I recently finished our faculty summer reading assignment, The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. Last year we chose our summer reading from a selection of books, and there were specific reasons I did NOT choose to read The Global Achievement Gap.
The same gap that gives the book its title is that reason. In the first chapter, Wagner summarizes Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and pokes us with a stick saying, “fear! fear! the world is changing!” I have little patience for this way of manipulating a reader to be receptive to the rest of your book. I think authors like Friedman and Wagner can see the past, but, like many humans, are very very bad at predicting the future. When Friedman himself outlines the global gap that Wagner adopts for his title, he writes something along the lines of “so get your kids to put down the Game Boy and get to work in the classroom.” Dear authors, the Game Boy is not your enemy, that Game Boy is your future (although at the time of this writing, it would more likely be the Nintendo DSi). Wagner sets up the reader with all this fear that all of our “good middle class jobs” are going overseas, but I believe – given the insane amount of privilege enjoyed by those who would have held those good middle class jobs – that something else will arise to take their place. I don’t know what that is yet, but believe me, people will adapt. All of that privilege will not simply disappear just because specific jobs went overseas.
In fact, that ability to adapt is one of the seven survival skills Wagner says students will need in this new, flat world. Put briefly, those skills are critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysis, and curiosity. Wagner goes through a few chapters contrasting the skills that the business world demands with the content standards and testing that prioritized in the current education system. The resulting impression is one that, taken to an extreme, would say that content doesn’t matter. Perhaps in an English class not remembering the previous text will not harm your ability to analyze the current text (but it prolly won’t help either!). In a chemistry course, however, not remembering the molecular view of matter we developed in the early chapters will certainly impair your ability to analyze your experimental results in the second semester. The content that I expect students to learn and know is the context that helps them ask the smart questions Wagner wants students to ask.
I really felt that Wagner’s critique of the teaching profession and teacher preparation was the strongest part of the book. As a teacher, and especially as a relatively new teacher, I do indeed feel isolated. And in a survey on professional development I recently administered and analyzed, my colleagues do express a desire for greater collaboration. As Wagner points out, none of us in our education courses learned HOW to teach these seven survival skills, even if we did learn how to teach content (which I didn’t, but hey, that’s the program I chose). The only way we will learn is by sharing ideas and lessons with each other. I only wonder if the result of this reading assignment will be, “See, this is what you need to teach all alone with your door closed” instead of “Here’s more time to meet and talk and plan.” In effect, will we have a chance to actually use these seven survival skills, and model them as we teach them? Or will we be expected to teach them while adhering to the old model of schooling?
Finally, I would argue that our upper and middle class students already learn these survival skills from the privileges they enjoy. The most we can do in elite private schools and wealthy suburban school districts is help them practice those skills in an academic setting. What about those students oppressed in our society, without the advantages of privilege? This is the question I wish Wagner had made his hook: not the concern that American middle class jobs will disappear, but the way that school reproduce inequality and class structure. But I guess social reproduction doesn’t sell as well as fear of dropping in status.