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

It’s difficult to get a teen to care about academics, but with the coronavirus pandemic forcing schools to move to remote coursework or close altogether, teens are even less motivated to keep up their studies. Parents across the world are struggling to keep their teens interested in education, particularly those enrolled in the traditional “time spent” schools.

But there is something parents can do, and maybe be better equipped to do than teachers: encourage their teen’s curiosity. With a completely altered world, now just might be the perfect time to help your teen change their perspective on education, knowledge, and intellect.

To learn more about how this could work, I spoke with Tony Wagner, author of several books on education most recently his memoir, Learning by Heart: An Unconventional Education. Himself a one-time high school dropout and two-time college dropout, Tony nevertheless hit his stride after letting his curiosity and interests—plus a heavy dose of discipline and concentration—guide him to success. After “quitting” school a number of times, Tony eventually made his way to Harvard University’s School of Education, earning a PhD while teaching, researching, and writing.

In our interview, not only does Wagner walk me through some of his comedic personal stories (all the way from a conservative all-boys boarding school to San Francisco in the late ‘60s), but he explains how the most impactful parts of his education were often unconventional. Taking classes for no credit, having options as to what he would study, and being given the freedom to explore his own creativity were all recurring themes throughout his personal journey. These experiences are in stark contrast to the typical cookie-cutter schools where all students are asked to prepare for tests and perform rote tasks. Wagner, like so many modern students, struggled and questioned the merits of a rigid educational system.

Now a world-renowned expert in education, Wagner knows exactly why he and so many other growing men and women feel unfulfilled in America’s educational system. Having worked in all areas of the education system, from the classroom and administration and from prestigious institutions such as Sidwell and second chance schools, he gives excellent advice on how to foster curiosity, support struggling students, and reframe education to appeal to all students. In this interview, listeners will hear:

  • How teachers, coaches, and parents can push their child’s potential
  • The importance of discipline and concentration–not just interest
  • A warning from Tony about all-boys schools
  • How schools have fallen into the ‘time spent’ trap
  • Why we all need to rethink the purpose of education

Wagner’s advice is especially relevant in the classroom, but parents are perhaps the most vital teachers for their teenage children now, no matter if you know the answers to their homework or not! Wagner’s own story of overcoming a school system that didn’t feel right to him, plus his research on what’s students need to thrive will hopefully leave us all a bit more hopeful during these odd times!

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?

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