The latest education-themed book I have finished is Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. It is a compelling, challenging book that questions a vast list of things that we take for granted as being fundamental in education: subject areas, daily schedules, grades, traditional assessment, standardized assessment, college entrance exams, college in general, and much more. It should generate powerful, change-inducing discussions if selected for a school or organizational book study. It is a fascinating and entertaining read, as well, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
I had the opportunity last night to view the related documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, at a screening in Austin. The film is much narrower in scope than the book, as is almost always the case. Rather than visiting a wide range of schools and taking on all of the issues of the book, the film focuses on 2 classes and, primarily, 2 students in the very non-traditional setting of San Diego’s High Tech High School. There is just enough historical background and future predicting to give context and purpose to the narrative of the students, then we are presented with a brief view into the day-to-day lives of the principle subjects. It is an entertaining documentary and has you rooting for the students to succeed. As a father and educator, it struck several chords with me and, honestly, made me a bit emotional at times. The following are a few takeaways from the film for me.
- Traditional school curriculum is soul-crushing. We rely on perky or entertaining teachers to make our students’ days bearable and, occasionally, enjoyable. Make no mistake, though, most kids are riding it out, disinterestedly waiting for the bell day after pointless day.
- The entire purpose of school as we have created it is to pass tests. Unit tests, benchmark tests, practice tests, state tests, college entrance tests, on and on. We don’t admit it, but that is our purpose as educators–not to help them succeed in life, but to help the kids pass tests.
- We are at the mercy of a bunch of rich, powerful men who died a century ago. The power and sway that a group of elite, white academics and industrialists still holds over education in the United States is baffling. Not that their intentions were bad–their world was simply an entirely alien place that bears no resemblance to ours, yet we still run our schools as if we arrived at work in our Model T’s.
- Parents have a really hard time letting go of the past, Strangely, most adults do not recall how boring and meaningless much of our educational experience was growing up. Our lack of accurate reflection makes it extremely hard to imagine our kids surviving and thriving in a world without bells, subjects, and textbooks.
- Students, especially high achieving ones, have the same hard time as parents. Top ranked kids know the routine, know what’s expected of them, and often don’t want their attention to be diverted to anything but gaming the system, getting a high SAT score, and getting into the Ivy League. New paradigms and routines can be very hard for these kids.
- Is “college for all” really in kids’ best interest? This is especially thorny when kids experience a school like High Tech High or other bastions of creativity and imagination, then get to head off to the land of talking heads and academic loftiness (where they get to drop a couple hundred grand for the privilege).
- Students engaged in meaningful, challenging work will exceed our expectations. It truly was staggering to see the quality of work of everyday, ordinary kids in the film. Likewise, the grit, leadership, and self-motivation they displayed was a beautiful thing to imagine.
- There is hope! I see more evidence all the time of a trickle of radical, powerful, completely new models emerging. They are models that put kids first, not tests, not rankings, not college acceptance. Strangely, their kids seem to do quite well on “the tests” and at the next level, probably because the challenges they have undertaken already are of greater complexity, difficulty, and meaningfulness than what they face in the established system. It is not an easy thing to achieve. It involves critical self-examination, humiity, open-mindedness, creativity, extreme working hours, new goals, communities with vision, and more. But it is occurring, and that gives me hope and faith in the profession I’m called to.