By Robert Stitt
Last January the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was not part of a George Clooney or Robert Redford enterprise. In fact, it did not include any Hollywood A-listers. The film was the brainchild of venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith as part of his platform to get America to rethink the way we “do education”.
Dintersmith is the product of a public high school and state college. He is also a driven go-getter who made his money with a semiconductor start-up and then in venture capital. During that time, he saw brilliant people making advances that took away old-school jobs and replaced them with ones that demanded free-thinking and innovation. He sought to surround himself with those who were academically bright, but soon learned that “such patently qualified people often proved hopeless in the world of innovation.”
This was all quite curious to him until he had children of his own. Dintersmith recalls a time when his son was in third grade and made a brilliant science presentation that was rewarded with a sea of red ink. Confronting the teacher and asking why his son’s correct answers and responses were not as valid as the “one” answer the teacher desired, he was met with an answer that changed his life. “Throughout school, these kids will need to take standardized tests. We need to prepare them properly. Open-ended questions can confuse them.”
As his children went through middle school and little changed, he started to focus on the questions “Why” and “What”. Why were his kids in school and what were they actually learning. He wanted to know if the school was doing anything to prepare his children for life. He quickly found that most of what the students learned could be classified as “irrelevant.” Granted, many of these “irrelevant” learnings would be tested and get his children into college if they learned them, but he could not find a useful connection to “life”.
Dintersmith did make a differentiation between elementary school and secondary school. He noted, “Students have many experiences during their school years that prepare them for life. Grades K-6 help kids learn to read, write, and perform core math operations — all very important. But in higher grades, only an occasional school assignment — such as writing an essay — helps build an important life skill.”
Most of what he saw in later schooling that mattered took place outside the classroom on the sports field, or in an after school club, rarely in the halls of education. Worse, he found that many things that took place in school actually hurt them in the long run such as a focus on narrowly-focused “right” answers and systematic “hoop-jumping.”
According to the Washington Post, Dintersmith wants to see education “build character and soul, help students in a process of self-discovery, prepare students to be responsible, contributing citizens, inspire students through the study of humanity’s great works, and prepare students for productive careers.”
Is the answer in project-based learning? Is it in the trend of “flipping the classroom”? That is really the great question. How do we fix the system? Instead of leaving with a depressed sense of failure, Dintersmith wants us to consider the positive alternative: Imagine what our country is capable of if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life.