When Pathbrite went to SXSW Edu, one of our team members had the luck of catching a talk from Harvard Innovation Expert Tony Wagner, in which he gave his expert opinion on exactly what students need for success:
The single most important thing you could do tomorrow for little to no money is have every student establish a digital portfolio where they collect their best work as evidence of their skills. Where they’re working with their teachers and other adults to present their best work, to iterate their best work, so that they actually have real progress they can show.
After his presentation, Tony was good enough to sit for an interview, sharing some of his expertise and opinions with our users. Check out the interview below!
What does it mean to be an expert in innovation?
Well, in practice what it means is that I have office hours at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and any student anywhere in the university can make an appointment with me to discuss some kind of new enterprise they want to start or that they are currently engaged in. It can be for profit, it can be nonprofit, but it’s a part of an effort to more broadly support students’ initiatives in the university.
This trend with innovation, how do you think this relates to our country’s current education model?
It doesn't at all. Our current education model, our “Theory of Change”, or whatever you want to call it, it’s hopelessly broken. We're incentivizing bad teaching. We're measuring the wrong skills with a punitive system that is bound to draw the best out of the profession and bore students out of their minds. But other than that, it’s fine.
What do you think is really needed to prepare students for the workplace? What are employers looking for? It sounds like you don’t think students are receiving the necessary education.
No. I think right now the Theory of Change is that it’s only our poor kids who have bad schools, and if we make our bad schools incrementally better for our poor kids by testing them more frequently and holding teachers more accountable, everything’s going to be well. But there’s absolutely zero evidence for that. [Students need] three things: they need content knowledge, but that’s the easy part today. It’s online; you don’t need a teacher to acquire content. The world simply doesn’t care how much you know anymore because Google knows everything. What the world cares about, now that content has become a commodity, is what you can do with what you know. And that suggests the two other education outcomes that are absolutely critical, and to simplify them I call them skill and will. Students need a new set of skills to thrive for work learning and citizenship in the 21st century; and they need will, meaning motivation, and arguably the most important is motivation. Because if you are motivated you will continuously learn new skills and new content knowledge, which you will have to in this era, and its the thing we do the most damage to in our schools today.
"Our current education model, our “Theory of Change”, or whatever you want to call it, it’s hopelessly broken."
How do you think we damage the motivation aspect?
Because we don’t give kids work worth doing. We give kids a lot of mindless tasks, a lot of memorization tasks, things that they could easily look up on their [smartphone], they’re required to memorize, and the moment the test is over they forget it—if they remembered it at all. We’re not giving kids work that is intrinsically interesting in the vast majority of our schools, and we’re spending far too much time on test prep, and the tests themselves are predominantly multiple choice factual recall tests that tell us absolutely nothing about work learning or citizenship readiness in the 21st century. Kids know it, and they’re bored out of their minds.
You said something along the lines of, “the single most important thing you can do tomorrow is have every student establish a digital portfolio.” Why is a portfolio so important?
It goes right back to the heart of the question of student motivation, of will, of giving students work worth doing. You know, I used to teach high school English, and I used to teach writing, and I discovered somewhere along the way that if you give kids two things: first, an opportunity to write about things they’re interested in, or care about, or are excited about, and secondly, they’re writing for a real audience, it totally transforms the classroom It dramatically accelerates learning to write well. So I think a digital portfolio potentially goes a ways toward accomplishing both goals. Giving students an opportunity to do work worth doing, saving it, and sharing it. I think longer term, strategically, what we need to be doing, particularly at the high school level, is sending a message to colleges that test scores and even GPAs don’t tell the most important story about the student. GPA’s certainly more important that tests scores. Test scores are virtually useless. GPA is somewhat useless but would be far more useful if students’ digital portfolios would be reviewed as a part of the application process. […] I think the whole idea of a digital portfolio is part of what I call Accountability 2.0, moving away from an over-reliance on stupid tests and moving towards really looking at student work and having students meet a performance standard for passing on to higher grades and for graduating from high school. And it […] can be an important factor in motivating kids to want to do better work.
"I think the whole idea of a digital portfolio is part of what I call Accountability 2.0; moving away from an overreliance on stupid tests and moving towards really looking at student work."
For students who are graduating and entering the workforce, it seems like most employers are looking for qualities like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving. How do you think a portfolio will help these students demonstrate that they have these qualities?
Well I think that’s the challenge where teachers have to give students work that demands critical thinking, problem solving, and that they expect a high standard for communication skills and collaboration skills. And the digital portfolio provides students with an opportunity to show mastery. And also—this is very important—to show progress over time. You know, you go to High Tech High website [a network of schools in San Diego] and you can click on samples of digital portfolios of students at the school where you see students describe a problem they’re working on. "Well, you know, right now this semester I’m really trying to get better with my opening paragraphs for my essays, and then, towards the end of the semester, and you’ll see some work in progress, toward the ends of the semester they’ll reflect and say: Well, you know I think I really got this now, I think my opening paragraphs are so much better, here’s a recent one of mine." So, that whole idea of assessing students according to a body of work and progress over time, in mastering core competencies, is exactly what a digital portfolio allows that other forms of assessment do not.
Does everybody need a digital portfolio?
Well, let’s look at the broader trends. Google is a fascinating example. Google used to only hire kids who had gone to name-brand colleges, and would only interview kids from those colleges who had the highest GPAs and test scores. Well Laszlo Bock comes along, analyzes data like a good Googler, and discovers that these indices are “worthless.” His words, not mine. He goes on to say that the skills you need to succeed in a competitive academic environment bear absolutely no relationship to the skills you need to succeed in an innovation economy. So now, Google doesn’t even ask for your transcript. You go onto the website for job listings, the word college does not even appear, and 15% of their hires don’t have a B.A. degree at all. What do they do now? They rely on structured interviews and evidence. See, we talk about being data-driven in education, it’s an obsession, but in fact the real world is evidence-based, not merely data driven. And a digital portfolio can be one of the best forms of evidence of competency and accomplishments. And I think more and more employers are going to simply say, “I’m sorry, we don’t trust your transcripts. It doesn’t tell us a damn thing. It doesn’t tell us anything important.” […] What if more and more students had evidence in their portfolios that they knew how to solve problems collaboratively, videos, testimonials, evidence from their internships and so on. I think it’s going to be a powerful tool in the world of work for hiring and it ought to be a more powerful tool for admission to colleges.
TONY WAGNER currently serves as an Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab. Prior to this appointment, Tony was the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, and the founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than a decade. 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 earned an M.A.T. and an Ed.D. at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.