My Evening with Tony Wagner and Most Likely to Succeed

Just recently I had the honor of meeting Tony Wagner, who is the author of “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People that will Change the World“. Through our Battelle For Kids SOAR partnership, I had the opportunity to be one of 65 people to get to spend 90 minutes listening to Tony talk about how we do not need to revolutionize education but completely reinvent it.

Tony’s first point was the idea that we do not live in a knowledge-based world anymore.  Knowing more stuff will not get you any further in a career or job (unless you are on Jeopardy).  The reason is simple, almost everyone has access to a smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer to immediately Google the answer.  So the idea of knowing stuff is no long as important as knowing how to ask the right question or the ability to be creative, think critically and be a good communicator.  So what kind of students are we creating, a student that can solve some of the world’s biggest problems or the next Ken Jennings to win on Jeopardy?


One of his major points was the issue of failure and how bad of a word that has become in the world of education.  In today’s educational culture, failure is probably one of the worst words that a student or parent can hear.  But why, why have we, the community, made failure so bad.  How many people go through their lives and never fail?  There is no way that we can expect or demand that a student goes through their entire educational career and be perfect.  How many of us have learned more from our failures than from our successes?  Most of us. Tony said, “What if we had a world in which you cannot speak unless you can talk in perfect sentences that are grammatically correct, and none of this walking stuff because we know you are going to fall and no riding of bikes because you are going to fall and skin your knee.” We don’t expect our kids to be perfect and know everything when they are little, but then something changes when they get into school. Why?  I believe that most of the important learning that we do in life is a process of trial and error, expect in school where errors are penalized.

We as educators and building leaders needs to start viewing failure as an inevitable process in learning.  With that, we need to examine our grading practices.  Everything from report cards to the basic grading scale to what grades really truly mean needs to reexamined.  For example, do we really need to give a grade for every single assignment that students do in class?  Some teachers will reply back, well they will not do the assignment unless they get a grade for it.  Maybe then we need to examine the purpose of the assignment, if the students do not see the relevance in the assignment or if they just get a score on the assignment, then yes they might not do it.  But the important part is the idea of feedback, all assignments should include some form of feedback.  I remember back to the days I brought home more report card, I could have the best of grades, but I had a bad comment from a teacher my parents were more upset by that than a bad grade.  They respected the feedback more than the grade.

Additionally, the way we grade and the grade scale is completely absurd.  The 100 point grade scale is a waste of time and effort and should be eliminated from all schools.  The only grades that I would like to see are A, B and not there yet.  The purpose of school is to educate children, giving them “bad” grades is not going to propel them to learn better.  What student ever said, Oh my I got an F that is motivating and I better get a better grade next time. The A is reserved for genuine excellence, which is rare, the B is for mastery of the material and everything else is not a failure, it is just incomplete.  Now this will require numerous support students to be built into the educational system for those students that are not their yet.  But what is more important that students genuinely learn the material or that they just sit in the class as the teacher covers the material?

So failure should be thought of as a positive learning experience and not the worst thing in the world. Check out this video called Austin’s Butterfly on a good example of the process of learning.


The other major point that Tony talked about was the idea of student engagement, motivation and the idea that most of our students are bored with education. The idea that teachers or parents have to give rewards for learning is wrong.  Students are far more intrinsically motivated than we give them credit for, but only if the learning is meaningful, purposeful and the students understand the goal of the learning. Is it work worth doing, or am I just trying to get an A?

So what can teachers and parents do to help support this intrinsic motivation that we are all born with? Support learning through play, passion, and purpose.  Much more exploratory plan, more time outdoors, sometimes kids have to learn how to get bored to learn how to get unbored.

Here are a few of the opportunities and challenges that Tony Wagner outlined for schools:

Help parents, students, teachers and the community about this changing world.  We are no longer in a knowledge world, knowing more stuff will not help you succeed in life. One of the persistent ideas of education is the idea of this was how I was educated.  Most teachers teach in a manner similar to the way they were taught, most parents expect an education system for their students similar to the one that they went through.  But the world is different, why would we expect education to be the same.  The world is different, the kids are different and the learning should also be different.


Above is a picture of a classroom from the early 1900s and honestly, most of the schools are still the same format.  We have bells that ring and subjects are broken up into tiny segments.  That is not an education system, that is a management system!  In 1892, a group of 10 educators (the Committee of 10) created a system of education that said this subject should be taught in this grade and this subject in that grade.  Guess what, we still follow that same model in 2016!!!!  Imagine if everything else in the world waited that long to innovate or that long make the needed changes.

Now I will agree there are numerous groups out there that are making great changes, like the school High Tech High, which is featured in the documentary based on Tony Wagner’s book, “Most Likely to Succeed.” These types of schools are truly innovating and changing the educational landscape.

Also, a major hurdle is the legislative bodies that make the “rules” for education.  Standardized tests, standards that are more based on knowledge and less on true life long skills, and other worthless ideas get in the way.  But once again their ideas of education come from their experiences with education.  Most people believe that it “worked” for them and that is good enough for their children.

One of our own students recently tweeted out a list of four ideas that he would like to see to improve the education that he is receiving.


To me, the important ones are #3 and #4.  So our very own students “get it” so why can’t we start to make these changes to improve the education of all of our students?


Matt Dansby (principal), Tony and myself

So after the book talk, I had the ability to watch the movie “Most Likely to Succeed.”  The movie shows how education can be different, how the skills that students really need after they leave high school can be developed, and how by doing education this way you can still score above average on the state mandated tests.

Most Likely to Succeed Movie Trailer

If you are interested in watching the movie (I would highly suggest it), please view the Most Likely to Succeed webpage for a public showing.




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