Information Age Education
   Issue Number 43
June, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

The Quality of Our Educational System

"Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley; English writer; 1825–1895.)


The authors of this newsletter are both longtime teachers of preservice and inservice teachers. We are both avid readers of the research and opinion literature in our fields, and we both enjoy discussing (arguing) about topics such as how well our educational system is doing.

As we look back over the years, we see major improvements in certain aspects of our educational system. For example, substantial efforts have been made to integrate our schools, better serve minorities and underserved populations, better serve students with various handicapping challenges, better serve women, and so on. Nowadays, far more students go on to post-secondary education than in the past, and the percentage of women seeking such higher education is now significantly higher than the percentage of men.

On the other hand, we are aware of the steady stream of arguments that students in the United States don’t score as well on international comparisons as we would like, that only about two-thirds of US students who enter the ninth grade graduate from high school in four years, that large numbers of students who enter college are not very well prepared and must take remedial courses, that scores on various national assessment tests in the US have been rather flat over the past thirty years or more, that our students are weak in critical thinking and problem solving, and so on.

Finally, it is important to notice that students are developing a range of computer-related skills that many of their parents lack. Mostly this is done through informal education, learning by themselves and from each other. (How are you at using your thumbs for rapid text messaging on a small handheld device?)

Learn Something About Everything and Everything About Something

The basic idea underlying the quote from Thomas Huxley seems sound. A good education has both breadth and depth. The breadth helps one to interact with a wide variety of other people and to function well in the day-to-day requirements of life in a particular society. The depth allows graduates to have an area of (relative) expertise in which they can perform much better than many other people.

The quote from Thomas Huxley begins with the word try. If you are a Star Wars fan, you probably remember Yoda’s statement to Luke Skywalker: “No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Over the years, educational leaders, politicians, business leaders, and others have “tried” to improve our educational system. As suggested above, we can find a variety of successful and unsuccessful examples from their efforts. Education leaders, politicians, and business people seem to have no end of old and new proposals.

Meanwhile, the world has been changing. In the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) areas the pace of change has become quite large and is still increasing. We have had an information explosion. The challenges of learning something about everything and everything about something are impossible to meet. We have divided the totality of human knowledge into an increasingly larger number of narrower and narrower specializations, and people spend their lifetime working toward a high level of expertise in a very narrow area and working to maintain their level of expertise in comparison with other experts in the narrow area. (And, of course, there is the standard joke about such a narrow expert eventually knowing everything about nothing.)

Dealing with Change

The education systems throughout the world have addressed the changing world in a variety of ways. Some have experienced considerably greater success than others.

Moreover, a number of different measures of improvement and success have been developed. We know that different countries develop different measures of educational improvement and success. What is deemed important in one country or region may well be deemed less important in other countries or regions.

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. He quotes our colleague David Conley:

The success of a well-prepared college student is built upon a foundation of key habits of mind that enable students to learn content from a range of disciplines. Unfortunately, the development of the key habits of mind in high school is often overshadowed by an instructional focus on decontextualized content and facts necessary to pass exit examinations or simply to keep students busy and classrooms quiet.

Throughout his book, Wagner stresses seven Survival Skills that he feels need to be major drivers in a modern education.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.
  • Agility and adaptability.
  • Initiative and entrepreneurism.
  • Effective oral and written communication.
  • Accessing and analyzing information.
  • 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. To learn more about habits of mind, see the work of Deborah Meier, such as the 2004 interview

Study Groups

Wagner also emphasizes the importance of study groups formed outside of the classroom, and of collaborative problem solving. He repeatedly refers to and discusses the work of John Seely Brown (2009) in this area. Brown has a doctorate in computer and communication sciences, was Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for 10 years, and is a world-class leader in educational reform.

Brown’s video presentation includes an emphasis on students organizing and actively participating in study groups. He provides examples of research supporting this as one aid to significantly improving education. Nowadays, such study groups may include face-to-face meetings, but may also consist of students located around the world. Key aspects of this approach to education is the sharing of ideas and points of view, and asking hard questions that require deep and carefully reasoned answers.


Wagner makes extensive use of a “learning walk” in his work with and research into schools. In a learning walk of a school, he and a superintendent or principal make unscheduled visits to a number of different classrooms in a school. Wagner tries to pick one of the best schools in the district for this learning walk. Typically, a classroom visit lasts 10 to 15 minutes. In that short period of time, Wagner is able to gain considerable insight into the rigor of the content being taught and the methodologies being used. The book contains numerous examples of teaching focusing on lower-order skills and memorization for tests. The school administrators that accompany him are invariably surprised (disappointed, embarrassed) by what they witness.

Wagner provides compelling evidence of how the No Child Left Behind assessment system is driving our educational system in a wrong direction. Even in the high school Advanced Placement courses, the instruction places a great deal of emphasis on preparing for the test—including intensive memorization of facts, and learning and practicing strategies for scoring well on the test. This is in sharp contrast to focusing on critical thinking, problem solving, written and oral communication skills, and learning to make effective use of information resources.

He is particularly critical of the multiple choices testing system so widely used in the United States. While any testing system will lead to teaching to the test, multiple choice leads to the teaching of strategies and content that are quite specific to doing well on that kind of test.

Wagner is also quite critical of our teacher education and school administrator education systems. He provides numerous examples of major flaws in these systems. Many of the courses taught in these programs of study have the same flaws he finds in our precollege education system. Both the content and the assessment lack authenticity. (Learn more about authenticity at

Wagner and Brown both argue that our education systems (including the people who staff them) are mired in approaches that are long out of date and do not adequately prepare students for responsible and productive adult citizenship and lifelong learning in our rapidly changing world.


Brown, John Seely (2009). John Seely Brown lecture on learning in the digital age. (1:16 video.) Retrieved 6/1/2010 from

Harvard Graduate School of Education (n.d.). Change Leadership Group. Retrieved 6/6/2010 from Provides access to a number of Tony Wagner’s articles. 

Wagner, Tony (2008). 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. NY: Basic Books.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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