It’s About the Questions

By Nancy Flanagan — December 07, 2009 1 min read
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Live From NSDC, St. Louis-- Tony Wagner opened his keynote this morning by declaring that the formulation of the problem is more important than the solution. We’re not asking the right questions, he says--we’re more focused on the answers.

Well, yeah.

Some of Wagner’s key points and the questions they raise for me:

Wagner on the current discourse in Ed World: We are making policy based on buzzwords and half-formed ideas about what students “need.” It’s a familiar refrain; in my head, I hear stock answers from traditionalists, the humanists, the innovators, the economists.

What is the real problem in American schools? Do we really know? What are we trying to re-form?

Wagner: We’ve created an economy based on consumption, not manufacturing--buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have.

Do we lay blame for this problem at the feet of our education system?

Wagner gets on the 21st century bandwagon and makes a solid case for genuine exploration, discovery, mucking around, figuring things out. He takes a stab at debunking the false dichotomy between rich, core curriculum and 21st century skills, using the maligned “critical thinking skills” theme. Educators are not held accountable for employing, let alone teaching, critical thinking--partly because we don’t know how to assess it. Critical thinking is the ability to formulate the right questions.

How do we reconcile critical thinking and acquisition of knowledge? And why aren’t they automatically intertwined, in our own thinking?

Wagner: We need to begin making good teaching transparent. The most disruptive and productive technology in the classroom ought to be the flip video camera. A great activity for thinking about effective teaching is “Grade the Lesson:" Ask a group of educators to grade a videotaped lesson, and then compare results, which will invariably run the gamut from A to F. Professional educators--with decades of experience, and impressive scholarly credentials--have have wildly different conceptions of effective instruction. Teachers are more than willing to admit that they don’t teach perfect lessons--but we haven’t given them concrete ideas about what superb teaching looks like.

And we return again to the original questions: What is the real problem in American schools? Why do we persist in looking for simple answers?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.