Several key speakers at the American Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in Tampa seemed to agree that the old ways of rote memorization, standardized testing, and chalkboards are not what students need to succeed in today’s schools and the world at large.

However, while the word “innovation” rolled freely from everyone’s lips, different interpretations of what it means to be innovative—and how innovation can improve students’ chances of success and the nation’s standing in the new global economy—allowed for different points of view and offered attendees an interesting mix of apples and oranges.

“Let this be an introduction to a talk, not the definitive solution,” said speaker Daniel Pink, who is the former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and the author of A Whole New Mind—a guide to surviving, thriving, and finding meaning in an outsourced, automated, upside-down world.

Pink’s argument is that, as the economy changes to support novelty, nuance, and customization, the old-school methods of routines, right answers, and standardization are not aligning with the country’s best interest.

“I’m not saying that a school’s job is to produce employees for employers, but this is a misalignment of interests that needs to change,” he said in a Feb. 15 keynote to school administrators.

Pink relates the economy to the human brain: He believes the old days of the left side of the brain—linear, logical, reason-based ways of thinking—are gone, and have been replaced with a need for right-brain approaches: synthesizing, creative, context-based ways of thinking.

“I’m not saying that the left isn’t important—of course it is—but three forces have influenced the economy to become right-brain,” he said.

These three forces are an abundance of material prosperity in the middle class, off-shoring of labor to Asia, and automation. “It’s progressed from an agricultural age to a conceptual age,” said Pink. “We’re in an age when the cost of the status quo is higher than the cost of change.”

To help schools better align with the new economic shift, Pink suggested eight ideas:

1. Shake up legislators.
2. Experiment with new metrics, such as Tuft University’s Robert Sternburg’s Rainbow Project.
3. Tear down the walls that departmentalize academic disciplines, same-age classrooms, and administration. “The most valuable prefix in the economy right now is ‘multi,’” said Pink.
4. Infuse arts education throughout the curriculum: Dell’s CEO said his company is in the “fashion business,” while General Motors says it’s in the “arts and entertainment business” and Proctor and Gamble says it’s in the “design business.”
5. Get real about science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) education: Make sure science education includes more than just memorization of terms.
6. (for emphasis) Shake up the legislators.
7. Promote and defend autonomy: Students need autonomy to explore their own interests, instead of a rigid curriculum, Pink said.
8. Make well-meaning mistakes: Take risks, try something new.

With these eight suggestions, Pink says we can help make students something more than right-answer vending machines—something the economy already has plenty of in the form of software applications and the internet.

“Like Richard Moniuszko, deputy division superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools, told me once, ‘We need to prepare our kids for their future, not our past,’” he concluded.

‘Testing restrains the definition of knowledge’

Also looking to the future is Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of technology in education and educational psychology, and director of the Michigan State University College of Education’s Center for Teaching and Technology.

Zhao gave attendees his theory on what knowledge is most valuable in today’s economy, a question Herbert Spencer asked in 1859. Ironically enough, 150 years ago, science was his answer—just as science is what many educators believe is the answer today.

According to Zhao, however, pushing for high math and science scores will not help the United States remain a global economic leader; it will only “discriminate against other talents. … Testing restrains the definition of knowledge,” he said.

Zhao cited Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the creators of Google as people who are modern-day success stories—all of whom dropped out of college. “A country’s worth is not measured by test scores,” he explained. “It’s measured by concepts, ideas … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”

Zhao noted that countries such as India, Korea, Japan, and Singapore are producing incredible scientists, engineers, and mathematicians—so the United States needs to find its own niche market. Said Zhao, “We need to ask ourselves, why would some company want to be based in the U.S.? Why would they need our workers?”

He described how technology is redefining talent, and therefore the talents that we as a country should create must revolve around new technologies.

“Look at Second Life, look at the virtual worlds of social networking sites and gaming. Look how Asian countries are hiring teenagers to play video games professionally. … The U.S. needs to prepare students for the production of virtual goods,” he explained.

Zhao also believes that to thrive in this new interconnected world requires having global tolerance and strong ethical online standards.

“We need to teach our students global citizenship, teach them that global warming is interdependent on all countries, that learning foreign languages can really benefit them in the future,” he said. “Right now, the U.S. need for foreign-language speakers outweighs the need for engineers.”

Zhao concluded by saying that “we need to become innovators in a digital world,” a goal that can only be achieved through curiosity, risk, and creativity—characteristics he says the United States is known for.

While both Pink and Zhao believe that U.S. schools should embrace innovative approaches over testing and rote memorization, Pink prefers a broad approach to systemic school reform, while Zhao leans toward focusing on what students need to learn in today’s classrooms. Their talks gave administrators a mélange of school-reform ideas to savor.


American Association of School Administrators