The educational goals we should have — and how we tend to undermine them

August 13th, 2012 by Briana Cummings

In his book The Global Achievement Gap, educator Tony Wagner identifies the core competencies everyone should master by the end of high school:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving (the ability to ask the right questions)
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Effective written and oral communication
  • Curiosity and imagination

How to teach these competencies? Perhaps by following the mantra, “First do no harm.” In another book, Creating InnovatorsWagner identifies five ways in which current educational practices actively undermine the development of these competencies:

  1. By focusing on individual achievement (e.g., GPA), schools fail to promote collaboration skills.
  2. By rewarding specialization, which hinders innovation. Wagner says the director of talent at Google once told him, “If there’s one thing that educators need to understand, it’s that you can neither understand nor solve problems within the context and bright lines of subject content.”
  3. By penalizing mistakes, which makes students risk-averse. Innovation requires failure. The mantra of design firm IDEO is  “Fail early, fail often.” Stanford’s Institute of Design told Wagner, “We’re thinking F is the new A.” But, as Wagner puts it, “The whole challenge in schooling is to figure out what the teacher wants. And the teachers have to figure out what the superintendent wants or the state wants. It’s a compliance-driven . . . culture.” A rich psychological literature describes the learning benefits of treating mistakes as opportunities for learning, rather than as things to be avoided.
  4. Learning is profoundly passive.” It does not draw on what each individual student brings to the table, and it does not actively engage the student as their on principal self-teacher.
  5. By relying on extrinsic incentives (i.e., grades), we dampen intrinsic motivation.  We are all born with curiosity, inquisitiveness, and the drive for purpose and meaning. (On our innate search for purpose, see Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). Extrinsic rewards and punishments destroy these intrinsic motivators (See, e.g., Alfie Kohn‘s comprehensive reviews of the academic literature on this topic.) Conversely, Wagner found that parents of innovators encouraged their children to play in exploratory ways, with fewer toys and with more unstructured time in their day. This reliance on children’s intrinsic curiosity in turn leads to passion and a “profound sense of purpose.” Wagner says that students powered by their intrinsic quest for purpose and meaning not only learn better, but are also motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world, not by the desire for academic achievement.

For more, see Erica Swallow’s post on, “Creating Innovators: Why America’s Education System Is Obsolete.”

2 Responses to “The educational goals we should have — and how we tend to undermine them”

  1. August 20, 2012 at 3:34 am, alison2012internship said:

    Excellent blog post. I can very much relate to number 3, penalizing mistakes. I feel like America’s education system inhibits creativity in students by putting so much emphasis on good grades and test scores . I always felt pressure to get straight A’s, and to do so, I had to play it safe. There was a point when I really wanted to take an art class in college but I was too afraid to because I feared it would bring down my G.P.A (I’m not amazing at art but I really enjoy it). It is sad that I did not pursue an intrinsic interest because of this fear. Do you think our education system is limiting student’s potential through penalizing mistakes?


  2. August 21, 2012 at 4:47 pm, brtesting said:

    Thank you! Short answer: yes. I agree with you that schools make children afraid of making mistakes and, therefore, of taking risks. Your story about not taking a class you were interested in because you wanted to protect your GPA sounds very familiar to me. If you’re interested in reading more about how schools penalizing mistakes inhibits students’ learning, creativity, and development, I recommend Alfie Kohn (e.g., Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes; No Contest: The Case Against Competition) and Ellen Langer (Mindfulness; The Power of Mindful Learning). You might also be interested in this TedTALK about how schools quelch creativity: “Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity,” at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *