Top down … sideways and bottom up strategies for systemic education change in schools are “Most Likely to Succeed”

sundanceOn Friday morning in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary where I am on #jhstudyleave a special screening for the Homecoming: For the Bold celebration was held. This screening was Ted Dintersmith’s (an alum of the College) new film Most Likely to Succeed. Released in January this year its reception at the Sundance Film Festival was billed by some as “the best film ever done on the topic of school — both its past and its future”.

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Ted Dintersmith

The film presents a compelling argument for why we have to totally re-imagine schooling. The current model is broken and more testing, more exams and just ‘tinkering at the edges’ is not going to fix it.

It’s not so much about the “proxies in education … the testing and the exam results” as Professor Kerri Facer from the University of Bristol stated in 2014 in the new Graham Brown-Martin book : “what we want from education is more about what it takes to really live well in the world“.

The plea from Wagner & Dintersmith aligns with Facer’s work and many others (for example: Darling-Hammond, Mazur, Mitra, Pink, Ravitch, Robinson, Zhao plus many of our outstanding school leaders, teachers and education academics in Australia); it’s a global pitch for an urgent re-think: “If conversations, education plans and national policies focus on making the current system better, we are doomed” (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2015, p.222).

Tony Wagner

You can view a trailer of Most Likely to Succeed  here. It is not widely distributed yet as Dintersmith who directed the film wants communities to come together face-to-face to talk about education in such screenings before people can view it in isolation on a screen at home. Smart.

download (40)Education needs louder and even more public conversations. At present Dintersmith et al are doing a non-stop tour around the US with the film screening in schools, community halls and faculties of education in universities; already they have been to more than 26 states.

Shot over two years and mainly on location at High Tech High in California, the film features teachers, students and parents and Larry Rosenstock. Larry is the school’s principal – he is very well known to many teachers in Australia. I believe he has quite a fan club in Sydney!*

hth-featureThe film goes hand in hand with the book of the same title; it’s written conjointly with Tony Wagner, Ted Dintersmith’s collaborative partner on this ambitious project to overhaul American schools. Wagner spent his career in education and gained his PhD from Harvard’s Graduate School in Education while Dintersmith spent his career in technology and innovation, his PhD is in engineering from Stanford. Both Wagner and Dintersmith worked closely on the feature-length film with documentarian Greg Whitely.

high-tech-high-lobbyThe film is envisioned as a way to actively support teachers, who in pockets right across the US, are trying to do things differently in an inflexible, standards focused system that  – no matter what stats you look at – is not working.

Twitter was a buzz over the weekend when President Obama announced on Saturday that only 2% of class time in US schools must be spent on testing. An excellent step.

Quite ironic that when the ‘standards movement’ arrived in schools …. results plummeted; remember the ‘standards movement’ originally came from the automotive industry – schools are human organizations based on human capital – they are not companies manufacturing standardized commodities.

HOLD FOR RELEASE UNTIL NOON EDT SATURDAY, OCT. 24 Graphic shows average number of standardized tests in delected districts;
HOLD FOR RELEASE UNTIL NOON EDT SATURDAY, OCT. 24 Graphic shows average number of standardized tests in selected districts.

What resonated with me in Most Likely to Succeed (and it’s certainly not a new statement) is the argument to urgently step back and examine what has happened in education over the past 125 years, ie what was initially developed as an education system to furnish the industrial revolution is no longer appropriate.

Students may learn less content in the High Tech High (HTH) approach or under the ‘proposed Wagner & Dintersmith overhaul’ but the ‘soft skills’ of communication, grit, collaboration, problem solving, teamwork and empathy when nurtured are critical learning/life/living well skills.

Research is capturing how HTH students fare over the long term – we simply do not know yet – to dismiss these careful, scaffolded, democratic models of learning that are highly student centered is pure folly and for the record – last year 98% of HTH students gained college admission.

Throughout the film and in the book there are important interviews with millennials, their teachers and parents. Fascinating. I heard the ‘same voices’ in my research in a number of Sydney high schools recently.

lenz-reimagining-educationIn Chapter 7 of Most Likely to Succeed : A New Vision for Education compares the challenge facing education as akin to global warming and asks how much difference can one person make. Actually, teachers at the local level can do a lot. This is happening in US schools and in many Australian schools and classrooms; now the pace must hasten. With less focus on testing and reductionist instruction methods teachers are free to focus more on learning, problem solving, critical thinking, project based approaches and design models – these are all steps to achieving the critical notion of “living well in the world“.

A report released in Australia on Monday by Professor Lamb and his team at Victoria University and picked up widely in the local media states: “At each milestone, around one in four Australian learners are not on track”.  The full report makes sobering reading.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 3.04.45 pmIn a vignette on report findings from The Conversation piece Professor Lamb concludes: “The picture provided by our report shows that Australian education does provide well for most students, and offers some chances of remediation for those who fall behind – but which does not adequately honour its commitment to providing equal opportunity for all. Changing this picture requires more than minor adjustments at the micro level, but a systemic rethink of how opportunity is distributed at all levels of lifelong learning”.

Opportunity distribution in schooling in Australia (and in the US) involves a whole new imagining.** It’s time to succeed! And the timing is perfect – it’s #GonskiWeek at home.


* Larry Rosenstock is speaking at the Future Schools conference in Sydney in March 2016.

** My colleague Dr Mark Hofer from the School of Education at the College of William & Mary has just written an excellent post on how we can prepare students for an unknown future.