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Questioning Education Today: 21st Century Skills vs. Content

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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 did.

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!”

Ho hum.

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.

The key question the film opens with is, how has our world changed in the last one hundred years and how can schools change to stay with it? 
If you’ve ever watched Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity,” then you know that the model for our school system was created long ago to suit the industrial revolution. Then Horace Mann and a committee of ten education bigwigs (university heads, etc.) decided what subjects should be taught and in what years. Education as it was conceived back then was far more about listening, obeying, staying in your seat, doing what you were told, and memorizing. Students moved to the tune of the bell, and questioning wasn’t really encouraged. 
But, asks the film, what do we need now? And here’s where I was a little disappointed. The filmmakers chose to stick very carefully to their big question. Do we need innovative, creative education that teaches 21st skills, or do we still need to teach content with depth in order to prepare for testing and college? This question was apparently more important to them than showing different styles of creative, innovative education (you understand, this was sad for me, I thought I was going to get a little window into dozens of amazing creative classrooms). 
A big and important question, for sure, but in the end, not one they could answer. Only one they could work hard at getting us to consider. Which IS important, so lets move on from my disappointment now. 
The majority of the film is a case study of the innovative San Diego High School, High Tech High. Yes it did cause me to check out the listings on their employment page, and it might just do the same for you. But really, the point of featuring this amazing school is to dive deeply into what it looks like when a school embraces innovative, creative education that teaches 21st century skills.
A View of the School from the High Tech High Website
At High Tech High…
  • 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. 
Throughout the film, we follow groups of students as they work on major projects. One group is creating a machine that symbolically represents the rise and fall of civilization. Another group is producing and performing a play, revisioned to be set in modern Afghanistan. The teachers consult, guide, watch. The students try, fail, try, learn, research, talk, fail, reflect, try. 
As the projects unfold, the film provides a lens into how the projects are affecting the leaders of the small groups working on them. We see how they grow and develop with the project, not knowing if their work will eventually be a success or not. We also hear from parents, questioning whether this is the right type of education for their kids. 
Is rewriting and producing a play, no matter how much personal growth and collaborative skill development is involved, enough to show for a term of “English”? The group leader’s mom is just not sure. 
In a world where content is ubiquitous, High Tech High offers lessons in innovation and skills, not a focus on information. At this school, the faculty have accepted the idea that factual recall will not prepare kids for life, especially since inert knowledge (knowledge not being used practically) simply does not stick. They recognize and admit that students will walk away with far less content, having gone deep (very deep) in just a few areas throughout their year, and they feel that the tradeoff is worth it. 
As the students move into their final exhibitions, sharing the work of an entire term with parents, family, and friends, the film continues to ask ask ask. Should high school students simply drill content and “get ready for college?” Or will jobs that don’t require critical thinking soon be gone anyway, leaving the only relevant skills those of creativity and innovation, collaboration and perseverance? 
The questions are pressing, and the film won’t let us just relax and side with creativity. The final exhibition of the projects is mixed. The small group leader we’ve been following on the rise and fall of civilization project fails to complete his machine. His group is frustrated, and so is he. It seems they have put in hundreds of hours of work and have nothing to show for it on exhibition night. 
We see snippets of the play set in Afghanistan, and it is good but not incredible. What is incredible is how much the student director has changed throughout the year, and we hear the transformation in her voice as she reflects on her own growth with her peers and teachers afterwards.

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. 

As the film pulls out from the High Tech High exhibition night, we get a brief glimpse into some other innovative classrooms around the country, like one of those high speed montages in a sporty inspiration film where you see an athlete running, jumping, and doing push-ups for two minutes to kicky music before winning the Olympics. 
But instead of music, we hear that the common thread to these successful, innovative classrooms is that students are “working on things with a sense of purpose.” That they are producing things. That they are engaged in real work, work that matters to them. 
In the end, the film doesn’t answer its own questions. Is it better to cram as much content into high school as possible, learning the basics of everything before moving onto college and learning real world skills? Or would it be better for us to bet on creativity and reimagine school? There’s no data to tell us which system will lead to greater success later in life.

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. 

There’s a hilarious moment toward the end when a teacher sits down with a bunch of his brightest students to talk about all this. He asks them a question he thinks has an obvious answer. 
“Would you rather I teach to the test, or would you rather begin to learn real-world skills that will actually help you later in life?”
They all say, “teach to the test.” He’s dumbfounded.

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.

Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!



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I'm Betsy

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