Education-bashing has become something of a national sport in the United States. From hurling criticism about slipping test scores, socio-economic disparity, dropout rates, to raising concerns about poor teaching standards and school resources, the popular narrative is that U.S. schools are failing children. There’s good reason for the pile-on: in many cases, the problems are real.
While most of the conversation around education reform centers on how to address these existing issues, another point of view has been gaining momentum over the last several years. It’s a point of view that is less focused on fine-tuning the current system for high performance—since the system was built in 1893 with the goal of churning out "good workers"—and more about rethinking education entirely and how it meets the world’s rapidly changing economy in the information age.
This topic is explored in depth in the feature-length documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, which premiered at Sundance and will appear at the Tribeca Film Festival April 24. In the film, director, writer and producer Greg Whiteley casts a light on the shortcomings of established education methods by focusing on one school that’s defying convention, San Diego’s High Tech High. While following two ninth-grade classes for a year, with classroom instruction unlike anything you’ve ever seen, the doc offers some inspirational ideas for how to help students rise to the occasion of an innovation economy that requires critical thinking.
The idea for the film came from executive producer Ted Dintersmith, who, after 25 years as a venture capitalist has turned his attention to the future of education. The shift came as a result of two unsettling trends he was seeing.
"It was almost as though school was designed to crush the creativity out of students."
The first, he says, was how fast innovation is getting rid of structured, routine jobs in the economy. "As a top venture guy, I interview tons of people and generally for quite senior positions," says Dintersmith. "I started to notice a pattern: often the academic superstars who had great careers at structured, large companies like IBM or Mackenzie by and large floundered when they left to go into more innovative startups. I began to ask, what’s going on? If the top performers in our education system seem at a loss with innovation, something’s wrong here."
The second was an anecdotal observation he made as his own kids went through the education system. "It was almost as though school was designed to crush the creativity out of students. When I started researching education, I realized there’s no ‘almost’ to it. It’s explicitly designed to eliminate creativity in education," he says, echoing an idea that’s been made popular by author and education advisor Sir Ken Robinson, who appears in the film alongside thought-leaders such as Khan Academy founder Sal Khan and the New York Times' Thomas Friedman. "So when I put those two things together, and realized that if kids don’t have the ability to be creative problem solvers they’re going to be unemployed, I knew I had to do something about it."
To set up the gap between innovation and education, Most Likely to Succeed starts with an historical look at how innovations in computing and robotics have drastically changed the face of work. To illustrate the point, director Whiteley tells the stories of Gary Kasparov, the chess champion who lost to IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, and Ken Jennings, the 74-time Jeopardy champion who in 2011 lost to IBM’s updated computing genius, Watson. If some of the world’s smartest men were feeling like their skills were being made obsolete by robots, the film asks, what of the rest of us? And what of the future of kids just entering school, kids who are being put through a system of rote learning and then finding a work world that no longer values that knowledge? Or, as Jennings says about his loss in the film, "I sort of felt like some ’80s Detroit auto worker, looking at the robot that would replace him at the welding machine. Maybe game-show contestant is the first Information Age job to be made obsolete by our new computer overlords, but I feel like it’s not going to be the last."
When setting up crews at High Tech High at the start of the filmmaking process, Whiteley knew that the U.S. education system needed a makeover. That’s why he was on board to follow students every day for a school year—something he’d discover was akin to watching paint dry. Still, Whiteley admits his thinking around education "followed a fairly conservative playbook."
"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. If you could focus first on inner city schools and closing the gap between wealthier schools, then we’ll start to climb the ranks in the international test scores," Whiteley says. "It didn’t take me very long though to change my thinking. Once we started meeting schools and the international thought leaders that Ted 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. Founded by educator Larry Rosenstock in collaboration with Gary Jacobs of Qualcomm and Kay Davis of the Business Roundtable, the school is built on project-based learning. The school provides an alternative to rote learning—focusing on soft skills like collaboration and problem solving over the three Rs—and looks more like a startup incubator than a teacher-led classroom. Except, of course, that the kids are all 14 years old.
On the first day, students look like a herd of deer in the headlights of an 18-wheeler careening down a mountain pass. Each classroom teacher is free to teach as they choose. There’s no mandate to prep for standardized tests. There are no bells or class periods. The teacher doesn’t give instruction but rather sets the stage for peer discussion, and one such teacher instructs his class to form a Socratic seminar. The kids, of course, have no idea what he's talking about. Cue the crickets. But soon, as the students warm to the idea that they don’t have to study for tests—though one class' project is to create a play that riffs on the gender politics of Euripides’ The Trojan Woman, set in modern-day Pakistan, while the other class must illustrate their theory of the rise and fall of great societies with a system of interlocking gears, cogs and wheels—their teams start to gel.
In hindsight, the progression is compelling. Though Whiteley says the process was less so. "When we began filming we quickly learned that trying to capture arresting educational moments are difficult," Whiteley says. "It’s almost like trying to film insects mating in the wild. Honestly, nothing could be more boring over the course of a day or a week, or even over the course of a month. But then, strangely, things changed. I never realized that a high school curriculum could look like that. And there are few things more exhilarating than watching a kid find their voice and start to reveal who they one day will become. It’s breathtaking."
The students showcased in Most Likely to Succeed represent what’s possible when you give kids more responsibility than you think they can handle and ask them to bring all of their knowledge to bear on a single task. Much like the real world. But does a program like High Tech High’s prepare kids for the real world, and does it offer a model for schools across America?
Yes and no. While some kids exceeded all expectation, others, as with any school, didn’t necessarily excel, says Whiteley. And to the question of scale he is reluctant to offer a prescription in a film; instead he provides a singular insight into one very unique school.
"I think to take a school like High Tech High and then somehow scale it to make it the standard in the U.S. would be a big mistake," Whiteley says. "But I think if there’s anything I’d want to standardize, it’s the ability of schools nationwide to become that fluid and flexible. At the very least, allow them to ask the fundamental questions like ‘What are the kinds of skills that we need to be teaching kids that best prepare them for this new world’ and ‘what would that curriculum look like.’ They might answer that question differently in Colorado than they would in San Diego or Seattle or Detroit. But answering that in an honest way and tackling that in an honest way, I think, will provide a variety of schools across the country."
Yet answering those questions might better help schools prepare future cohorts for whatever new skills the economy needs tomorrow, which, of course, no one can really predict.
"If you asked people the best jobs 10 years from now, we’d all be wrong because it’s so dynamic and fast-changing," says Dintersmith, by way of explaining why he feels the model of having kids master a narrow set of content needs to be traded for more relevant experience. "In my 25 years in venture capital, the only criteria that mattered to my companies when they were hiring relatively young, new employees was their college background. Now, it’s largely irrelevant. If you’re hiring a software developer, you want to see their code and you don’t care what college they went to. In Silicon Valley, it’s almost becoming a liability to have an MBA. These kids go through Y Combinator instead."
Interestingly, the story of Most Likely to Succeed doesn’t end with the closing frames. The film has become a sort of platform for advocacy. Aside from screening at festivals, including a record number of public screenings at Sundance aimed at engaging the community at large, Whiteley and Dintersmith are doing what they can to help interested schools, boards and individuals explore change in their own worlds.
"We’ve got this process we’re rolling out where if you’ve heard about this film and you want to help a school move forward, we say get an organizing committee, organize a screening, and then we have a process to help your community plan from wherever you are now to a point that will help better your kids in the long term. We hope to see thousands of schools," says Dintersmith.
They’ve also seen great interest from industry conferences wanting to screen the film—a first in Whiteley's documentary filmmaking experience—and Dintersmith was recently gave a keynote to the Finnish parliament on the topic.
The attention has only helped confirm what the film was designed to reveal. Says Dintersmith: "There’s this prevailing voice in education is that we need to keep testing kids and fix education with big data. But I think you see a mindset in the film that’s more about engaging and inspiring kids. And if there’s anything I’m passionate about it’s that if we just engage and inspire our kids, they’ll do great things."