Book by Tony Wagner
Review by Anthony M. Ramos
Loyola University, Chicago
Wagner's book, The Global Achievement Gap, is an extremely insightful read from an Academic Advisor's perspective. From discussing skills sets that employers seek, to explaining in detail the test-prep curriculum in K-12 schools, professional advisors can gain a deeper understanding of the educational storylines lived by our students before they arrive on our campuses. Wagner shares in this book experiences from researching and consulting in education which can help to explain many of the challenges we as advisors see our students going through in the transition to higher education, challenges which are in many ways due to no fault of their own, but perpetuated in the social structure of the education system in the United States as it exists today.
A major critique presented in the book is how students are not taught to engage in activities that develop what Wagner calls the Seven Survival Skills of Work. These skills include many of the learning outcomes that are central to curriculums in higher education such as critical thinking, collaboration, analyzing information, and effective communication. Instead of building these skills in high school Wagner states that "there is only one curriculum in American public schools today: test-prep (p.71)." Accountability standards in education, perpetuated by No Child Left Behind and the costs associated with assessment, encourage teaching to the test. This leads school districts and teachers to focus on content to pass the examinations versus skill development, creativity, or collaborative learning. Even highly regarded programs and exams such as Advanced Placement are described to be content-heavy, lacking in developing and measuring critical thinking skills such as reasoning and analysis.
Also intriguing, were Wagner's personal accounts of going through teacher preparation programs as well as observations he made while consulting using "Learning Walks." Through using qualitative field notes, Wagner was able to find patterns in classrooms from a variety of schools and subjects. He provides several detailed vignettes for readers to visualize experiences students may have had in different school settings. Wagner deducted from these experiences a lack of consistency in articulating what quality teaching is from both teachers and administrators.
In addition to these critiques, Wagner shares some social/cultural insights about today's students including attributes such as being constantly connected and desiring instant gratification. He talks about the importance of interest-based learning, helping students to become interactive producers of knowledge, as well as the need for educators to learn what motivates students who are growing up in this fast-paced and highly technical world. Contrary to what many may observe as unmotivated students in the classroom, he finds that students "long to learn and create in collaborative, collegial environments (p.188)" and shares examples schools that are engaging students in those ways. Unfortunately though, the heavy focus on memorization in the majority of schools has resulted in less engagement in creative learning.
Overall, I enjoyed most of this text. It provided me as an advisor, insight into the world of education my students are coming from today. With this knowledge, I am able to normalize the challenges experienced by students and explain it as a result of social structures in a system of education, rather than individual intelligence or ability. Additionally, it allows me as a practitioner to create learning opportunities on how to navigate this transition while developing the skills needed for success in college and beyond.
The Global Achievement Gap. (2008). Book by Tony Wagner. Review by Anthony M. Ramos. New York: Perseus Books. 290 pp., $16.95. ISBN # 978-0-465-00230-6