Play, passion, purpose: Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED


Translator: Min Hyun Oh
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo So how many of you are educators, past, present, or future? Raise your hands. Good. I’m in the right place. I’m a recovering high school English teacher. True story. How many of you mentor young kids? Raise your hands. I’m definitely in the right place. For 25 years, we’ve heard about failing schools and the need to reform our schools. Anybody who wanted to reform school? Raise your hands. Einstein once said that formulation of the problem is often more important than the solution. I would like to respectfully suggest our schools are not failing; they certainly don’t need reforming. The system is obsolete and needs reinventing. Not reforming. What’s changed? It’s simply this. Knowledge today is a commodity. It’s free. It’s like air. It’s like water. How many of you have been on the Khan Academy website? Raise your hands. Yeah, most of you. Right, you know. You know the quality of education people can receive on that if they’re willing to take the initiative. How many of you had to memorize the periodic table in high school? Raise your hands. Ah, everybody! Good. So, how many were there again? No wait, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that. Whatever number you came up with is wrong, because two more were added last week. And planets, are we up one or down one? I don’t know, I haven’t checked my news feed today. And let’s see, let’s have a contest. Why don’t you recite the 50 state capitals from memory while I google them? Let’s see who’s quicker. Knowledge is a commodity. The world no longer cares whether or not you’re smarter than a fifth grader or how well you do to triple your pursuit. What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know. And that is a completely different education problem. Then the question becomes, Do you have the skill and do you have the will to use the knowledge you have acquired? Okay, I gotta tell you a kind of an intellectual journey I’ve been on. 2005, I read “The World is Flat” by Friedman. How many have read that book? Scared the heck out of me. Because as you know, he describes a world where increasingly any job that can be routined is rapidly being offshored or automated. White collar, blue collar, doesn’t matter. Talked to him recently, interviewed him for the new book. He said, “I got one thing wrong in that book.” I said, “What was that?” He said, “The pace of change is happening so much faster.” So I worried about what kinds of skills will our young people need to get and keep a good job in this new global knowledge economy. And in fact are they the same skills they’ll need for citizenship and for continuous learning? So I’ve interviewed a wide range of innovators, literally, from Apple to Unilever, executives, U.S. Army, community leaders, college teachers, asking all of them, “What are the skills that matter most today? What’s important?” Came to understand, there’s a set of core competences every young person must be well on the way to mastery before he or she finishes high school. Not just to get a good job, but to be a continuous learner and an active and informed citizen in the 21st century. Very briefly, they are: No. 1: Critical thinking and problem solving. What do I mean by critical thinking? The ability to ask the right questions, ask really good questions. No. 2: Collaboration across networks and leading by influence. No. 3: Agility and adaptability. No. 4: Initiative and entrepreneurialism. No. 5: Effective oral and written communication. No. 6: Accessing and analyzing information. and lastly, No. 7: Curiosity and imagination. So, a couple things happened when that book came out 3 and a half years ago. There’s a global achievement gap that Hellman just referred to. First of all, I got a kind of affirmation from literally, around the world that simply stunned me. Taiwan to Singapore, to Helsinki, to Madrid, and kind of all places in between. Thailand, Bahrain, Birmingham, England. From Wall Street to West Point, people said to me,
“Yup, these are exactly the right skills.” I felt pretty good. Not bad. Then the other thing happened. Economy collapsed. And I saw kids coming home from college, seemingly having acquired some, many, most of these skills, coming home from college to no job. They had the skills. Something was missing. Right now today, half of all recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. A third are living at home. Maybe some of you in this audience. What did I miss? What was wrong? Well, as I tried to understand the essence of this economic crash, I came to understand it’s a lot more than the credit default swaps we read about, a lot more than just a hyper-inflated real estate market and so on. Here’s what I learned. Maybe you all know this. I didn’t. More than 70% of our economy
is based on consumer spending. What’s everybody’s biggest fear? That consumers will stop spending. That’s why we lose jobs. No. 2, that that consumer spending has been increasingly fueled by people going into debt. Pulling money out of the house as fast as they could, putting money on credit cards as fast as they could. 2007, the savings rate was minus 2%. Leading me to conclude that maybe what we have done is create an economy based on people spending money they do not have, to buy things they may not need, threatening the planet in the process. I think it’s increasingly clear that kind of an economy is not sustainable. As Jeremy Cloud said, it’s not sustainable environmentally. It’s not even sustainable economically. Right now today, the savings rate is about 4%. Consumers are saving more than they are spending. I don’t think it’s sustainable spiritually either. We need something different. So as I tried to understand what’s the alternative, what’s gonna be our niche in the global economy, one word appeared over and over again. Innovation. The idea, not just the major innovations in STEM, but becoming a country that produces more better ideas to solve more different kinds of problems, ideas that generate jobs, ideas that other people want and need as solutions to real problems, every kind of problem. So, you know, America has always been known as a highly innovative country. But is that because of, or in spite of, our education system? Important question. You know we have infrastructure, we spend on our R&D, copyright protection laws, good immigration policy, until recently. What about education? Alright, trivia question of the day so fast you won’t be able to google the answer. What do Bill Gates, Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid instant camera, Mark Zuckerburg a Facebook fame, and Bonnie Raitt, the folk singer, all four have in common? (Audience) College dropouts. Sorry, they were not dropouts, they were Harvard College dropouts! That’s different! Thank you very much. You know Steve Jobs is a dropout, Michael Dell is a dropout. These guys were Harvard dropouts. So I decided to take a different tactic. Trying to understand what must we do differently to develop the capacities of many more of our young people to be innovators. What must we do as parents, as teachers, as mentors, and as employers. Started interviewing a wide range of innovators in their 20s. Extraordinary young people. Range some from privileged, some from poverty. Wide range. All over the country. Some in STEM fields, some in arts, some were social innovators and entrepreneurs. Then I interviewed each one of their parents. Trying to understand if there were patterns of parenting that I might observe. Then I asked each one of them, “Is there a teacher or a mentor who’s made a significant difference in your life?” One third of them, one third, could not name a single teacher. Of the two thirds who could, they could name at least one teacher. The third that couldn’t name a teacher could always name a mentor by the way. Very important. We underestimate the importance of mentoring. So I went and interviewed each one of those teachers and mentors. And I made, what was for me, a shocking discovery. In every single case, the teachers whom I interviewed — and I interviewed teachers from elementary school
to graduate school. The full spectrum. In every case, every one of those teachers was an outlier in his or her school setting. In fact, I went to five colleges. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Tulane. All five of those college teachers having produced brilliant innovators and continued to do so, none of them had tenure nor were they ever going to get tenure. What’s the problem here? Well, what I came to learn is that the culture of schooling, as we have grown up with it, is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators in five central respects. No. 1, we celebrate and award individual achievement, and sure there’s an important place for that, but, as you well know, innovation is a team sport. And all of these teachers built real, accountable teamwork and collaboration in all of their assignments. No. 2, we are all about specialization in American education. High school, universities are divided and conquered by something we call Carnegie units, which are 115 years old. Chemistry this, biology that, and so on. The world of innovation is interdisciplinary. And problem-based learning. Judy Gilbert at Google, she said to me, if there’s one thing educators must understand, is that problems can no longer be solved nor even understood within the bright lines of academic disciplines. No. 3, the culture of schooling is all about risk aversion and penalizing failure. Students’ job is to figure out what the teacher needs. Give the teacher whatever the teacher wants. Teacher’s job is to avoid trouble, you know. We are not encouraged to take risks as educators, right? The world of innovation, as you will know, is all about taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from them. I went to IDEO, the most innovative design company in the world, they said to me, “Our motto is, ‘Fail early and fail often.'” That’s because there is no innovation without trial and error. I went to the D School started by David Kelley from IDEO, an amazing interdisciplinary program at Stanford. They were talking around a table together saying, “You know we are actually thinking F is the new A.” Try selling that report card back at your schools. I talked to a student at Owen College. Owen is by the way, probably the best college in the country right now today. Every course, interdisciplinary, team based, project based — extraordinary place. Talked to a student at Owen, he said, “You know, we don’t even talk about failure much here. We talk about iteration.” Heck, I don’t think I knew what the word meant five years ago. But it’s become something so important as a concept to me. In learning, there are no mistakes, there are iterations. Although I have to ask you, how many of you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Raise your hands. Yeah, me too. God, that hurt sometimes. That’s painful. But the point is, we protect children in school, we protect children at home, the helicopter parents hover. They don’t want their children to make mistakes lest their perfect record become blemished in some way. But that’s the only source of real self-confidence. That you can learn that you can recover from a mistake. And you don’t wanna learn that when you’re 35, because it hurts a lot more then. The fourth one. You know, the culture of learning is so much about passive consumption. In fact I think that’s where we all learn to be good little consumers, in school. Because we sit and get all day long. The classrooms of innovators are all about creating. Creating real products for real audiences. Lastly and most important, we rely on extrinsic incentives for learning. Carrots and sticks. Money for good grades. The world of innovation, these young innovators, every one of them whom I’ve interviewed, was far more intrinsically motivated. They want to make a difference in the world. And so then when I look back at what these parents had done and what these teachers had done to encourage this intrinsic motivation, I found another pattern. Play to passion to purpose. Parents and teachers alike encouraging more exploratory play, fewer toys, toys without batteries, less screen time, more time that was unstructured. Get out, and play. Parents who encouraged students to find and pursue a passion, who knew that was more important than mere academic achievement. Teachers who encourage students, made time in every class for students to do projects, to do research, to do experimentation, to find and pursue an intellectual or artistic passion. And every case as these kids have developed passions, they morphed, they changed, they evolved into a deeper sense of purpose. Because parents and teachers alike said one thing: “Give back. Make a difference.” And all of them have that value, want, in some way, to make a difference. So what does this mean for our work? Well, we can have a lot of long conversations about how the system needs reinventing. I’ve written some things about that. But, you know, I come back to what each one of us can do. And I come back to the idea that, first of all, we have to be innovators in our teaching, and in our mentoring. We have to model the values, the behaviors of innovation. We have to, in our teaching, be willing to take risks. Be willing to learn from mistakes. Work more collaboratively with our colleagues. But I think above all, maybe what’s most important for me is that I, as a teacher and a mentor, now think much more about where and how am I encouraging the play, the passion, and the purpose in everything that I do with the young people. Thank you very much. (Applause)

36 thoughts on “Play, passion, purpose: Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED”

  1. Wonderful summary of the principles and issues in his book, Creating Innovators. I'm really enjoying thinking through his ideas and the evidence supplied in the book. Great stuff! I like the experience of reading the book as well – it's own 'innovative' experience!

  2. I agree – although screen time might be more and more needful in our age of technology. Encourage a balance between computer time and good old-fashioned imaginative play.

  3. Great talk about the new three P's let's mingle them with the three P's for sustainability: People Planet Profit and combine them with lot's of Pleasure and Peace.

    So now we have the 8 P's to help our generation to be the new innovaters of a new world.
    Play, Pleasure, People, Passion, Planet, Profit, Purpose, Peace

  4. Love that Tony is challenging everyone to be part of the solution by modeling the values of innovation. Why would anyone settle when it is possible to make a difference in our world and create real solutions to real problems for real customers. Whether a mentor or an entrepreneur inspire the next generation forward.

  5. Incredible discussion. I completely agree. The educational system does not teach the skills necessary to compete in today's economy.

  6. Saw this gentleman on "The Agenda: with Steve Pakin" today. I love that show. It consistently validates my opinion. So few people around my area share it. I never had a mentor but am considered "innovative". I would love to be a teacher but those attracted to the pay (ontario) saturate the system.

  7. Play, Passion, Purpose. These words need only to be taken to the heart and applied to see fruitfulness happen from this concept. Great Video!

  8. Many truths about learning. We have to innovate and motivate students to be facilitators and work with their multiple intelligences so that all have opportunities to be creative and autonomous Excellent talk

  9. I enjoyed every minute of this talk. It gave me a sort of guideline in raising my kids. I really liked the intrinsic motivation part. 

  10. Unfortunately, there is lots of politics and little actions when it comes to reinventing our eduation system…

  11. Great speech, Tony! I particularly liked the following statement of yours:

    “Knowledge ist a commodity. […] What the world cares about
    is not what you know but what you can do with what you know."

  12. Adding to Tony's list of successfull Harvard dropouts, my top 7:

    7. Cole Porter (Composer)
    6. Robert Frost (Poet)
    5. Matt Damon (Actor)
    4. Edwin H. Land (Polaroid)
    3. William R. Hearst (Newspapers)
    2. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)
    1. Bill Gates (Microsoft)

    Conclusion: Dropout.
    (If you haven an idea what to do with your time – and make a difference!)

  13. "What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can DO with what you know" bang on! This is as close to my teaching philosophy as i have ever heard.

  14. The education system is evolving but not at a fast-enough rate. Why? There are key contributors that include but are not limited to, federal and state legislation, colleges, and funding. To keep up the key is providing educators with their own learning experiences that are focused on the competencies that inspire tomorrow's Guo Pei, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Sunita Narain. It's about the what, why, and how. Our educators don't know and understand the key skills and competencies to effectively unlock every students potential. Despite any social, emotional, or economic challenge, research has proven the educators are the key to success. Great learning can happen everywhere now. Do our educators know how to unlock it's true potential?

  15. This is great, in the sense that it tells us–convinces us–THAT we need to change. But I am frustrated that nowhere can I get a concrete plan, with specific examples, for HOW to change. Lots of ethereal philosophies, but very little useful content. Yes, we should take risks, be willing to fail–but what does that look like? HOW do we encourage that in our students?

  16. Application, WOW, thought my thinking was outrageous, the system must change along with the change that's occurring every day. BRAVO!

  17. So happy to find this! I have been saying "it's not what you know, but how you use it that matters" in front of an audiences for years now. Even in front of 100 candidates at Amazon, people were shocked by the message. How can that be? Right on Tony Wagner!

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