ORONO, Maine — An assembly line education system built during the past century is failing today’s students, according to author and education expert Tony Wagner.

It can be fixed, he said, but only through a major overhaul.

Wagner, who is the first Education Innovation Fellow at Harvard University’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, spoke to more than 200 state educators, administrators, school councilors and parents at the second day of the Maine Positive Youth Development Institute conference at the University of Maine. Wagner worked for 12 years as a teacher and principal.

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen introduced Wagner, who was the keynote speaker for the day.

The conference, which wraps up Wednesday, is focused on advising administrators and educators on what needs to be done to keep students in the education system and give them the tools they need to get, keep and create jobs after graduation.

“Our schools are not failing, but our system … is obsolete,” Wagner said. “This generation is very differently motivated to learn and work.”

Since the one-room schoolhouse fell out of style, schools started to focus more and more on multiple-choice testing. It may have worked for this generation of students’ parents and grandparents, but technology has changed today’s students drastically, Wagner said.

The result of these shifts: Out of 65 countries tested during the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment for reading, science and math skills, U.S. students ranked 15th, 23rd and 32nd, respectively, according to Wagner.

“Technology is a double-edged sword,” he said. On the one hand, students are constantly connected to the Internet, and on the other, they’re constantly in communication and have resources to learn about the world around them.

Tom Tracy, executive director of Navigating the Real World, a newsletter and website focused on stories about students leaving high school for college or to enter the work force, attended the conference.

“The high school structure is the same as it was when I went,” Tracy said before the keynote speech, “but what else is the same 40 years later?”

A key to improving the education system, according to Wagner, is giving students room to experiment throughout school.

“There is no innovation without trial and error,” Wagner said. “Trial and error often involves failure.”

He said schools need to give students room to make mistakes, as long as they’re trying new ways of thinking and working.

He said creativity should be more important than grades to school administrations and educators. Employers don’t care about what you know. “What they care about is what you can do with what you know,” he said.

Wagner argued that in order to prevent economic disaster in the future, the nation needs to produce students who are constantly curious and trying to solve problems.

“If we kill curiosity, we kill innovation,” he said.

To foster this kind of learning, Wagner said schools need to become smaller, students need to have more contact with educators, and teachers need to move away from multiple choice to a more open-ended, problem-oriented style of teaching.

These are big changes that would need to start with small charterlike schools. Educators could learn from these “research schools” and pass information and strategies to larger schools over time, Wagner said.

If these changes don’t happen, Wagner foresees a “train wreck,” with more struggling students and a country scrambling to keep pace with the rest of the world.