The Innovation Era in Education: A Conversation with Change Leader Tony Wagner

With so much emphasis on the importance of a good education to get ahead in life, it’s sobering to note that in 2014, eight out of 10 seniors graduating from college didn’t have a job.

In the new book “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the New Innovation Era,” Tony Wagner and co-author Ted Dintersmith examine the gap between what’s required to earn a degree, what would actually prepare students for true success once their formal education is complete, and how educators can lead change.

Wagner served as the education advisor for the companion documentary of the same name, which premiered at Sundance in January. Throughout the year, the film has been shown at school-hosted screenings across the country.

Wagner has written a number of best-selling education books, including “Creating Innovators” and “The Global Achievement Gap.” He is an Expert in Residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab and has been a high school teacher and K-8 principal.

We recently spoke to Wagner about innovation in education. His insights are sure to motivate education leaders looking for a better understanding of what college and career readiness really mean, and inspiration for creating more effective learning communities. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Our culture has a deep belief that students who excel in school, and who graduate from top colleges, are the ones who are most likely to succeed in the workplace and in life. In today’s world, who really is most likely to succeed?

Failure, in the world of innovation, is a virtue. Some companies talk about failing early, failing often, failing fast, failing forward, failing cheap. But of course, that is completely antithetical to the world of school, and especially to kids and families who are trying to get into so-called name-brand colleges.

I was at Amherst a few months ago, talking to students there. They explained that the pressures to be the perfect child, and to never fail at anything, were extraordinary. What we’re seeing today, I think, is the fallout from that, with increased rates of adolescent suicide and dramatically increased uses of various kinds of medications [among] college and high school students.

Why is there still so much emphasis on, and obsession with, the credentials, even though they’re increasingly irrelevant in terms of real-world employment?

They’re tangible, and they’re what our country has used for well more than a century to basically determine who’s smart and who’s not, who is in a higher social strata. What we’re seeing is that in the world of business, where outcomes and results matter most, they’re in a fairly quick transition away from those conventional academic credentials as hiring preferences, to finding new ways to assess core competencies. It may take a generation for that to trickle back to schools and to families.

Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the New Innovation Era

Published by Simon & Schuster

In your book, you write about the Y Combinator as an example of that. Do you see those changes happening mostly in tech industries, or in other fields, too?

That’s really where it started. It used to be that the major companies would go to universities to do their hiring. They’d go to MIT, or Caltech, or Harvey Mudd. Student work became more public, through students having a GitHub account where they could actually show their work. Employers suddenly realized, this college degree really doesn’t tell me what I need know. What I need to know is, what are this kid’s coding skills?

This move from false credentials to genuine competencies that can be observed and assessed is the most critical move we’re seeing in the workplace. That’s absolutely going to transform education.

Is the Internet and Information Age accelerating the uptake of new teaching methods, particularly in K-12?

It should be, but in many cases, it’s not enough. Because, of course, the counterforces are the accountability systems that we have in place, the increasing emphasis on test scores and test results. Those tests are still far too focused on multiple choice and capture recall than on application of knowledge.

Our accountability 1.0 system has an enormous drag and anchor on innovations in education today. There are so many teachers I talk to who agree with our analysis, who want to try new things, but who say, “I can’t risk it. I can’t risk a lower test score. I can’t risk my students’ parents being angry at me because their SATs aren’t good enough or they don’t get into a good enough college.” That risk aversion, based on the old accountability and measurement systems, is a huge negative influence on education today. It’s the No. 1 problem, in my view.

What advice do you give to educators in that kind of atmosphere?

The first challenge of a change leader in education is to help adults around him or her understand the changing world. By adults, I mean parents as well as teachers. Most of us are so heads-down in our work, whether it’s parenting work or teaching, that it’s very hard for us to see these broader trends that I’m describing. A change leader has to frame that kind of adult learning, and there are a lot of ways to do it.

The film we’ve created, we think, is an important mechanism for causing a community dialogue to reappraise the goals of education. Book readings, having speakers come in, interviewing employers and videotaping what they have to say and then showing that to parents and teachers: All of those are ways in which we can help adults really see a rapidly changing world and then be able to discuss implications for their children and for education.

The next challenge is to really give teachers the space to try new things. A safety net. Creating an innovation fund as a part of faculty development, a fund to which teams of teachers can apply to create interdisciplinary curricula, or to work on the idea of a digital portfolio. Different forms of assessment, beyond digital portfolios, exhibitions of mastery, and so on.

Innovation in the workplace is driven by investment in research and development. We need research and development funds that are school- or district-based, to which teams of teachers can apply.

One of the biggest problems we have in education, one of the great inhibitors to innovation in education, is teacher isolation. Isolation is the enemy of improvement. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. What we have found is that when teams of teachers work on projects together, there’s more of a willingness to take risks, to try new things, and a more rapid iteration, or evolution, of the quality of the work.

What have you learned in the wake of the positive reception that the documentary has had?

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps a movie is worth a thousand books. That may be a slight exaggeration. I don’t think people are going to change their schools because they’ve read a book. When you can see it, smell it, touch it, and taste it, when you can see real classrooms transformed and the impact on kids, the result can be profound. Communities all over the country are now signing up to do these [documentary] showings, with discussions afterwards. The potential here is quite profound.

What questions should educators be asking themselves?

If we’re going to educate innovators, meaning creative problem-solvers, teachers are going to have to model those behaviors.

One of the things that I mention often is that content still matters. You can’t teach critical thinking without academic content. Kids need content for perspective and history and so on. Skills matter more. Skills trump content because that’s what the world cares about today. But motivation matters most, and students who are intrinsically motivated will continuously acquire new content knowledge, and new skills, throughout their lives, as indeed they must.

The challenge for every one of us as a teacher, no matter what grade or what subject we teach, is to really critically analyze our lessons and our units of study, from the point of view of:

  • What content am I teaching?
  • How important is it?
  • What do I want kids to remember from that content a year from now?
  • What skills am I teaching, and how am I assessing them?
  • How do I know that my students’ skills are good enough?
  • How am I motivating my students?
  • Am I trying to use more intrinsic motivation?
  • Am I giving students work worth doing?
  • Am I bringing in play, passion, and purpose into the work?

I challenge teachers to bring more play, passion, and purpose into their classroom, to take intelligent risks, to work with a colleague, to try out new ideas, and to be a sounding board, and even to observe one another’s classes. But always think about three things: content, skills, motivation.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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