamentals are taught, teachers can then make time for students to apply those foundational skills to their specific passions. A math teacher probably knows that some algebraic functions can apply to all life skills. What if after teaching those skills, that teacher then helped students apply those to their individual interests? Pointing out the relevancy of these skills can increase a students passion to learn, and this is something parents can do for students as well.

It took Tony 30 years to realize that a knowledge of grammar did not equate to a strength in writing. Still, grammar skills are necessary to become a good writer. Likewise, a student interested in car engines shouldn’t have to wait until college to apply science class to racecars. In the current system, that student might not even make it to college, because they can’t make the connection between school and their passion.

Stay Curious!

What’s been true at least for Tony, is that you won’t find a reason to learn until you find a reason to care. Therefore, his advice for adults to give to young people is: Stay CURIOUS!

Without curiosity, good luck encouraging a teenager to study. According to Tony, curiosity is what keeps people inspired. Tony believes every student should have a notebook to write down ALL their questions and concerns, related to class or not.

Encouraging a teenager to study these questions in their notebooks promotes curiosity. If every child had a journal where they could write down their questions to pursue later, curiosity could become a habit. This necessitates adults creating time and space for young people to pursue those questions. If students don’t have the space to pursue their questions, then there’s no motivation for them to be curious. But by encouraging a teenager to study their interests, curiosity, that sweet desire to learn more, could become normal in almost every student.

This strategy of journaling can be super effective for encouraging a te at home, too, not just at school. Parents can also give their teens the opportunity to do their own research and investigation, and then present it. Math class doesn’t have to be the only place where they write down their thoughts and questions. Bedside journaling is an amazing tool for helping anybody offload random thoughts at the end of their days. It provides a reason to rest up and discover answers in the morning. Encouraging a teenager to study their specific interests is something any teacher, parent, or leader can do.

Curiosity is something we have to pay attention to and nurture. It’ll make the job of encouraging a teenager to study a whole lot easier.

Encouragement from Outside

As long as we give teens the time and space to engage their curiosity, we can hold them to it! Teens still need guidance and coaching, and parents can play a role in that.

Tony says to listen to what kids say they’re interested in, and then encourage them. Coach them in how they might learn more about a certain subject. Here are some example that help with encouraging a teenager to study:

  • Make sure they have a library card and know how to use it
  • Offer to introduce them to professionals in disciplines of interest
  • Ask them what they’re learning on their own time

Encouraging a teenager to study means getting practical about their specific interests.

It takes perseverance, tenacity, and coaching, Tony says. But if you take their general interests seriously, eventually your teens will tell you what they’re specifically interested in. 

Tony says he once mentored a dropout risk student for an entire year before finding out what the kid enjoyed, even though Tony asked about his interests every two weeks. When the boy mentioned he liked car engines, Tony encouraged this interest so the student could explore it. However, Tony noted that the boy wasn’t learning anything new about car engines week to week. Tony was persistently encouraging, though, until finally the boy said, “What I really want to know is the difference between carboration and internal combustion.”

After that, the student wrote a whole research paper on the subject!

Stories for Every Situation

Curiosity is king! And you can encourage your kid to pursue their passions, even if they don’t directly correlate to school classes. Although, there are some pitfalls to look out for when encouraging a teenager to study and Tony walks us through how to navigate those. He has a whole well of stories and ideas that we got to talk about:

  • Changes to the School System Since 1960
  • Stanislaw Witkiewicz
  • An Aphorism on Learning
  • “Winners” and “Losers”
  • The Carnegie Unit (Tony’s favorite joke, maybe)
  • Restructuring Education to Reward Mastery
  • Tony’s Unique College Experience
  • Powerful Mentors
  • Balancing Pressure and Support
  • Finland’s Transformation of Teacher Preparation
  • The Muscles of Self-Discipline and Concentration
  • One of Tony’s Failures
  • ‘Shadowing’ Jobs

Tony’s life and wisdom about encouraging a teenager to study is invaluable. I’m so thankful to have gotten to talk with him. Please give this episode a listen!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. The Ideal Education: Learning on Your Own Terms:

Some teens thrive in traditional high schools, others need time to adjust, and others still struggle. Not everyone will get along with their peers, administrators and teachers or find subjects they enjoy. Some students do their best work in classes and others prefer independent study. Tony Wagner’s own journey through a myriad of educational institutions, both as a student and teacher/administrator is proof that a one-size all model of education isn’t benefiting the most students possible.
Whether your teen is still in middle school or is thinking about college, this exercise is perfect to really think about what kind of educational system might be best for them. With your teen, grab a piece of paper and make two columns, one titled “must have” and the other “must not have.” Together, create the ideal school or learning environment for them. What sorts of teachers, assignments, might they feel would be most helpful? What would they eliminate? You can use your own educational journey to offer ideas if your teen is apprehensive about writing things down.
Once you have the two lists, your teen should pick the three “must haves” that are the most important to them. Then they can pick two “must not haves.” Circle them within the lists. Looking at the most important haves and not haves, ask your teen what they could do to make their current school situation more ideal. Maybe they could switch classes or pick up an extra independent study assignment or find a mentor. The possibilities are endless!

2. What is the Purpose of Education?

(Members Only)

3. Convince Your Teen to Gain Some Skills:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have written a lot of books at this point, how many of them?

Tony: Seven published, two not published.

Andy: Okay. So now it’s time for a memoir, but it’s also really about learning and about education. So what inspired this book at this time?

Tony: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I’d written six argument based books. I felt I really had no new arguments to make, but I had stories to tell. I mean, people don’t know very much about me, not because I don’t talk a lot about my past, but in fact, as you read, I was a onetime high school dropout. A two time college dropout. Caught up very much in the civil rights and antiwar movement of the sixties. And that combination of things, wanting to be the teacher I never had, and wanting to give back were the reasons I became a teacher. And so a good chunk of the book is about my early learning experiences, my struggles with school. I had no particular learning disability. I just hated school. I was bored.

Tony: And so it’s also about the people who influenced my learning for better or for worse, in some cases. And then how I tried to translate all of those things into my first decade of teaching English as a high school teacher. First in a school for at risk kids, public school, and then in private school at Sidwell Friends were Obama’s kids went. So it’s a learning journey, really. Trying to discover who I am as a learner, where and when, and how I thrive, and then really trying to translate that set of experiences into how do I really help each student develop their unique capabilities?

Andy: What did you discover about yourself?

Tony: Well, I’m restless, I’m impatient. I’m driven by a strong sense of curiosity and a desire to understand, to make meaning, and to create. And school provided none of those opportunities. Explore my creativity? No, no, we don’t have time for that. Explore my curiosity. Nope. Sorry. Not, not really.

Andy: Only of these boxes. Yeah.

Tony: Yeah. And to make meaning of the world around me was the beginning of the sixties. It was a crazy time. And there was nothing in school that helped me make sense of that world.

Andy: So do people who are feeling that way in the education system, what do they need to find something or get on a track?

Tony: Well, I think they need teachers who listen to them first and foremost, and who are not so constrained by teaching subjects and subject content that they forget they’re teaching young people.

Andy: Yeah.

Tony: And so I think that’s one point and something I sort of talk about towards the end is that requires teachers to really distill what’s critically important in their content or in their teaching and not fill the airwaves with things that kids hear and forget.

Andy: Yeah.

Tony: And I don’t think teachers can do this alone. I think teachers have to work together and say, “What are the most important things kids need to learn that are foundational, and how do we then free up more time for kids to explore their own interests, to apply their learning and to create.”

Andy: So for you, was that when you started working privately with one teacher and really working on your writing, and that was an experience that helped you start to see something that you thrived out or something? [crosstalk].

Tony: Well, it first began with my ninth grade teacher who gave me one of the very few creative writing assignments I had throughout my entire [crosstalk]. I wrote about this guide in New Hampshire, I had gone to summer camp and great fun doing. And it was the first, and I think the only A, I got in my entire high school experience. So, and then in my senior year, you could look at my senior year as a tale of two English teachers. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The worst of times started first. It was teacher who just verbally abused me to a very extreme degree, and no need to go into the details, now. You can read it for yourselves, but I just was horrified. I felt like he was sentencing me to a life of being failure. Only he used the F word.

Tony: Then, I was in this very last chance school for kids like me who have been kicked out, or thrown, or dropped out. Again, still as a senior, and I knew I wanted to write. I’ve been writing since I was 14 on my own, so I sought out another English teacher, not my senior English teacher, he was hopeless, but another English teacher. I went to him and I said, “Will you teach me to write?” And he said, “I’d be delighted.” He was an Englishman very well [crosstalk].

Tony: We met weekly. This was not for credit, but I put more time and effort into that class than I had ever put into any other class in four years of high school, or 12 years school for that. And he gave me a different kind of genre or type of art into try every single week, and then we would meet and he would look for something that was a strength in it. And sometimes it might’ve been a bit of a stretch, but he would always try to find something that he could justifiably praise me for, and then he’d make a couple of suggestions, not a lot. And to me, that became a model of how I taught writing for 10 years as a high school teacher.

Tony: But more than that, it really gave me a sense of the power of what a teacher can do if he understands the student in front of him. He treats that student as an individual and listens to that student. So it was a remarkable experience. And of course, I have many other out of school teachers who were also wonderful, whom I profile in the book.

Andy: You have a story in here about someone called the mole.

Tony: No, that’s the one who used the F word to…

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Tony: Define me as a human being.

Andy: Yeah. Then that was something I marked in here that was impactful for me was this story where he busts you.

Tony: I was in a secondary boarding school for boys, and there’s nothing worse than a boys boarding school. Maybe they’re better today, but I believe in single sex education, but only for girls. I think single sex schools for girls are great. Single sex schools for boys are an invitation to say [crosstalk]. And so this particular teacher taught by fear. Every kid in the school was afraid of him. He would lecture all 50 of us who were 12th graders in one class. And he was pretending to be a college professor, if you will. If he’d caught you not paying attention to something he’d hurl blackboard eraser, or a piece of chalk, or book at you. He was just ridiculous.

Tony: So one night, we had permission to go off campus Saturday night, so I went off. Came back about 15 minutes late, past curfew. And sure enough, it was this English teacher, whom we nicknamed the mole because he was short, and like kind of warrant, went around looking for trouble with [crosstalk] mag light. So sure enough it was the mole on duty, and he sees me, and I thought worst case is maybe I’ll get a little detention or something like that. [crosstalk]. That’s not…

Andy: It’s 15 minutes.

Tony: And so he shines this huge flashlight toward my face. I don’t know whether this is PG 13 or R rated, but he said, “Wagner, you’re an F-up. You’ve always been an F-up, You’re always going to be an F-up.” This was 1963. I’d never heard an adult use the F word, let alone an F word on me. So I probably left that school early then it’s morning never to return.

Andy: Wow. And that’s profound, I think. But we do that a lot, I think by labeling kids.

Tony: Yeah. I think that’s true. First of all, the nature of schooling is that really by the age of 15 or 16, high school kids know they’re in one of two buckets. They’re either winners or losers. Academically, socially, athletically they’re winners or losers period. Many high school kids believe that to be something that’s true about them as human beings, as opposed to recognizing that school only develops a tiny fraction of the human capability. A very narrow band of skills only recognizes a tiny fraction of what is the human capability, and everything else is considered superfluous or even worse, a penalty.

Tony: So beyond that, I think teachers invariably look for kids who are like them or like their subject or whatever. And they reinforce that. And then I don’t want to entirely blend teachers here because first of all, this was the early sixties. There was this macho mentality in these boarding schools [crosstalk]. Even today public school teachers have this massive load, 150 or more kids. You can’t individualize, not saying you can’t, but it’s extremely difficult to get to know your kids and the individualized instruction with this impossible load. So some of it is really structural. We assume that the purpose of education is to batch process large numbers of kids on an assembly line. They all get the same part at the same time. Okay. Here’s your lesson.

Tony: [crosstalk]. Yeah. Okay. We’re going to be talking about parts of speech today. Everybody grab some paper because we want to talk about Jarons. they’re really fun and exciting, and you got to know about that.

Andy: Yep. Yep.

Tony: I used to have to Look it up every night before I taught it before I realized it was a waste of time. Anyway, 30 years of research to show that knowledge of grammar does not improve one’s writing.

Andy: Interesting.

Tony: What improves ones writing is writing.

Andy: Doing it, yeah. Experiencing it.

Tony: [crosstalk]. Audience and writing about things that interest you or that you care about.

Andy: What inspired you to get started with your self study in writing was you stumbled across a book of aphorisms by a Polish author, Stanislaw Lec.

Tony: Yeah.

Andy: So what are aphorisms, exactly? And what was it about these that inspired you?

Tony: Well, first of all even though I hated school, I was a voracious reader. I consumed all the great novels of Steinbeck and Hemingway, Thomas Wolf, and many, many others. And I was very careful to not read the books that were assigned or if they were assigned, to read them ahead of when they were assigned so the teacher wouldn’t ruin it for me. So anyway, somehow I came across Stanislaw Lec book of aphorisms. Aphorisms are short, witty statements, like a blind man finds a four leaf Clover. Is he lucky? So after reading a book of those, I decided I’d compose some of my own. Oe that really sticks with me that I composed back then at the tender age of 17, is his life nothing more than a question and answer period where the questions go unanswered and the answers go unquestioned?

Andy: That’s pretty good.

Tony: [crosstalk] prison for the time, right?

Andy: So that’s cool. And that inspired you. And I think it’s so… That’s just so true about learning, that it doesn’t really happen until we find a reason to care about whatever the subject is. For you, it was this book. You never know what that’s going to be for someone. So I guess… I don’t know how you encourage that.

Tony: Well, it comes back to my advice to teachers and to young people today, which is stake hearings. Just keep a little book, a little three by five pad in your pocket or something where you write down your questions or your ideas or your concerns. You listen to yourself and to what makes you curious or concerned. And then my advice to teachers is to make time for young people periodically in their classes to pursue that question or that concern. To have time to do their own independent research, and then present them back to the class. And this is something every teacher can do in any class. And these… I know teachers have tried it.

Andy: Sure. Yeah. And you hear about companies doing that kind of thing where you have time to work on whatever you want. But yeah, that’s such a neat idea to do that in your classroom.

Tony: Yeah. I think it starts with curiosity. You know, I wrote a book called creating innovators. I did in depth interviews with young people in their twenties, all of whom were identified as creative problem solvers. Some were in high tech. One of them was the project manager for the first iPhone, but some of them were social entrepreneurs, starting a social enterprises, trying to solve social problems. Wide range, equal number of young men, young women, some from privilege, some from poverty, but they had a few things in common. One was, they told me they’d all become young innovators, creative problem solvers in spite of [crosstalk 00:16:24]. Not because of it.

Andy: Yeah.

Tony: Mirroring my own experience. And then secondly, they were curious people. And even today, as I meet adult innovators who are sometimes in their eighties. I met a gentleman in January that has like 20 patents. He’s just insatiably curious. And so I think curiosity is the seed of learning, is the seed of intellectual growth, even emotional growth, and it is something that we have to pay critical attention to and nurture.

Andy: What exactly is the Carnegie Unit?

Tony: Well, way back in the late 19th century, all these high schools were being created. This is the dawn of the industrial era and the dawn of the industrialization of education. And so it was the wild West of schooling. And so a group of people, men, all men, got together. Led by Charles Elliot, who was then the president of Harvard University. They said, “Look, we can’t have all this randomization in education. We got the standardize. And so we’re going to decide what an academic credit is.” Like you take Latin, you get credit on your transcript. Well, what that? What does that look like?

Andy: Right.

Tony: The equivalent of 200 hours of seat time served in class studying this particular thing. Now what’s astounding to me is that this system has been in place for a century. You pick up any kid’s high school transport today. It’s got numbers. Four numbers for English, three for math. Those are Carnegie Units. That’s what they are. And it’s not a certificate of mastery. It’s a certificate of seat time served.

Andy: You put in this many hours sitting there in the classroom.

Tony: I served my seat time, therefore I get my credits. Hand me my credits, please. I’ve served my time.

Andy: Yeah.

Tony: Let me have my credit. I’m done.

Andy: Punch the clock from this time to this time.

Tony: Exactly. So one of the core arguments I make about the need to reimagine education is to move it from being a certificate of seat time served and the hours you’ve served in different places, to a certificate of mastery.

Andy: Yeah.

Tony: It should be like the merit badge approach in scouting. And I actually learned that in summer camp. I went to a summer camp here in New Hampshire that was one of the very first to use the Merit Badge approach to certifying kids, having acquired a level of mastery. Now they call them ribbons, but it’s the same thing as the Merit Badge approach in scouting. It’s a century old. And what it means is that, okay, I earned my ribbon in axemanship. So what I had to do to earn that ribbon was first of all, learn how to properly carry an ax. So I didn’t kill myself, or cut my leg off.

Tony: There are good and bad ways to carry an ax.

Andy: Sure. Yeah.

Tony: [Inaudible]. I had to learn how to sharpen it, how to keep it sharp because the sharper ax is far less likely to bounce back off a log and cut you, than a dull ax. So it’s a safety issue. Then I had to learn how to dull a tree. Well, where do you make your cut. Where do you make your second cut? These on each side. How do you do that? How do you make sure the tree doesn’t hang in other trees. Then the next thing I had to do, I felt a tree. Now I have to cut it into bite size pieces. Well, how big a [inaudible] do you make, when you’re trying to cut through a log of a certain diameter? Then I had to learn how to split. I had to learn to split logs because these logs were too big. All with an ax. And finally I had to cut and chop a certain amount of wood demonstrating proper technique. Then, and only then. Did this teacher certify me for my ribbon in axemanship.

Tony: Now this particular camp had ribbons like the Scouts do in many, many different things. You could earn ribbons in riflery and canoeing, and sailing, and rowing, and swimming, all kinds of things. But this was the ribbon that pro… Because nobody else had it in camp. So I decided I needed it. [crosstalk].

Andy: I’m going to be the one person.

Tony: There was also some chemistry between this older man than I. Years later I discovered the nature of the chemistry. I returned to the camp a couple of summers ago, just about now to just refresh my memory because I was going to write about it. I’m talking to the alumni person there, and he’s asking me about memories. I’m talking about this guy, Colonel Helliwell, and he said, “Well, would you like to read his dissertation?” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, just like you, he also went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and earned his doctorate there.” I was mind blown. I didn’t know that.

Tony: So I read this dissertation written in 1925, and I swear, he and I would have been good buddies, then and now, because he was writing about how the industrial model of education was grinding down kids, and only turning out one kind of kid suitable for college, and not paying any attention to the rest of the kids, and how this form of education was doing this at the expense of kids being outside and learning outdoor skills. It was an incredible dissertation and discovery. Did he somehow, when I was like 11, 12 years old, influence me to become an educator and end up writing books with ideas that were, in some ways, similar to his? No way of knowing. But it’s a fascinating to wonder about that.

Andy: At another time when having an adult teacher.

About Tony Wagner

Tony is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and a widely published author, his most recent book being his memoir, Learning by Heart. His work includes numerous articles and seven books, including three best-sellers: Most Likely To Succeed (co-authored by Ted Dintersmith); Creating Innovators; and The Global Achievement Gap.

Tony Wagner is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, founded by Linda Darling-Hammond in 2015. Formerly, Tony held a variety of positions at Harvard University for more than twenty years, including four years as an Expert in Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab and the founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His previous work experience includes twelve years as a high school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor in teacher education, and founding executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility.

Tony served as the Strategic Education Advisor for the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, which had its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He also collaborated with noted filmmaker Robert Compton to create a 60 minute documentary, The Finland Phenomenon: Inside The World’s Most Surprising School System in 2010.

Want More Tony Wagner?

Find Tony on his website, Twitter, and LinkedIn.