Full PreFrontal

Ep. 159: Tony Wagner - An Unconventional Education

August 05, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 159
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 159: Tony Wagner - An Unconventional Education
Show Notes Transcript

The schooling of American children is marred by our notions that hard and long hours of classroom learning is a defining feature of K-12 school success even though such environments lack a playful approach to learning or room for imaginative interactions with the world. In their book Out of My Skull, Neuroscientists James Danckert & John D. Eastwood write, “When we have a sense of meaning and purpose in life, options for engagement with the world are evident and compelling.” So if we know this about schooling, learning, and engagement then why is it so hard for us to pivot? 

 On this episode, globally recognized voice in education, Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, and author of many books including a memoir, Learning By Heart: An Unconventional Education, Tony Wagner, Ph.D. discusses how his own childhood learning experiences that were neither pleasant nor rewarding failed to channel his natural curiosity and what it took for him to find his way back to flourishing as a life-long learner.

About Tony Wagner
A globally recognized voice in education, Tony Wagner currently serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, founded by Linda Darling-Hammond in 2015. Prior to this appointment, 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, for more than a decade, 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 is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and a widely published author. His work includes numerous articles and seven books, including three best-sellers: Most Likely To Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for The Innovation Era, co-authored by Ted Dintersmith, was published by Scribner in 2015. Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, was published in 2012 to rave reviews and has been translated into 19 languages. His 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap continues to be an international best seller, with more than 150,000 copies in print. Tony’s memoir, Learning By Heart: An Unconventional Education, was published by Penguin/Random House in 2020.
Tony served as the Strategic Education Advisor for a major new education documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” which had its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and has since been shown in more than 11,000 communities around the world. 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.”

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

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Sucheta Kamath: Hello, welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. Thank you, once again, for joining me, I am delighted to continue these conversations about learning, education thinking, developing the whole mind, and becoming those individuals who contribute to our society in the most effective ways. And of course, our prefrontal cortex, you know, we should pray and hope be is the reliable and trustworthy assistant, who stays with us throughout this journey. As I was getting ready for this interview, I have a very special person for you to listen to. I was taken back to the history of the Committee of 10. Many of you might know, this is kind of the birth of education. So the National Association of United States and I'm now quoting Wikipedia, in a committee on secondary studies, known as the NEA Committee of 10, was a working group of educators that convened in 1982. And they were tasked to kind of set the standards or practices. And interestingly, I mean, people like Henry King, you know, James Baker, James McKenzie, and many people who contribute to the way we envisioned education. But I think, as we rethink education, the real question is, who shapes the decisions about educating the future generation and it's a great pleasure because we have a guru himself, who has given a lot of thought about, and we have come a long way since that Committee of 10, whatever they conceptualized and we'll talk a little bit about that. But today, I have with me, Dr. Tony Wagner, he's a globally recognized voice in education. He currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute founded by Linda Darling Hammond, in 2015. Prior to this appointment, Tony held a variety of positions at Harvard University for more than 20 years, including four years as an expert in residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and the founder and co director for more than a decade of the change leadership group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has incredible rich knowledge and experience that he brings to the table because he has played many roles and worn many hats, including a high school teacher, K-8 principal, university professor, founding executive director of educators for social responsibilities. But one thing that he is very often known for is his writing. And so at heart, I would say he's a writer, and he has written multiple books, two main ones that have had very influential impact on my thoughts about education, one being the global achievement gap, and the second being creative innovators. But today, it's a delight to have him because he just published his memoir, which is a called the learning by heart and unconventional education. So with all this big introduction, welcome, Tony, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Tony Wagner: Thank you, Sucheta. It's a pleasure to be with you. I'm great to just have a conversation with you.

Sucheta Kamath: So since we talked about executive function, as you know, executive function, skills refer to this set of mental skills, using we're using these skills, we manage our thoughts, manage our emotions, manage our actions, so that we are effective in achieving the goals that we have set for ourselves. The more the main caveat there is by self for self, and an enlightened self interest way, not in a selfish way. And and that discernment, of course, is also an evolution of that brain that allows you to regulate your thoughts and behaviors. When I read your memoir, one of the striking things and forgive me if I'm being bold here, but you would have been a kid who would have been referred to my practice. And it's a I say that with endearment because, one, I think those who are interested in educating children and those children who are unwilling participants of that education become the troublemakers. And so you were a troublemaker. And here you are, you know, multiple years later, decades later, highly accomplished. So what, tell us a little bit about your suffering as a child? And why were you so difficult?

Tony Wagner: Well, I think in another way, I still am a troublemaker, at least I hope I am trying to provoke very different conversations about education. But you know, there were problems with school. For me, there was so much emphasis on rote memorization, and obeying authority. You know, I didn't see the point in either, to be quite honest, I didn't have huge amount of respect for the authorities around me. Because, you know, I had big questions. I was very curious, I wanted to understand the world and why people were doing crazy things, I wanted to understand racism, and so on. And school wasn't about any of those big important questions. The school didn't help me make meaning of the world. It gave me facts to digest. And so from a very early age, I just decided, you know, I love learning, I just didn't like school. So I read, you know, all kinds of books and learned about other things and other ways, but school was not something, you know, that agreed with me, let's put it that way. And as you know, from the story, you know, I, I left high school, my senior year, excuse me, finally graduating from this one of these last chance high schools, and then dropped out of college, not once, but twice. But I like to think of at least the second reason for dropping out as being a worthwhile one, because I became, as you know, very involved in the civil rights movement, and the anti Vietnam War movement, which had a profound influence on my, my development and evolution as a young adult.

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, and I think I really, what I like about that is people should really do some, you know, I love you begin by talking about your own father, who wrote his, I wouldn't say memoir, but he documented some of his memories from serving in World War II. And that was the first time you made some discoveries about his life experiences, which he never talked to you directly. And I think, you know, my, I've been very fortunate to have my mom who lives with me, and has been living with me off and on for last 13 years since my dad passed away. But I have had a lot of chance to talk with her about her journey, as a child and her education and some of the things I never first was attuned to it. Not interested in it. But I also know, I had an assumption that it must have been great. Because she looked fine. So So one thing I want to kind of, if you don't mind, me indulging there, but one of the guests on my podcast had been has been a clinical psychologist and he Ross Greene, and he says behaviorally challenging kids are challenging because they're lacking the skills to not be challenging. And so I think I was just curious, you know, you you had so many experiences of being misunderstood. And, and you, then that rubbed against your own stubbornness. And it created a lot of conflict, in your educational experience, if it was obviously not seamless. But what you did have is incredible intellect, and curiosity. And the Kahuna is, if I may say so to defy authority and get away with it a little bit. In the process, I think what was not visible to people is your inner angst. And I think, if we can spend a minute here, and there are so many kids I work with, where they don't have either the tenacity like you did, or they don't have the enriched environment like you did, where there are books available, they could do the time travel through their mind, or they have this opportunity to just wander your father had a great farm. So some of the Can you tell us two things. One, is this being difficult and what it did to your psyche as a learner, how demoralizing that was. But secondly, what do we do about those kids who are not fortunate like you to have access? In spite of school being so difficult?

Tony Wagner: Yeah. Well, it was profoundly demoralizing to me because I felt there was really something the matter with me. You know, in retrospect, I have a somewhat different interpretation. But back at the time, I thought, you know, why can't I be normal? Why can't I just sit down and do the darn homework and study for the tests? And do what I'm told, you know, am I my parents just grew increasingly frustrated with me through the years. And finally, you know, I think by the time I was 18, or 19, I guess 19 or 20 and dropped out of the second college. I think they just given up on me really, and I don't blame them, because they thought you know, we put all this time and effort into this kid and he's just a screw up. You and my teachers called me screw up on, they didn't use the screw up word, they use the worst word beginning with F. And so I believed it, you know, I thought, you know, when when one teachers are doing "Wagner, you're an F up, you've always been an F up, you're always going to be an F up." I took it as a life sentence. I said, Okay, this is really who I am. And it took me many years of kind of building a life on my terms, to come to understand that I wasn't. And, you know, I know Ross well, and he and I have had it at one point, he actually rented a, our downstairs apartment from us in Cambridge. So Oh, my goodness, we go way back. But you know, school has only one narrow path for kids. It is very prescriptive. It says, These are the skills that count. This is the knowledge that counts. Your questions, they don't count. We don't have time for those. Your curiosity. No, I'm sorry. No time for that. So, you know, I think when we think about what's, what's up with kids who have problems within school, you know, we have to also understand that, you know, school is a kind of one size fits all, factory assembly line model. And if the size doesn't fit you, you're an outlier or a screw up or worse. And so I think once in answer to your second question, one thing we really need to understand is that kids learn in different ways, have all kinds of skills and dispositions. And you know, I've been reading Angela Duckworth's book Grit, which I highly recommend, I'm sure you know, very well, that Yeah, she said, passion and perseverance are what truly matters. And if you don't build an education system around helping young people to find their pursue their passion, they're never going to develop perseverance. So in time, I did find and develop my passion, which enabled me to develop my my perseverance, my grit, tenacity.

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, and and I think the, that made me really sad, because so many of your teachers repeatedly, your failure to complete work, failure to cooperate, failure to just not behave or be respectfully engaged in compliance, compliance is what they were asking. Exactly right. And that you are not disrespectful, but you are just not showing respect through compliance. And I see that as a fundamental barrier to so many children's education. And if they have a question that's squashed. And I'm not blaming educators, I think there's something wrong with the way we have structured the learning experience. So that's a problem. But the second point I wanted to also kind of talk about is the issue of boredom. So I have had a neuroscientist who studies boredom. And he and his colleague wrote a book on Out of My Skull. He quotes a key precondition for flow is a balance between what the moment demands of us and our ability to skillfully meet those demands. So you talk a lot about being bored. And and so I have a question for you, as you look back. So I see that as a Goldilocks effect, either the challenge is too challenging, or the challenge is not challenging enough. And the sweet spot cannot be average, like the gifted classroom, the teacher is teaching to the 27th percentile of the classroom. Right. So how do we so you navigated that by doing some, you know, inner discovery, but what do you suggest what should kids do when they're facing this incredible doldrum of education? That doesn't make sense, but somehow, systems are not changing fast enough, and they are required to participate?

Tony Wagner: Right, the long term answer is developing an education system that is tailored to the individual, instead of trying to tailor the individual to the education system. Amen. But I didn't understand that until I was I read summary help is the Oh, when I was 18. But what can children do themselves? I think relatively little. I think without supportive adults, children are left to conclude that there's something the matter with them because they don't fit. But I think with supportive adults, and I, you know, as you know, interviewed a number of young adults who were themselves highly creative and didn't necessarily fit school, but had supportive parents that other teachers around them, who encouraged them outside of school to explore their interests to develop and pursue passions. And so I think that's the short answer is that finding and developing reading interests, taking a child's curiosity seriously, taking their question seriously. Whatever they may seem, is, in a way, the stopgap solution to schooling that doesn't take children's interest seriously, if you have parents and other adults around you, and as you know, I found several actually in a summer camp, because there weren't any other adults immediately around me, who were giving me that support. You know, I just I've just kind of stumbled forward, kind of blindly continuing to read novels, because I loved reading good literature, for some reason, crazy reason.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so sweet. I think as you talk about the influences of all these adults that came into your life, it's a really like a Nancy Drew moment, you know, to see a little discovery that a little boy is making, as he's watching quiet people with incredible skill or some charismatic adult. And, you know, I just took me back to this reference of Julius Segal, who coined the term, charismatic adult, a person with whom children identify, and from whom they gather strength. And I find that in a lot of your childhood experiences, and many of mine, you know, they're not many adults are keenly interested in making observations or connecting to that child's inner well being. And I think there's some confusion about being nice to children versus really caring. And I love the concept of, of this, this strong, but firm presence right in child's life. And I think so I'm almost tempted to write an article how to love children, I feel there is a genuine missing ingredient that we should make a prerequisite is those who who are in education should know how to love children. And I'm just wondering, what are your thoughts about our the way we do teacher preparation? We don't enough emphasize on love.

Tony Wagner: Yeah. Well, love in our culture is loaded, isn't it? Is it? Is it what kind of love is it? Is it indulgent love? Is it erotic love? So I think that's particularly challenging, I would frame the challenge perhaps a little bit differently for teachers. I think it's listening to children. Also, not just the ones who are vocal, but maybe even especially trying to draw out the quiet children, listening, attending to them. That and that's, of course, a part of love being attentive. You know, Erich Fromm wrote this classic tome that that had a profound influence on me back in the early 60s, called the art of loving, and he said, Love is care, respect, knowledge and understanding. I think if you translate that into teacher preparation, then you know, you really say we need to treat each child as an individual. Now, the problem, of course, is that that's not what our society wants our teachers to do. They want our teachers to get every kid to score highly on a variety of tests, tests, which tells us absolutely nothing about work, learning or citizenship readiness in the 21st century. So there's right now a severe mismatch between what the education system is producing and what the education system is telling teachers, it wants for outcomes, versus what's required to live a fulfilled life, to thrive as a child and as an adult. So I think it's that mismatch that we really need to attend to.

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, I guess I think, I agree with you, I think I would replace love. What I meant by love was the positive regard, which is unconditional acceptance of the way the child is of today. But having incredible faith, the future is not the same, and and rigid. So it brings me back to this idea of executive function of the teacher really matters, you know, the way they their growth, their harbouring growth mindset, their own attitudes and belief systems. And the way they view their job, you know, it's my job to get through this curriculum, or and test or is the my job to transform a child. And you did have some interesting and amazing educators who did that for you. Do you want Do you mind sharing with us? Those who really made an impact? 

Tony Wagner: Oh, there were a number, only one of whom was actually a teacher in my school. So first of all, I went to, I was sent to a summer camp for five years of boys camp on a lake in New England. And I had a couple of profound experiences there. One is I spent I before I was befriended by another camper who was the son of a Cherokee Indian chief who was also there. Jimmy and I became fast friends. And he invited me to join his father and a couple of other campers to work on learning Indian dances and folklore, eight American Indian dances and folklore, he was Cherokee, the Cherokee chief and artist by the name of Wapah Nahyah, you can find out about him, he was quite famous. So I spent an entire summer being a student of Wapah Nahyah's. And we were making our own costumes, we were learning and practicing dances every single day. But he was also quietly teaching me about a very different way of understanding the world, about their, the the Cherokee religion, which is kind of nature based. And at the time, I had a profound kind of connection to nature, which I still have. I live on a lake right now. So that that was the beginning of a different understanding of the world, if you will. And I was a clumsy kid. But you know, with Jimmy's help, and his dad's teaching, I ended up being able to do this dance in front of the whole camp. And then the other experience at camp was setting, axmenship with a 75 year old man. And it's really again, almost mystical, what would have happened at this camp, you had to earn ribbons to kind of become a more senior camper. Think of them as just like merit badges in scouting. Yes, and there were all kinds of ribbons offered. But for some crazy reason, I decided I wanted to earn my ribbon in axmanship, which existed as a possibility on paper, but nobody asked for it. So Colonel Elwell was his name. And I spent two summers studying with him. First, he taught me how to sharpen an axe everyday, because the dull axe is the thing that will kick back and cut you, then he taught me how to carry an axe properly through the woods, then he taught me the different kinds of trees, but most importantly, how to fell a tree, how to figure out where it's going to go. And then of course, I had to cut the tree up, I had to chop it into wood that could be used, and I had to cut a certain amount of wood to earn my ribbon. So it went on and on. But you know, what was so interesting was alright, so my tree got hung up, it didn't fall down. I wasn't graded on a bell curve. I didn't, that wasn't a test, I got that I failed, I got to see mine is, you know, it was learning through trial and error. He would simply say, okay, you know, what did you learn from that? What are you gonna do differently next time? It was, in other words, a mastery based curriculum, if you are proficiency based competency based, it was, you know, complete or not, you got to revenue when you met the standard, or you didn't, and that profoundly influenced my thinking, as an adult educator years later, and still does to this day. And then, of course, you know, there was my teacher in high school I had, it was the best of times and the worst of times for high school English.

Tony Wagner: And the one I mentioned already use the F word on me and I left that school the next morning, and Wagner, you're an F up. And so I was just so profoundly humiliated and demoralized. So at this very last chance school, you know, for some reason, I really decided I wanted to pursue writing. I've been very interested in running for two, three years. But I really kind of started working at it. And I approached not my English teacher who is not particularly sympathetic, but another teacher in the school. And I said, Would you teach me to write his name was Mr. Edmonds, and his reply was, I'd be delighted. He was an Englishman. Very, very warm and gentle. So we would meet every week for a tutorial. And every week, he would give me a different kind of writing to try a monologue, a dialogue, a childhood reminiscence a critical review. And every week, he'd sit down and read what I had written the previous week. And he would comment on one or two things that he thought I'd done with some skill had done well, and a cup and then he would make a couple of suggestions, then use a red pen wasn't a long list of things that I had done wrong. But you know, I grew and I developed, he was nurturing my passion, which hardens into perseverance. And you know, I've now I'm about to start an eighth book, and I often wonder, had it not been for him? What I have gone down that path. I don't know.

Sucheta Kamath: It's It's such a lovely story. I mean, I think you're absolutely lucky to have this opportunity to go to summer camp, which, and I'm so happy you did, because you had some experience of heaven in your childhood as learning heaven with school wasn't. And you know, it just reminded me so many parallels I didn't, I grew up in India, and we didn't have the concept of summer camps. But, you know, I remember my father. So we, we would go to the market every other day to get fresh vegetables. And one of the things was to know the quality of vegetable based on the way it feels and the way it looks, and the way it's stacked. And so my father would do my hair, and I would just walk through the market. And he would ask me, which vendor Should we go to? How has he arranged his vegetables? And then when we pick the mangoes, for example, he would test and ask, how many days do you think it's going to take for these mangoes to be right? And then he would just let you experiment and then we would test it. And I've said three days. And then three days, he would say did the mangoes ripe? And he said, Oh no, it's not the next next time and we would go we would do the same thing again. So other tradition we had in the house is to determine the taste or flavor of food without tasting it. So very early young age, my father was sick with jaundice, and he was hospitalized for one one month. And so my I had to take up cooking, I was just 12 I think and my brothers who were even worse than I was. So we I made so many rotties bread, that was dog food. But I think that experiential learning is an invaluable aspect of growing your sense of self, your efficacy and your understanding of your skill mastery that requires motor planning, right? Because a lot of concepts in schooling are abstract. But if you don't have concrete parts associated with learning, so it just took me back to my summer camp was shopping.

Tony Wagner: But in a way, so I, you know, I think most important learning is trial and error. And he let you have trials and errors and learn from them. We don't do that in school, we penalize errors, we don't do you know, and and the more errors you make, the lower you are perceived to be on the bell curve, the dumber you're supposed to be. And so we have it all backwards in school, you know, how do you learn to ride a bike? How do you learn to talk or walk or shop in the market? trial and error? and sensory observation is an essential element of that. But of course, we don't include that in school either.

Sucheta Kamath: So you know, a lot of your examples, amazing examples, and and people that you talked about who started these amazing, innovative schools. And we're talking about not not in like late 90s or early 21st century, these people have been added, since like 1930s and 40s. And it's just a sample. It's just an example. Why? So I know, I'm kind of switching gears a little bit. But what do you think about the current condition of the way we educate children? I mean, there was a buzz happening around 21st century readiness when it was 2000, 1999. I remember, it became a huge debate and kaput, you know, 20 years down the road. I'm not seeing any change all these amazing ideas that you talk about. And so many people talk about in my own, you know, work that I'm talking about teaching executive function as a subject not teach how to learn to learn as a subject since you're not teaching it. And so, I know you're talking a lot about changes that need to happen globally. But do you mind talking a little bit about has it happened? And what seemed to be the barriers?

Tony Wagner: Yeah. Well, that's a key question. I think, first of all, we have to understand that education, by and large, is adapted to our economy. Yes. And so we created the assembly line model of education, as you described it in 1892, to fit the industrial model. Now, the problem is we no longer have, you know, a primarily an industrial education, or I'm sorry, an industrial economy. We don't make very many things anymore. We have. We don't even have what's called a knowledge economy. Peter Drucker coined that term 50 years ago, knowledge today is a mere commodity. What we have is an innovation economy. Yeah, and our education system has not kept pace. Now. I think one simple way to understand that is because we teachers teach in the ways that we've been taught ourselves or We, a few of us are driven to experiment. And to, you know, later on in the book I described 10 years of effort to try to become the teacher I wished I'd had, as a student, with parents want schools to look like the ones they went to, or once they wish they had gone to. So we are lacking what I would call an r&d capability in education or research and development capability. You know, periodically, we've had amazing innovators in education, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Ted Sizer, Deborah Meyer, and many, many others, whose shoulders I stand on. But they've been the exception. We need an r&d capability, first of all, and every school of education. You know, John Dewey created the lab school at the University of Chicago, but it didn't last after he left. It's not there anymore. No schools of education have their own laboratory schools. No school districts have left schools. Charter schools have the capability of being laboratories of innovation, a few of them. But now, we pitted charter schools against conventional public schools in a in a fight for scarce resources, so they can't learn from one another. So we need first and foremost an r&d capability. Second of all, we need a leadership voice. And I'm talking about business leaders, and civic leaders who say we are not preparing kids for work learning our citizenship in the 21st century, then 21st century, all kids need new skills, not some kids, all kids exactly nearly aspiring to bring our most disadvantaged kids up to the levels of our middle class kids is in effect going to sentence all of our kids to being left behind, because they're getting a mediocre education for another era. And we're frankly, really going to get be further and further behind. And I think a direct impact is the kind of spiraling loss of citizenship proficiency that we see in this country.

Sucheta Kamath: That's so well said that education is an economy. And I think we should not forget that I think we have all these high motto aspirational things we say about education, but ultimately it comes down to funding. And I really love this point. And if I may bring attention to it is I think distinction between disadvantaged children versus disabled children or children with disabilities. I think children who come from poverty and people with children with disadvantages are treated worse than children with disability. But even children with disability are also not given the opportunity to conquer like you, as I mentioned, you would be a child with disability in 21st century, because we would say you're not paying attention, you're not complying. You're not cooperating, you're going on your own.

Tony Wagner: I'm sure I would have been sentenced to special ed classes and never recovered.

Sucheta Kamath: And yes, and they would have actually accused you for not being smart. So that's another issue. But you know, I do want to kind of take a pause here, and we win the issues of poverty, equity, and and the racial divide, you know, America is struggling with equity. You know, there was a report that came out in 2019, by Ed Builder, that that showed that majority white districts are received $23 billion more than majority, non white districts, and this is glaring in our face. And then we have no support system. And we still actually harbor a lot of beliefs about children who are non whites and their capabilities. What, what what are you thinking about this? And how, who is at the helm of the change? The lots of thinkers have were making recommendations, but I just don't see them getting enacted fast enough, or at a larger scale or for deserving kids?

Tony Wagner: Yeah. I mean, I just couldn't agree more. It's glaringly clear that rich families send their kids to rich schools, and poor families have no recourse but to send their kids to poor schools. And the resource differential is just appalling. And I think just unforgiveable. So, obviously, we need to make our education funding not just level, but actually more resources to the more disadvantaged, because we know that if they have an extended school day, that's enrichment, if they have summer programs, if they have a quality preschool program, they will excel. The research is overwhelming clear. And I know you know it. It's not as if they're, you know, mentally disabled. Disadvantage simply means they have not had the advantages of well to do white kids. And so if we give them some kinds of compensatory opportunities, they will thrive. But then here comes the next point, which is, let's take away the time factor in school. Yes, you know, in the adult world to be a plumber or a pilot, a physician, you work to to a level of competence or proficiency. Yes. Without a, you know, a stopwatch on you how many times you take the driver's test while some pass it on the first time. So, take 15 tries, who cares? Who remembers all that matters is that somebody is a proficient driver school should be exactly the same high school diploma right now today, as like as college diploma is a certificate of seat time served. What is the Carnegie unit, we talked about courses as having x numbers of Carnegie units, it's a certificate of seat time served a high school diploma and a college diploma should be a certificate of mastery, a certificate of proficiency required merit badges, along with optional merit badges. But it gets back to the problem to answer your question. Why isn't this happening? Because we're not an evidence based or research based policy, environment for education and health are sometimes in health, but so often not at all. And education, there is a huge body of evidence about what works and what doesn't that we systematically ignore. And some of its money. Some of it's just posturing. It's a lot of things. You know, you look at a country like Finland, which has taken all this evidence seriously for 40 years, and has the best education system in the world. No question. And, you know, when the Finns ask, Well, what did they do? They they said, they said, Well, we we read the research that Americans had done, and we pay attention to it. Well, we don't do that here.

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, you know, and, and I think that was funny that so many, that so many people are benefiting from the ideas, the right right ideas and ripe ideas. I feel like it's become like the social media posting, you know, like, it's somebody posting an inspirational quote, but never living in that inspired way. What's the point of posting, but that brings me to the next and you you kind of lovely ways you brought this up. But this idea of a play, you know, while talking about the concept of free play, psychologists, Peter Gray, describes free play as activity that is freely chosen, and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake. And then you juxtapose Baby Einstein, sending your children to this, these camps where you learn to hit the ball. I mean, there's no discovery left, even like, you will probably cry. If you heard what the way the kids are doing summer camp these days. They have scheduled activities and no exploration in it. So So I think, what are your thoughts? You talk a lot about play, and you talk about this idea of innovation that comes from that exploration, but we don't have that in our opportunities to do that.

Tony Wagner: You're absolutely right. I, I researched and wrote a book called Creating Innovators, which you refer to

Sucheta Kamath: Love that book, by the way,

Tony Wagner: Thank you. I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot writing it. And I had a lot of fun. I, you know, I like my previous book where I'd interviewed business leaders. This one I interviewed young people in their 20s. All of them were already recognized as remarkable creative problem solvers, innovators. In other words, I tried to understand what had made the difference in their lives. And come to find out there were some practices that both parents and teachers have pursued. Their parents encouraged much more exploratory play get outside, fewer toys, toys, without batteries, they limited screen time, teachers tried to create opportunities for kids to engage in a kind of serious play in school in terms of exploring interests and ideas. So as these kids grew older, their parents were very intentional about encouraging them to pursue interest in the hopes that they might develop a real passion. You know, when we talk about grit, grit, perseverance, tenacity, it does not come from a tiger mom sitting on your shoulders, yelling at you to practice for 10,000 hours. It comes from an interest that grows into a passion that becomes over time, a sense of purpose. And that's what Angela Duckworth writes so eloquently about it. It's what I discovered in my research. So that play is a vital element of learning. I mean, Alison Gopnik talks in her books about how infants play to make meaning of the world. Play isn't play is the work of children. It's not play That's a wonderful paradox, right? plays the word children because that's how we learn. And even in the adult world, purposeful play, discipline play is what scientists do. It's what artists do. It's what you and I do. It is still play, because it is fulfilling our passion in a purposeful way, with discipline. That's the kind of play. So we go from random play to more focused play, to the development of passion, to finally arriving at a sense of purpose. And in every case, I found that that's what these young innovators had done with help from teachers and parents along the way.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I think the beauty in that is, first of all, play is such a great source of joy. And there's also a source of relaxation. That means you're not actually straight highly stressed when you're, you're not performing play you're playing. And and I think that the it is the activating the default mode network. So a lot of creativity, where you connect ideas that are loosely hanging around, you can come into focus. What I find is incredible. You know, recently I watched, I have subscribed to masterclass and Wayne Gretzky are one of I do not care about ice hockey or have watched it. But I just love expert just like you have studied them in business and as well as a young youth. And he was so funny. He was talking about this story, that in the summer, they lived in Canada, and in Ottawa, I think. And they would have deep winters, like in Boston, but they in the summer, their lawn would be the greenest and so all the neighbors would come and ask how what are you doing? What special treatment are you doing to your lawn? and turns out, he said, my father never let the secret out. Because the secret was, he had created an ice rink because he saw Wayne's interest and all his three children's interest in ice hockey. So he would just create a rink and he would pour water and keep putting water. So it's it became ice. And because of this nourishment, the land got, the product was lawn, but people were it was lost on them the this effort and free play. And then Wayne Gretzky went on saying that I became good, not because I want it to become good. But when I hit the park, and it did not go into the net, the walk on that snow, to get to get the puck back was so tedious. I said, I'm going to avoid that. So I think if you just unveiled the little mines that children put when they are developing skills, you know, there's so much joy, you're saying how can I create a shortcut? That's your creative problem solving right there. Exactly. Innovation at its best, right. So so you have also talked about, you talk very compassionately about the hope you have in your heart for education, in spite of all these conditions. And and so I would love for you to talk. And there are several points of intersection that you see hope for us to change our ways. Can you share with us and one being learning from failures? Can you share a little bit about why there's so much value in that and why should we care about revisiting failures

Tony Wagner: Well, actually, I'd like to get the F word out of school and out of parents vocabularies entirely of that I prefer learning through from trial and error because that is the nature of innovation. Innovation means going from one Dotto to two Dotto. How do you do that? Through iteration iteration is simply trial and error reflecting on the error as you did with the mango with your father's help, right? No, it wasn't ready in three days. That's an error you made was it? Was it a failure? No. You know, alright, blame the mango the mango failed to ripen in the three days. But quite seriously, I think we that book that language is crippling because it labels children as quote failures, as opposed to saying all learning is iteration is trial and error reflecting on the error learning from the error and trying again, one Dotto to two to three Dotto. So, to me, it really is about changing the language of learning and getting the F word and the bell curve and the stopwatch out of the classroom entirely. What we know when you focus on the development of proficiencies and you have a highly adaptive individualized curriculum which is possible now with computers. Just about every single person can get to proficiency no matter what it is. It made take so much longer. So what? Who cares? So long as they get to proficiency? Right? So, you know, if if kids today don't reach a certain milestone by the prescribed time according to the stopwatch, they're labeled failures, or stupid, yeah, kind of failure, right. So I think the hope is that we really learn something from the innovation era. In fact, the skills you need today for work, for learning, and for citizenship have converged. I think for the first time in human history, they are the same skills. And that's profoundly civilizing. When you think that everyone needs to learn to think critically, to work collaboratively to communicate effectively and solve problems creatively. Whether you know, you think of the citizenship domain, or the or the economy. So to me that there's hope in that, there's also hoping in the kinds of experiments I see going on with increasing frequency on the margins in education. Back when I started, there were very, very few experiments of any kind. They were mostly random, I learned about the more through history than current events. But now we see more and more schools, trying very different approaches and succeeding with all kinds of kids. So to me, that's another basis for hope.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that. And I love that that, you know, to going back to this idea about failure, one thing that I have believed, and I always bring that in my work is when you define learning, learning means not knowing. And a when your process shifting from not knowing to knowing error is inevitable. Because if you don't encounter error, which is not an error, it's continuing to not know. So it's not an error, you know, what I mean? So I like to remind the knowledge, incomplete knowledge or knowledge in the progression of becoming knowledge. And I think we are under estimating the nature of learning. And, you know, I have a created a software, which is that individualized learning as you're talking about, it's called ExQ, which is, is developing learning how to learn skills from sixth grade to 12th grade by evaluating six components of executive function, and creating a year long curriculum for every single child. So you can have mastery that is at four levels of competence, because the mastery comes from exercise based practice, but deliberate practice that miss it changes based on your competence. Second is that error analysis, and one of the most effective ways to improve executive function is task analysis skills, the complexity of the task scope of the test parts of the test, so that you can can create execution very path. And these are the skills we are not teaching, like your axe, not axe grinding, but you know, your axe throwing skills, we're actually walking you through the steps my dad, and you know, I have to tell you another fun story. When I was growing up another fun summer thing we did, which probably would kill most of modern children, which was to watch, do you know what papadum is, it's, it's a delicacy, which is a, you make this flower, and then it's very tightly kneaded. And then you make tiny balls, and you roll it out into around paper thin, and it's wet. And then you lay your mom, sorry, on the rooftop, and you lay these things, and you watch them dry. And make sure that no crow eats it, because you don't have summer camp. So for years, we would do this. And there was so much learning to be done. Because if you peel the poppadom too soon, too prematurely, when you go to fry them, they would be wet. And if they're wet, then they would be splashed up oil. But you don't get to redo papadum until next year. So there's Oh, there's a 12 month gap in your learning proficiency development. So I really liked it. I think I like this example because some learning just takes so long to correct the course. And I think we are not teaching that in embedded in learning. So I really appreciate the way you think about removing the F word. So as we come to an end, one I can't let you go without you talking about this. The culture the academic climate and culture you know, you talk a lot about this passivity compliance and teacher leading as an expert in front of the classroom as we shift what how do we let the children know the climate has changed? What will be the signals that we can send to the children so they know it's okay to voice their confusion, their challenge the authority in a way? Do you see any signs?

Tony Wagner: Well I do think that the more you have a culture of listening to young people of respecting their voices in a school of that asking their opinions, giving them regular opportunities to voice their perspective and point of view, and showing that you heard it, and at least some of it, you can act on the minute, we'll do it all. I think that's the message to be sending young people today, that's critical. I think over time, what we need to understand is that the real role of a teacher is neither to be, you know, the sage on the stage, nor is it to be a mirror facilitator, a word that a lot of people use, it's rather to be a performance coach, coaching students to higher performance standards. So what we do in the athletic fields is what we do in the fine art studio in the auditoriums should be exactly the same in classes. And so in order to coach someone to a higher standard, you have to really know that individual, you have to know what motivates them, you have to know where their proficiencies are, what their lacks are, and what they need to get to the next level. So it's that more individualized approach that I think is needed. Now, let's be clear, most teachers would love to do that. But our system doesn't allow it, we give teachers too low, that's too overwhelming. In Finland, the average teacher is in front of students 600 hours a year, with class sizes around 20. In our country, the average teacher teachers 1100 hours a year in front of kids, with class sizes closer to 30. And if you multiply that in a high school, you're teaching five classes, that's 150 kids a day, you're saying, how can you individualize learning for 150? Kids? The answer is you can't. So we have to think structurally about very different approaches. And there are good examples of that. As you may know, we did this film called Most Likely to Succeed, a year of filming in a school. Very, very different approach. And so there are good examples out there that people can learn about.

Sucheta Kamath: And it just takes time to change. It's like a cruise ship, you have to, you know, have it pivot facing north. So as we come to a close, do you have recommendations for our readers, in addition to your multitude of books, what has influenced your thinking, What has changed? And what get has gotten you so excited about the way you think about things?

Tony Wagner: I've mentioned a couple of authors already, and I'll mention them again. Alison Gopnik's research on how infants learn, Scientist in the Crib is one. I love that under and I can't remember this the title, but they're easily found. She also does occasional articles for the Wall Street Journal. I think she's really helping people understand the nature of, of human beings hunger to learn and to make sense of the word world from a very young age. And then I think the work of Carol Dweck and I also mentioned of Angela Duckworth really helping us understand it's not about talent. It's more about grit and perseverance. And growth mindset, as you mentioned earlier, said that these are the qualities that matter most that parents need to focus on. And so I think, you know, thinking about parenthood, reading these authors may help a parent understand a very different role for parenting.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, thank you for your recommendations. Thank you for your time and it's a great conversation. And thank you listeners for tuning in. Please keep in touch, send us an email, subscribe to our newsletter, and definitely spread the word once again. Thank you for joining us today at Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. Take care.