In November, I finally found the opportunity and time to view the acclaimed educational film Most Likely to Succeed. I was surrounded by education majors and a few education professors in a darkened amphitheater at a fairly traditional university -- although presently in the process of positive disruption -- that is searching for the answers on how students succeed. Discussion after the film was facilitated by then- Commissioner of Education, Dr. Virginia Barry.
Watching the film brought to mind a quip a former colleague of mine made her personal mantra: “Education is endlessly fascinating.” This film certainly did not disappoint in the area of fascinating, but for me, I did not find the silver bullet to education in the 21st century. Instead, I found a source of additional questions to add to my ever-expanding list of questions I have about just what kind of educational experience is best for all students to be successful. What I walked away with is a reminder that education is complex and never as simple as presented by anyone in any medium.
Greg Whitely, the producer of the film, creates a catalyst for the discussion, beginning with his educationally disenfranchised daughter’s experience during her fourth grade year. I believe Mr. Whitely’s thesis is that if educators would just facilitate the personalization of learning, students would increase their capacity for creativity and innovation, thus increasing engagement in learning. He makes no claims in the film about student outcomes. The film’s clear message is that public schools are not teaching what students need to know to be successful in the 21st century.
The executive producer, Ted Dintersmith, eludes to a simple solution: If content is readily available, then developing “critical skills” is the answer to the needs of the 21st century student and employee; specifically, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, analysis and communication. The film is also clear in its view that this is not the solution for all children and that parents, even those who choose to send their children to the film’s focus school, High Tech High in California, still question the limited focus on content over the significant focus on problem-based learning and critical skills. They are also concerned whether their children will do well on traditional measures (think SATs) in order to get into the college of their choice.
I wonder if emphasizing Dintersmith’s critical skills over content will prepare our students for the future they face. By creating such a singular focus on his identified critical skills, perhaps another skill goes missing: What knowledge, not information, does the student bring to the group that he or she is collaborating in?
The parents’ perceptions on the lack of content appear to be based in deep levels of learning in one content area versus shallow levels of learning in many areas of content. Dithersmith would argue that having a degree or multiple degrees, does not necessarily mean competence and a pathway to success. It means they may have content knowledge only without the ability to analyze, synthesize and apply that knowledge. If statistics were the only measure of success, High Tech High students perform 10% above the state average and 98% of students get into college.
The question I wonder about is how do we create an environment of innovation for our students? Tony Wagner (2015), an educational researcher and author of the book the film was based on, argues that “if we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world, we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (p. 4). Dithersmith recognizes that there is not one approach for every student. Real education is messy and any attempt to standardize it through federal and state regulations will lead to a compliance-based mindset. Humans are complicated and making change in education is also complicated. A High Tech High teacher explains the process as one where “we need to grow, evolve, and change as a school and as people. The industrial model is about standardization. Education is much more like gardening than engineering. If you create the right conditions the thing grows itself.”
It appears that if we continue on our present path of first order change by essentially keeping our schools the same, but making small tweaks in an attempt to improve student outcomes, our students will struggle to become the learners, innovators and leaders we need today and in the future. If we attempt to create second order change in education, it will be a complicated process. As Hyland and Wong (2013) make clear in their analysis of change, “It is futile…to change just one aspect of a national policy, institutional plan, classroom approach or beliefs of one group. Stakeholders need to ‘learn change’ together” (p. 3).
In facilitating the conversation at the end of the film, Dr. Barry responded to a question about the barriers to innovation in schools with the following statement: “We are removing policies that create barriers. Schools that are focused on performance and interdisciplinary systems are going to far exceed what and how we are assessing today. The survival of an institution will be based on its ability to show proof points that their graduates are able to succeed in the real world.” She closed with the comment: “We must change the conditions of learning.” Well said, Dr. Barry, but we cannot mandate those conditions, nor can we mandate change. We have tried for decades with limited success.
For me, one of the most thoughtful questions that came up in the film is what do we want to be held accountable to -- test scores or high quality work? If Dintersmith’s goal is to create a conversation, he certainly has most likely succeeded. Continuing the conversation, whether you agree with Dintersmith’s thesis or not, is our only hope to foster continuous improvement in education.
Hyland, K., & Wong, L. L. (2013). Innovation and change in English language education. Routledge.
Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2015). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Simon and Schuster.
Commentary by Nan Parsons
Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty. Nan's other commentaries can be fuond on the UVEI.edu website at: