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School reform that won't fail students

April 02, 2013|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • High school students are seen in Los Angeles.
High school students are seen in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times )

Growing up, I became an expert test-taker at my college prep private school. There wasn’t a fact I couldn’t memorize and I was determined to ace every exam. Problem was, I wasn’t actually learning much of anything.

That sad realization didn’t come to me for years until a friend introduced me to her new school, a humanities magnet that forced students to think critically, to debate in class, to make persuasive arguments in essays, and to have real-world experiences that put all of this new knowledge into perspective. It was more important to these teachers that students learned how to dig deep so they could truly understand the information they were learning. Multiple-choice tests were a rare sight here, but projects rooted in creativity and innovation were a regular occurrence. I had to get in on the action.

I don’t think tests are useless. I just don’t think they’re everything. While I agree that striving for good grades is important (later on in life, good grades turn into other goals like “good paychecks”), I also think it’s important to put students in nontraditional environments, to challenge them creatively, and to let them fail every so often so that they can learn how to climb back up. (Incidentally, I think that ethos should be extended to the workplace too.)

So it was delight to read Thomas L. Friedman’s Saturday Op-Ed in the New York Times about teaching K-12 students the ability to innovate so that they’ll be able to make it the real world. For his piece, Friedman interviewed Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner.

“Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate -- the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life -- and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge,” argues Wagner to Friedman.

“As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think -- to ask the right questions -- and to take initiative.’ ”

If we really want to do our students -- and the future of this country -- justice, “reimagining schools for the 21st-century must be our highest priority,” says Wagner. As Friedman says in his column, traditional jobs are disappearing, as are opportunities for good paychecks for people with middling skills.

Read on for how Wagner would transform classrooms across the country.

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier

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