One of the biggest challenges we have had is getting people to stop focusing on fine tuning the current education system for high performance and instead to look at reinventing education in a way that meets the very different needs of today’s economy. A new tool we believe can help people make this transition is the movie Most Likely to Succeed. This powerful movie has been created by One Potato Productions under Greg Whiteley at the impetus of Ted Dintersmith (Charles River Ventures) and with the assistance of Tony Wagner (Harvard) (http://mltsfilm.org/). The movie presents in compelling form how the world has changed and the very different skills required to succeed in it. The movie also brings to life the very different education approaches — authentic, student-owned, hands on — that successfully address modern education needs, using High Tech High in San Diego as a representative model. Scheduled for release in Fall 2015, we strongly encourage anyone with questions or concerns about education reform to view this movie.
The magazine Fast Company recently did a good story on the movie that can be accessed here. In the article, Greg Whiteley, director, writer, and producer of the film, says “Going in, I thought if you lengthened the school day, maybe even shortened summer break, and if you increased the stakes for standardized testing and perhaps tie teacher pay to it, you’ll be well on your way to fixing education in this country. … Once we started meeting schools and the international thought leaders that Ted [Dintersmith] introduced us to, I began to jettison those ideas, one by one.” The thing that changed his mind was how starkly different and radically empowering the curriculum of High Tech High was. We think Whiteley did a great job capturing in stories and interviews what changed his perspective. See an interview of Dintersmith and Whiteley about the film with some excerpts here.
Below we include the trailer for Most Likely To Succeed, as well as a summary of the movie with excerpts. Such words and excerpts, however, are a poor substitute for the full message woven together in the film.
This is a longer excerpt that lays out how the world has changed and the need for a reimagined school system appropriate for the new world.
Summary and Excerpts
The movie begins with a fact-filled view of how innovations including automation and computing have changed the nature of competition and of work. We learn, for example, that more than 50% of college graduates today cannot find a job or at least a job that uses their degree because they don’t have the skills demanded by the new economy. Thought leaders including Tony Wagner, Thomas Friedman, and Sir Ken Robinson frame the issues.
As examples of how computing is advancing, the movie features both Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion who lost to a computer in 1997, and Ken Jennings, the wildly successful Jeopardy champion, who lost to an updated version of the same computer in 2011. Jennings comments are particularly poignant as he is a computer programmer who thought the computer could never beat him because computers cannot deal with the nuances, puns, etc. in Jeopardy clues. He was surprised and embarrassed to be blown away by the newly advanced computer. Jennings says he feels like a factory worker looking at the robot that would replace him.
The problem is that our traditional schools have not kept up with these changes. As a result, they are spending a great deal of time, effort, and money to teach and assess content and skills that provide little or no advantage or value to individuals in today’s world. No matter how much we improve the performance of this education system, it will never be able to address today’s radically different needs.
The movie provides context by highlighting the origin of today’s education system, with its class periods, subjects, and tests. It turns out schools are based on a “mass education” model created for the Prussian Army over 100 years ago. It was imported to the U.S. as a way to give citizens a standardized preparation for the factory jobs growing so rapidly at the dawn of the industrial age. The basic division of what is taught in each subject was determined by a Committee of Ten in 1892.
Of course, that education system is based on a mass production type of organization rather than any fundamental understanding of learning.
In fact, the testing at the center of traditional education bears no resemblance to anything students will see in a future career.
Why have schools not changed? There are certainly many reasons. However, the current approach is clearly convenient and straightforward, and it is easy to make a political argument for standardization.
In another poignant moment in the film, we see outstanding high school students telling their teacher it is more important for them to learn to pass tests than to gain knowledge and skills valuable for their life and career. School has truly become a game — but one that no longer delivers the promised prize of a good job for those who follow the rules.
Interspersed within the laments about traditional schools, the movie presents comments from Sal Khan of Khan Academy and Laszlo Bock, lead human resource official at Google, about how schools are not teaching the skills kids need to be successful in the modern economy and how the credentials (degrees, transcripts) tell little about what companies are seeking. Khan notes that even a degree from a prestigious institution like Harvard or Stanford tells him little about what he wants in a prospective employee.
As one begins to wonder if education can ever be changed to address this need, the movie transports us to High Tech High in San Diego. We hear founder Larry Rosenstock talk about the guiding principals of the school, which are radically different from anything most of us have ever experienced. Students learn hands on by making things and solving authentic problems. Students are largely in charge. They (in teams) determine the direction their learning and solutions will go. Teachers provide advice, but allow students to pursue their own paths, fail, and learn from failure along the way. Student work is judged through public exhibitions where performance in addressing the problem and communicating the results are assessed.
High Tech High addresses the critical need to prepare kids to innovate and creatively solve problems. That requires a lot of practice where students take charge of framing, researching, and solving authentic problems. Such authentic experience develops the confidence, understanding of self, and skills to persevere, tackle ambiguous situations, collaborate, and innovate novel and valuable solutions.
We get a good feel for what happens at High Tech High as the movie follows two ninth grade cohorts over a full year. On the first day of school, we see directionless students waiting to be told what to do, as is so common in schools today. However, as the year progresses, we see how the students take ownership for their learning, master leadership skills, come up with sophisticated perspectives and solutions, and develop a keen understanding of themselves by solving authentic problems and presenting the results to a public audience.
Interspersed within scenes from High Tech High, we hear comments from experts who note how the experience at the school connects with the demands of today’s work and careers. However, this is not narrow “job training.” This is the new renaissance education. It prepares kids to tackle just about any situation in the future.
The High Tech High teachers admit that they probably cover only 40-60% of the material covered in a traditional school curriculum. However, they note that kids rarely retain even a fraction of what they learn in a traditional school much beyond the test or course. An example is cited at a prestigious prep school where students who averaged B+ on an exam were given the same exam three months later where they averaged F. The teachers argue their kids really understand and retain the topics they do cover, and, in addition, they master the 21st Century skills including initiative, communications, collaboration, problem solving, and innovation that are so important today.
We also hear from parents. Parents express concern and nervousness that familiar elements including textbooks, subject classes, and teachers in front of the class are all missing from this school. However, they also are aware that too many college graduates today are not getting jobs. They send their kids to High Tech High because they see how the school transforms and empowers kids, and they sense that this school is preparing their kids in a way unavailable elsewhere.
Sal Khan summarizes the message by noting that we are moving from an industrial economy built upon physical capital to a talent-driven economy. The future of companies, regions, and countries will depend on the human capital they have who are capable of innovating. Reinvention of education to prepare graduates for that environment is not a luxury; it is absolutely necessary for a healthy and successful future.
While not emphasized in the movie, a key to the High Tech High approach is treating all students the same. The new education approach is transformational for kids from all different backgrounds, cultures, and prior academic preparation. By working together students learn to appreciate and value diversities in skills and strengths and they help each other through the challenges. Most important, this approach can take each student from wherever he or she is to a point where he or she can pursue their natural talents and interests — preparing each to be the best he or she can be. This is not just a social justice issue. Our ability to help all kids access the American dream and contribute to a prosperous economy will determine the future of our nation.