PEYTON, Colo. – Hundreds of educators from Falcon School District 49 gathered Aug. 1 for a back-to-school message from a leader in innovative education.
Tony Wagner, a pioneering author of ideas about the future of education, spoke remotely with about 700 teachers and principals in District 49, who were seated at Sand Creek High School in Colorado Springs. They were joined by dozens of district support staff and the Board of Education directors.
“Mr. Wagner will assist us in taking this conversation of innovation … down to where it matters most, down to the individual child, down to the next generation of innovators that must succeed,” said Donald Begier, District 49 executive director for education services, ahead of the meeting in the school’s gymnasium.“Tony Wagner does not claim to have all the answers,” said Begier. “But he offers one of the most comprehensive bodies of work today on what the best environments or ecosystems for innovators looks like.”
Starting at 9 a.m., Wagner began offering his perspectives via Skype, an Internet-based application that carried the acclaimed speaker’s voice and image into the gymnasium. He was projected onto an enormous screen, surrounded by bleachers packed with attentive teachers.
“You’ve had some interesting opportunities to think about innovations in your schools, curriculum and so on,” said Wagner. “I’m looking forward to having that conversation with you.”
Wagner described how collaboration and teamwork is essential to innovation, as well as trial and error. He explained how everyone learns more from mistakes than successes, highlighting teachers and students.
Wagner encouraged more play, passion and purpose in student lives. He told the teachers to help their students use “discover-based play” for “exploring interests and discovering passion.” They must learn to pursue an interest that’ll make a difference and give back to their community, he said.
“He’s right, we do need to teach kids to develop their passions,” said Deanne Champlin, a music teacher at Remington Elementary School, about 45 minutes into the morning conversation. She was one of many teachers routinely applauding his comments.
“Part of my job is to teach them to be confident and perform,” said Champlin. “When you’re a confident person, you feel like you can do what you want, what you’re most interested in.”
Wagner is an Innovation Education Fellow at the Harvard University Technology and Entrepreneurship Center in Cambridge, Mass. He’s the founder of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which he co-directed for more than a decade.
Before becoming an international consultant for educators, he worked as a high school teacher, primary school principal and university professor in teacher education. He helped establish Educators for Social Responsibility, a national leader in school reform.
Wagner has published numerous articles and books, including “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World” and “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.”
District 49 became Colorado’s fourth district of innovation in June with unanimous approval from the state’s Board of Education. The Innovation Schools Act of 2008 provides a path for schools to design and implement innovation initiatives, as well as request waivers from state and local policies.
The district’s innovation plans have focused on developing dynamic, innovative learning opportunities, using ideas and feedback from educators and parents.
“He’s the authority in 21st century learning right now and with our innovation initiative, that’s a perfect fit,” said Amber Whetstine, District 49 school improvement coordinator, who arranged the discussion.
After an hour, Wagner engaged the district educators and leaders by answering their questions.
“I’d like to get your thoughts on pay-for-performance,” said Tammy Harold, District 49 Board of Education president. “Do you feel pay-for-performance actually does create a better learning environment?”
“There’s absolutely zero research that shows that pay-for-performance improves test scores,” said Wagner, followed by a loud, cheering applause.
“We need to build collaborative time into the school day and week,” he said. “The money that the school board could spend on pay-for-performance, I’d like to see that money spent on encouraging teams of teachers to come up with ideas … and new forms of assessments.”
Wagner said testing needs to focus more on conceptual understandings, which improve retention.
“If you focus on depth, not breadth,” he said, “if you focus on concepts, if you focus on a thinking curriculum, kids are in a far better position to actually take these tests, and critically meet the questions.”
“I liked when he talked about grading systems,” said Samantha Cates, a physical education teacher at Falcon Middle School. “He talked about giving the idea to kids that you’re not just trying to get a grade, it’s about whether you’re getting the skills.
“Parent involvement is one of the most important parts of all this,” said Cates. “We need them to support what we’re trying to do with innovation. And don’t worry so much about their kids having the right answers; make sure they’re asking the right questions.”
“The challenge for districts like yours: educate the parents and the public that you want to hold yourselves at a higher standard,” said Wagner. “You’re holding yourselves to a much higher standard than what these tests currently do. That’s a very vital part of innovation.”
Wagner cited Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“I don’t need to tell you how challenging and difficult these times are for educators. … But what may be hard for you to see is how it is simultaneously the best of times.
“I have the rare privilege of going around and speaking to audiences like yours, speaking to educators who are deeply committed and passionate about wanting to make a difference, wanting to advance and improve their profession, wanting to lean education toward the 21st century.”