Ep. 82: An Unconventional Education

Ep. 82: An Unconventional Education

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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?

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!

The 27-minute public version is free to listen to, and the 46-minute extended version, packed with extra goodies and ad-free, is reserved for site members. Log in or start a free trial to access everything our site has to offer!

This week’s sponsor is Prompt, a company whose mission is to help students be more prepared for AP exams. Use the code TEENS at checkout for $10 off. 

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?:

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3. Convince Your Teen to Gain Some Skills:

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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.