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A New Dialogue for Our Children's Future


We are not going to transform education by simply replacing one administration with another or even by passing new laws. Instituting better assessments is the one most important change we could make tomorrow that would have the greatest impact, but before we can consider a host of other policy recommendations, we first must have a long-overdue dialogues-a discussion that might well start with a simple admission and a question: I thought I knew what students needed to learn and what a good school looks like-because I was a student once and I went to school, and it worked for me. But times have changed. And maybe students today do need something different. I wonder what it is?

If all students are to acquire the new skills for success in the twenty-first century, the change I describe must be systemic, and it must start in individual living rooms and classrooms, in school PTA and faculty meetings and district central offices. I believe it begins with a change of mind and heart -- a change that comes about through adults learning together. Above all else, what I have come to understand in this work is that powerful questions are what drive real learning and that such learning is a precondition for lasting change. Following are some of the essential questions that we all need to explore together in every school and every community, in every state house and department of education, in Congress, and in our national educational organizations:

If you are persuaded by the ideas and stories in this book, then I suggest that you have new work to do. Your work is to sponsor thoughtful, reflective discussions about what our children need to know and be able to do in the twenty-first century and how best to motivate them to learn. Whether it is with friends around the dining table, in a reading group, or in a church or synagogue discussion group, or at your PTA or faculty meeting, or in conversations with administrators and school boards, members of your state legislature, or members of Congress -- your work is to initiate and sustain a different kind of conversation.

The questions outlined above or the topics of each chapter of this book may be useful as an outline for your discussions. You may also find it helpful for your group to view an important new documentary film, produced by Robert Compton, titled Two Million Minutes, which chronicles the school experiences of six adolescents -- two each in the United States, China, and India. However you choose to start the conversation, it will succeed only if it is a reflective discussion that is driven by the important questions rather than the easy answers -- by inquiry rather than ideology. It needs to be a dialogue that demands both respect for different views and a critical intellect that enables you to ask: How do you know that? What's your evidence? Your new work, I suggest, is to start practicing the Seven Survival Skills yourself as you collaborate with others to create the schools our children urgently need for the twenty-first century.

In the early stages of my research for this book, Clay Parker told me that the most important workplace skills today are asking the right questions and engaging others in vital conversations. I was skeptical then. It was difficult for me to believe that these skills, which I have long valued as a teacher in classrooms, might be just as important to business leaders in boardrooms. Having been on this journey of discovery for several years now, I know that he was right. But these skills are not only what young people need to be successful on the job. They are also what we all need in order to be contributing citizens in a vibrant democracy-and to confront the challenges and make the changes that we must for a better future for our children.

Borrowing from the ancient wisdom of Rabbi Hillel: If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

The above is an excerpt from the book The Global Achievement Gap; Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need -- And What We Can Do About It
by Tony Wagner
Published by Basic Books; August 2008;$26.95US/$28.95CAN; 978-0-465-00229-0
Copyright © 2008 Tony Wagner