Humbly Disagree with Tony Wagner on Work and Play

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Humbly Disagree with Tony Wagner on Work and Play

Annie Murphy Paul posted a short commentary to a quote from Tony Wagner’s new book “Creating Innovators”.  Wagner states that the millennial generation is particularly attuned to treating work as play because they have grown up in a digital world, and that they are more passionate about making a difference in the world than in getting rich.


“They seek experiences that are engaging in the moment, that excite them both intellectually and emotionally.”

“…many millennials are very averse to working for large corporations—and many companies, in turn, don’t know how to work with this generation… One of my most important research findings is the central importance of play, passion, and purpose in the development of innovators from a very early age.”

“…what many of this generation are most passionate about is making a difference.”

Ms. Murphy Paul questions whether this theory is generational, and I could not agree with her more.  I have the greatest respect for Dr. Wagner, but have a real problem with putting time and space boundaries on what we, by now, should know are timeless attributes of human curiosity, passion, personal fulfillment, and success.  We fail when we refer to the skills that lead to success and happiness as 21st Century skills (see post on Nth Century Skills). Just because these ideas are becoming popular does not mean that they are new or more closely associated with the current experience.

The best advice we can offer a young person when thinking about a career?  My uncle, a famous marine biologist told me many years ago that he had never “worked” a day in his life.  He so enjoyed his passion, poking around tide pools and classifying squiggly little invertebrates, that he never saw it as work.  Many educators feel the same way: the passion to make a difference in the lives of young people over-compensates for the long hours and heavy load.  We still suffer at times during the work day; so does an athlete or an artist pursuing his or her own brand of passion.

The hallmark of passion in any generation is that compelling love and need to do something that will make a difference, even if that difference is small or local, or perhaps even selfish.  If educators focus on this need to connect with passion, school will cease to be work for many students. If employers focus on this need to connect to passion, work will cease to become work as well.  It has been that way since humans found alternatives to mere subsistence, and it will be that way long after the millenials have grandchildren to worry about.

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By | 2012-06-01T14:29:24+00:00 June 1st, 2012|21C Skills|2 Comments

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  1. I appreciate (as always) your perspective. This post, for some reason, got me thinking about your recurrent point that “the skills that lead to success and happiness” aren’t unique to these last decades, but have been hallmarks of engagement, productivity, inquiry, etc. throughout time. That said, I don’t think that the “21st Century Skills” movement in education is necessarily suggesting otherwise. I think the point is that while creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thought, and other so-called ’21st century capacities’ have been hallmarks of engagement, productivity, service, and success in a wide range of professions and avocations over time, the school system and prevailing pedagogies have been ironically and sadly bereft of intentional and meaningful strategies to foster and support them. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious: I think the 21st skills movement has more to do with invigorating an antiquated and calcified school system by examining its instructional and assessment strategies, learning environment, and community–and little to do with staking a claim to the discovery or definition of ‘new’ proficiencies.

  2. glichtman June 3, 2012 at 1:59 am - Reply

    Thanks, and I guess I agree. Am not sure that at then end of the day it matters what we call it, as long as school recognize the need to change. I think the reason I worry about this is that education goes through flavor of the month arguments every decade or so, and if we think of these as 21C skills, we risk putting them in that impermanent category when I think they really are timeless. But I get your point and it will help to frame my thinking. Thanks!

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