Learning By Heart, with Dr. Tony Wagner

Here are my summary notes from the Getting Smart Podcast, Episode 257.

Dr. Tony Wagner is a well-known educator and author of many books, including co-author (with Ted Dintersmith) of “Most Likely To Succeed” – which became the wildly successful documentary on education.

In this recent podcast, Tony talks about his new memoir, Learning By Heart. It is the gems of understanding about education and deep learning that really make this podcast worth your time.

Dr. Wagner begins by pointing out that in his research for his book “Creating Innovators“, he found that young people really want to work on solving relevant problems and making a difference in the world. They are frustrated with a school system that often prevents them from doing this.

There is a terrific discussion of adaptive challenges (outlined here) and how we have to rethink our approach. Adaptive challenges are things we have never experienced before, for which there are no easy answers.

It requires a complete shift in thinking to be able to say that as leaders, we don’t know the answers. The world context continues to shift. We need to “get out on the balcony” and help people see the bigger picture, without believing we need to find all the answers. Empower others to come up with new solutions to these new problems.

Imagine if leaders had a bumper sticker that said:


What does a new sense of accountability look like? If we want new thinking to stick, we will need to create an accountability system that powerful learning and teaching uses qualitative and quantitative evidence to ensure that we never leave any child behind ever again.

Tony shares his discovery of the importance of becoming a good asker of questions. Rather than teaching children to answer questions, when do we think about encouraging children to ask good questions? Instead of solving problems, are we asking children to identify problems?

More gems from Tony:

  • We put pressure on kids to be constantly perfect or their mark drops. This is so damaging, because in the innovation world, you learn from trial and error. Our marks-based systems penalize mistakes.
  • We need to leverage student interests and strengths
  • We need to empower kids to do work that is meaningful in their communities
  • Fundamentally, school destroys curiosity and undermines intrinsic motivation because kids don’t get to ask their own questions and pursue their own passions.
  • Curiosity withers when it isn’t cultivated.
  • Kids need to discover themselves in the context of a connected world

What will education and learning look like if we don’t have classes in the fall? What if learning is no longer school-based? Do we need grades? Do we need testing? If we could start from scratch, to design an education system for the purpose of enabling the fullest development of human capabilities, what would that look like?

What are the characteristics that will allow people to thrive in this new world?

While this podcast is fundamentally about Tony Wagner’s life, the conversation about learning today is a good review of the fundamental shifts needed for our kids to flourish in an exponentially changing world.

Featured image by Drew Beamer

Further exploration:

Education Podcasts: 105 Podcasts You Should Check Out

The Critical Vertex

The Compelling Case for Change

Sharing Deep Learning (Part of the Deep Learning Series)

Most Likely to Succeed (full length movie – free link)

FreshEd podcast – Ted Dintersmith

Thinking about Deep Learning, with Simon Breakspear

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