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5 minutes reading time (961 words)

Reinventing Our Educational System

Many people working to improve our educational system appear to be backward looking. They fix on measures of success that were deemed worthy in the past, and strive to have our schools perform still better in meeting these measures.

However, the world is changing, and many of these past measures of success are becoming less important for today’s children. Tony Wagner is one of my favorite authors currently writing about needed changes. Quoting from a 2010 IAE Newsletter (Moursund & Sylwester, June, 2010):

Tony Wagner (2008) is a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Change Leadership Group. In his work, he distinguishes between students gaining competencies (knowledge) in various disciplines and students developing habits of mind.

Throughout his book, Wagner stresses seven Survival Skills that he feels need to be major drivers in a modern education.

A1.   Critical thinking and problem solving.

A2.   Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.

A3.   Agility and adaptability.

A4.    Initiative and entrepreneurism.

A5.    Effective oral and written communication.

A6.     Accessing and analyzing information.

A7.     Curiosity and imagination.

Notice that none of these are discipline specific. Wagner argues that each discipline-specific course should be a vehicle for helping students to develop these interdisciplinary habits of mind. [Bold added for emphasis.]

In a TEDx talk, Wagner emphasized that knowledge is now a commodity (Wagner, April, 2012). He says: “What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know.” In his talk, he emphasizes the seven bulleted points given above.

Still more recently, the article Mindshift (8/25/2015) contains a few minor modifications in Wagner’s list. In this list that follows, I have added my current insights. To be successful lifetime learners, young people need to learn to:

B1.  Formulate good questions.

Moursund comment: Problem posing is the first step in A1 given above. Notice the shift in emphasis from having students answer questions posed by teachers and others, to having students pose question of personal interest—questions in which they have some ownership. Ownership is a key idea in education. See my IAE-pedia article on Problem Solving (Moursund, 2015).

B2.  Communicate in groups and lead by influence.

Moursund comment: This is a variation on 2A given above. Solving problems and accomplishing tasks often involves collaboration of a group and leaders who can influence others to work together toward a common goal. Nowadays, this routinely involves electronic communications and use of (collaborating with) computers. The idea of collaborating with an artificially intelligent machine adds a new dimension to problem solving.

B3.   Be mentally agile and adaptable.

Moursund comment: Among other things, this requires being open to change and to learning to make effective use of the growing human knowledge and tools for using this knowledge. Students need to learn the capabilities and limitations of their brains working alone, working in groups, and working with the aid of computers. See my book on Brain Science for Educators and Parents (Moursund, August, 2015).

B4.  Take initiative and be entrepreneurial.

Moursund comment: Each of us has capabilities that we can learn to use to improve our own lives and the lives of others. Using a very broad definition of being entrepreneurial, these are entrepreneurial activities. I personally like to think about the idea of using one’s own initiative and entrepreneurship to help improve quality of life for one’s self and others.

B5.  Have effective written and oral communication skills.

Moursund comment: The Internet and Web provide us with new tools for oral, written, and graphical communication. Our educational system is being slow to appreciate and make use of how readily children adapt to and enjoy using these new tools.

B6.  Know how to access and analyze information.

Moursund comment: See the sequence of IAE newsletters on Credibility and Validity of Information (Moursund & Sylwester, 2014-2015).

B7.   Be creative and imaginative.

Moursund comment: Young children have a great deal of creative ability and wild imaginations. Our current educational system is weak in fostering and building on this innate creativity and imagination. See Chapter 6 of my book Brain Science for Educators and Parents (Moursund, August, 2015).

What You Can Do

You undoubtedly have heard about the idea of a military-industrial complex. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

The term is most often used in reference to the system behind the military of the United States, where it gained popularity after its use in the farewell address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 17, 1961.

We now have a very large and powerful commercial-political educational complex that is becoming increasingly commercialized and is highly resistant to the type of changes proposed by Tony Wager. However, a large and important component of education is informal (determined by parents and students) and another large and important component is still determined by individual teachers. Parents, teachers, and individual students can be guided by Wagner’s ideas. Think carefully about what you are currently doing and what you can continue to do in this very important endeavor!


Mindshift (8/25/2015). When educators make space for play and passion, students develop purpose. KQED News. Retrieved 8/26/2015 from

Moursund, D. (August, 2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Available on the Web at Download the PDF file from and the Microsoft Word file from

Moursund, D. (2015). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/26/2015 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R. (2014-2015). Credibility and validity of information. IAE Newsletter. The series started on October 2014 and is available online at

Moursund, D., and Sylwester, R. (June, 2010). The quality of our educational system. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 8/26/2015 from

Wagner, T. (April, 2012). Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED. (Video, 14.49.) TEDx. Retrieved 8/26/2015 from

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Friday, 15 January 2021

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