Rigor Redefined: Worth Reading!

by Tony Wagner
Even our “best” schools are failing to
prepare students for 21st-century
careers and citizenship.
In the new global economy, with many jobs being
either automated or “off-shored,” what skills will
students need to build successful careers? What
skills will they need to be good citizens? Are these
two education goals in conflict?
To examine these questions, I conducted research beginning with
conversations with several hundred business, nonprofit, philanthropic, and
education leaders. With a clearer picture of the skills young people need, I
then set out to learn whether U.S. schools are teaching and testing the skills
that matter most. I observed classrooms in some of the nation’s most highly
regarded suburban schools to find out whether our “best” was, in fact, good
enough for our children’s future. What I discovered on this journey may
surprise you.
The Schooling Students Need
One of my first conversations was with Clay Parker, president of the
Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards—a company that, among
other things, makes machines and supplies chemicals for the manufacture of
microelectronics devices. He’s an engineer by training and the head of a
technical business, so when I asked him about the skills he looks for when
he hires young people, I was taken aback by his answer.
“First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions,” Parker
responded. “We can teach them the technical stuff, but we can’t teach them
how to ask good questions—how to think.”
“What other skills are you looking for?” I asked, expecting that he’d jump
quickly to content expertise.
“I want people who can engage in good discussion—who can look me in the
eye and have a give and take. All of our work is done in teams. You have to
know how to work well with others. But you also have to know how to
engage customers—to find out what their needs are. If you can’t engage
others, then you won’t learn what you need to know.”
I initially doubted whether Parker’s views were representative of business
leaders in general. But after interviewing leaders in settings from Apple to
Unilever to the U.S. Army and reviewing the research on workplace skills, I
came to understand that the world of work has changed profoundly.
Today’s students need to master seven survival skills to thrive in the new
world of work. And these skills are the same ones that will enable students
to become productive citizens who contribute to solving some of the most
pressing issues we face in the 21st century.
1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
To compete in the new global economy, companies need their workers to
think about how to continuously improve their products, processes, or
services. Over and over, executives told me that the heart of critical
thinking and problem solving is the ability to ask the right questions. As one
senior executive from Dell said, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s
Ellen Kumata, managing partner at Cambria Associates, explained the
extraordinary pressures on leaders today. “The challenge is this: How do
you do things that haven’t been done before, where you have to rethink or
think anew? It’s not incremental improvement any more. The markets are
changing too fast.”
2. Collaboration and Leadership
Teamwork is no longer just about working with others in your building.
Christie Pedra, CEO of Siemens, explained, “Technology has allowed for
virtual teams. We have teams working on major infrastructure projects that
are all over the U.S. On other projects, you’re working with people all
around the world on solving a software problem. Every week they’re on a
variety of conference calls; they’re doing Web casts; they’re doing net
Mike Summers, vice president for Global Talent Management at Dell, said
that his greatest concern was young people’s lack of leadership skills. “Kids
just out of school have an amazing lack of preparedness in general
leadership skills and collaborative skills,” he explained. “They lack the ability
to influence.”
3. Agility and Adaptability
Clay Parker explained that anyone who works at BOC Edwards today “has to
think, be flexible, change, and use a variety of tools to solve new problems.
We change what we do all the time. I can guarantee the job I hire someone
to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability
and learning skills are more important than technical skills.”
4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
Mark Chandler, senior vice president and general counsel at Cisco, was one
of the strongest proponents of initiative: “I say to my employees, if you try
five things and get all five of them right, you may be failing. If you try 10
things, and get eight of them right, you’re a hero. You’ll never be blamed for
failing to reach a stretch goal, but you will be blamed for not trying. One of
the problems of a large company is risk aversion. Our challenge is how to
create an entrepreneurial culture in a larger organization.”
5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
Mike Summers of Dell said, “We are routinely surprised at the difficulty
some young people have in communicating: verbal skills, written skills,
presentation skills. They have difficulty being clear and concise; it’s hard for
them to create focus, energy, and passion around the points they want to
make. If you’re talking to an exec, the first thing you’ll get asked if you
haven’t made it perfectly clear in the first 60 seconds of your presentation
is, ‘What do you want me to take away from this meeting?’ They don’t know
how to answer that question.”
Summers and other leaders from various companies were not necessarily
complaining about young people’s poor grammar, punctuation, or spelling—
the things we spend so much time teaching and testing in our schools.
Although writing and speaking correctly are obviously important, the
complaints I heard most frequently were about fuzzy thinking and young
people not knowing how to write with a real voice.
6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
Employees in the 21st century have to manage an astronomical amount of
information daily. As Mike Summers told me, “There is so much information
available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process
the information effectively it almost freezes them in their steps.”
It’s not only the sheer quantity of information that represents a challenge,
but also how rapidly the information is changing. Quick—how many planets
are there? In the early 1990s, I heard then–Harvard University president
Neil Rudenstine say in a speech that the half-life of knowledge in the
humanities is 10 years, and in math and science, it’s only two or three
years. I wonder what he would say it is today.
7. Curiosity and Imagination
Mike Summers told me, “People who’ve learned to ask great questions and
have learned to be inquisitive are the ones who move the fastest in our
environment because they solve the biggest problems in ways that have the
most impact on innovation.”
Daniel Pink, the author of A Whole New Mind, observes that with increasing
abundance, people want unique products and services: “For businesses it’s
no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and
adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful.”1
Pink notes that developing young people’s capacities for imagination,
creativity, and empathy will be increasingly important for maintaining the
United States’ competitive advantage in the future.
The Schooling Students Get
I’ve spent time observing in classrooms across the United States for more
than 20 years. Here is a sampling of what I’ve seen recently. These
examples come from secondary honors and advanced placement (AP)
classes in three school systems that enjoy excellent reputations because of
their high test scores.
AP Chemistry
Students work in groups of two and three mixing chemicals according to
directions written on the chalkboard. Once the mixtures are prepared,
students heat the concoction with Bunsen burners. According to the
directions on the board, they are supposed to record their observations on a
I watch a group of three young men whose mixture is giving off a thin spiral
of smoke as it’s being heated—something that none of the other students’
beakers are doing. One student looks back at the chalkboard and then at his
notes. Then all three stop what they are doing, apparently waiting for the
teacher to come help them.
“What’s happening to your mixture?” I ask the group.
“Dunno,” one mutters. “We must have mixed it up wrong.”
“What’s your hypothesis about what happened—why it’s smoking?”
The three look at one another blankly, and the student who has been doing
all the speaking looks at me and shrugs.
AP U.S. Government
The teacher is reviewing answers to a sample test that the class took the
previous day. The test contains 80 multiple-choice questions related to the
functions and branches of the federal government.
When he’s finished, he says “OK, now let’s look at some sample freeresponse
questions from previous years’ AP exams.” He flips the overhead
projector on and reads from the text of a transparency: “Give three reasons
why the Iron Triangle may be criticized as undemocratic. How would you
answer this question?”
No one replies.
“OK, who can give me a definition of the Iron Triangle?”
A student pipes up, “The military-industrial-congressional complex.”
“OK, so what would be three reasons why it would be considered
undemocratic?” The teacher calls on a student in the front row who has his
hand half raised, and he answers the question in a voice that we can’t hear
over the hum of the projector’s fan.
“Good. Now let’s look at another one.” The teacher flips another
transparency onto the projector. “Now this question is about bureaucracy.
Let me tell you how to answer this one. . . .”
AP English
The teacher explains that the class is going to review students’ literature
notes for the advanced placement exam next week. The seven students are
deeply slouched in their chairs, arranged in a semicircle around the
teacher’s desk.
The teacher asks, “Now what is Virginia Woolf saying about the balance
between an independent life versus a social life?”
Students ruffle through their notebooks. Finally, a young woman, reading
from her notes, answers, “Mrs. Ramsey sought meaning from social
“Yes, that’s right. Now what about Lily, the artist? How did she construct
“Through her painting,” another student mumbles, her face scrunched close
to her notes.
“So what is Woolf saying about the choices these two women have made,
and what each has sacrificed?”
No reply. The teacher sighs, gets up, goes to the board, and begins writing.
A Rare Class
Once in a great while, I observe a class in which a teacher is using academic
content to develop students’ core competencies. In such a class, the
contrast with the others is stark.
At the beginning of the period in an Algebra II class, the teacher writes a
problem on the board. He turns to the students, who are sitting in desks
arranged in squares of four that face one another. “You haven’t seen this
kind of problem before,” he explains. “Solving it will require you to use
concepts from both geometry and algebra. Each group will try to develop at
least two different ways to solve this problem. After all the groups have
finished, I’ll randomly choose someone from each group who will write one
of your proofs on the board, and I’ll ask that person to explain the process
your group used.”
The groups quickly go to work. Animated discussion takes place as students
pull the problem apart and talk about different ways to solve it. While they
work, the teacher circulates from group to group. When a student asks a
question, the teacher responds with another question: “Have you considered
. . .?” “Why did you assume that?” or simply “Have you asked someone in
your group?”
What makes this an effective lesson—a lesson in which students are learning
a number of the seven survival skills while also mastering academic
content? First, students are given a complex, multi-step problem that is
different from any they’ve seen in the past. To solve it, they have to apply
critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and call on previously acquired
knowledge from both geometry and algebra. Mere memorization won’t get
them far. Second, they have to find two ways to solve the problem, which
requires initiative and imagination. Third, they have to explain their proofs
using effective communication skills. Fourth, the teacher does not spoonfeed
students the answers. He uses questions to push students’ thinking and
build their tolerance for ambiguity. Finally, because the teacher announces
in advance that he’ll randomly call on a student to show how the group
solved the problem, each student in every group is held accountable.
Success requires teamwork.
Rigor for the 21st Century
Across the United States, I see schools that are succeeding at making
adequate yearly progress but failing our students. Increasingly, there is only
one curriculum: test prep. Of the hundreds of classes that I’ve observed in
recent years, fewer than 1 in 20 were engaged in instruction designed to
teach students to think instead of merely drilling for the test.
To teach and test the skills that our students need, we must first redefine
excellent instruction. It is not a checklist of teacher behaviors and a model
esson that covers content standards. It is working with colleagues to ensure
hat all students master the skills they need to succeed as lifelong learners,
workers, and citizens. I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college
eacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing
enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone
stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and
We need to use academic content to teach the seven survival skills every
day, at every grade level, and in every class. And we need to insist on a
combination of locally developed assessments and new nationally normed,
online tests—such as the College and Work Readiness Assessment
(www.cae.org)—that measure students’ analytic-reasoning, critical-thinking,
problem-solving, and writing skills.
It’s time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher
standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria. It’s time for our
profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to
teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students’ futures are at
1 Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual
age. New York: Riverhead Books, pp. 32–33.

Tony Wagner is Codirector of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School
of Education; tony_wagner@harvard.edu; http://www.schoolchange.org. The themes of this article
are discussed more fully in his book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best
Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—and What We Can Do About
It (Basic Books, 2008).
Copyright © 2008 by Tony Wagner

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