When you were a kid, did you ever question the curriculum at your school? Ask your teachers why you needed to know x, y, or z?
I can still remember a major debate with my tenth grade math teacher about imaginary numbers.
“Why do I need this? What difference can this possibly make in my life?” I asked. (Pretty politely, but I admit I was frustrated).
She looked annoyed. Frustrated herself. Her long flowy skirt swished as she strode to the front of the room and said defensively, “you’ll NEED it for your next math class!”
By tenth grade I already knew I was only taking math to satisfy the man. English was my thing, and it always would be. Though I took biology, physics, pre-calculus, and even A.P. calculus, I only did it so I could go to college and study more English. Same with all the studying I did for the Science Reasoning portion of the ACT, which I did terribly on anyway.
I only questioned it occasionally. But lately I’m questioning it a lot. The more I learn about how the job market is changing, what skills really matter in the modern workplace, and how easily adults these days can access information they don’t already know, the more I wonder…
Do kids still need so much content? Do they need to memorize so many facts? Stuff so much information into themselves that they can only remember it for a few days until the test is over?
My children – 3 and 7 – are starting to tell me they don’t like school. They don’t want to go.
It’s breaking my heart as a parent. As an educator, it’s causing me to question everything even more than I always have.
I spent many of my years in the classroom working at boarding schools. And often, as I checked students in for the last time late at night, and saw the highest achieving students hunkered over their computers, I wondered…
Does our system reward the kids most highly who can tow the line with a smile and cope with the least sleep? Is that what we want for them?
We all know that to get into the best schools, you have to do the most stuff.
High-achieving students feel they must be the captain of the team, an officer on the student council, take every advanced class in every discipline, maybe start a small business and volunteer on the side. Saturday morning is probably for SAT class, Saturday afternoon for yearbook or model United Nations. School paper and soccer club travel on Sunday. Also, it’s important to be social, good with people, and make time for friendships. So studying will really need to be from 10 pm until 2 in the morning each night. Maybe 3 or 4 in the morning. Then it all starts again after a few hours of sleep.
Should this be the routine we strive to buckle every kid into? The ideal? It seems to match up with many of the ideals of the standardized testing-based school system we currently have – learn as much as you can as fast as you can so you can show that you did.
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a Ted Talk by Ted Dintersmith that I couldn’t ignore. He talked about what skills he assumed his daughter was learning at school, what skills he felt would help her in the modern world of innovation, and then what skills he actually discovered she was learning. His experience inspired him to work with a documentarian for two years on a film about modern education. They went in search of schools finding new, creative, innovative ways to work with students.
If you know me at all, you know the prospect of watching this documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, LIT ME UP. I was so excited!
I immediately bought it instead of renting it, knowing I’d probably want to watch it more than once. Probably want to host some kind of watching party with snacks.
Today, I want to share what I learned from it with you. Though it didn’t take me everywhere I wanted to go, it’s a highly worthwhile watch, as much as a springboard for conversation in our communities as for the exemplars of innovation inside. I hope by the end of this post you’ll be heading over to buy or rent it yourself, and planning to show it to your department, faculty, or community.
Let’s get warmed up with the trailer.
- There are no bells.
- The learning environment is stunning, full of student work, seminar tables, open spaces, maker parts, etc.
- Teachers have autonomy and intellectual freedom.
- Teachers often weave multiple disciplines together.
- Resourcefulness, grit, confidence, collaboration, independence and innovation are valued over memorization and breadth of knowledge.
- Students present all work in a public exhibition at the end of the term.
Then we see the group leader who failed to finish his machine complete it after exhibition night. We see him learn from the way that his project fell apart in the end, and we see him finally succeed.
But personally, I know what I want for my children. If there was a school like this where I live I would stand in line all night to get them in. And I know what I wished for, back when I sat in my tenth grade math class wondering why I was wasting my time with imaginary numbers.
But is it really a surprise? They just want to get into college, and their whole lives they’ve been told what they need to do to make that happen.
In the end, I think Most Likely to Succeed goes as far as it can to push us in wondering, what might school look like if we invented a new system now? One that values the skills of today, instead of the skills of the industrial age? It pushes to to ask our own questions, and try to answer them.
I hope you’ll find a way to watch it at your school, with your colleagues. Especially if you sometimes feel like the lone voice for change and creativity. Because while this film can’t prove that a more creative approach will lead students to more success, it sure does inspire us to question whether the system still in place in most schools is really what we need today. And that question can lead to soooooo many wonderful places.