Last year I discovered the documentary produced by Ted Dintersmith, Most Likely to Succeed, which asked the big question: is it better for our schools to focus on coverage, breadth, and testable skills, or to focus on creativity, critical thinking, and depth? In my review, I applauded the amazing questions and stories of the documentary while at the same time wishing that the film had answered its own question.
Imagine my delight when Ted Dintersmith read the review and sent me his book, What Schools Could Be, documenting his next project after the film, to crisscross every state in America and discover the answers to the film’s questions. Over the course of one year he met with teachers, administrators, parents, politicians and students in every single state. He learned so much about what’s working in education today (hint – it’s not breadth of coverage and standardized testing), and he shared all the highlights in his wonderful book.
He also agreed to come chat with me on the podcast and share his insights directly with you. After our conversation, I was so fired up to help his vision of the future come to life that I began planning a screening of his documentary in my own small town and emailing all the education leaders I know in the area about how we might bring innovation to all the schools in our district. I also began to wonder if I should apply for a job with his foundation. That’s how compelling I found his work.
So I’m excited to share this conversation with you, my friend. Ted’s belief in teachers, in creativity and innovation, and in a new dawn for American schools, is so powerful. You and I are already on the creative education journey, but it’s so nice to hear that in pockets around America, big successes are taking place, people are turning away from testing, and governments and administrations are getting on board. If there’s one theme that really stands out to me from this conversation, it’s the theme of hope. Ted believes the era of the data hawks is over, the quest to standardize education has failed and the new dawn of innovative education is beginning to spread across our nation.
You can listen to our conversation on the podcast player below or on Apple Podcasts, Blubrry, Spotify, or Stitcher. And/or, you can read on to learn more about Ted and his work, and take a fun web journey through some of the amazing programs he visited as he traversed the United States.
The Innovation Playlist
I’m going to start with Ted’s newest work first, because in many ways it’s the culmination of everything else he has done and created in education, and it’s the thing I most want you to know about. Take a few minutes to watch the powerful video he created in collaboration with Sir Ken Robinson below, and discover how this wonderful resource can help you bring enthusiasm for and delight in progressive education to your school and community.
The Innovation Playlist is a series of videos you can use to be inspired and to share ideas and inspiration with your fellow teachers and your wider community. With categories like “Mobilize your Community,” “Student-Driven Learning,” and “Try a Project,” I’m betting you’ll find a lot of useful resources to help your school explore more progressive options. I like Ted’s advice to share the possibilities, rather than to force anyone’s hand. Gather teachers who are interested in progressive education to try things out with you, and then see how it ripples outwards.
One of my favorite parts of the Innovation Playlist is the “Starter Projects” section, with six ideas for project-based learning units anyone can try, anywhere. I also love that Ted has made Most Likely to Succeed available to screen for free in your school or community.
Explore pictures of Innovation across America
Next, lets take a tour of hope. Ted celebrates the individual work of teachers and community members, and does his best to support what teachers believe will work for their students, rather than push a top down approach to restructuring education. Here are some of the innovative programs across America that I have discovered or learned more about through his work. While he is careful not to prescribe the elements of any one program as the required components of any other, I find it fascinating to explore these innovative organizations and wonder what they’re doing that could work in other places. I hope you will too!
Iowa Big connects students to community partners to complete a real-world project for class credit. In their own words, “BIG exists to assist students in developing their agency, efficacy, and passions while gaining valuable real-world and academic skills so they can succeed in a world of rapid and constant change.”
What began as a small group of community members in Pittsburgh who were interested in talking about the future of education, has become a thriving network of creative programs, organizations and funding for innovation. In their own words, “Our network, established in 2007, is an open group of interconnected, creative, and innovative people and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region. Our purpose is to spark and share best practices and new ideas, make it easier for neighbors and colleagues to help each other, reduce duplicative efforts in the region, and leverage resources collectively for greater impact. No one organization alone can transform teaching and learning to better serve today’s young people, so Remake Learning helps bring them together.”
This network has put together many resources for teachers and community leaders interested in drawing inspiration from their model, including their “Remake Learning Playbook,” and their many enticing blog articles, like this one about the plans of 16 organizations to remake their learning spaces. Their website is truly a treasure trove of ideas and hope for those who are feeling trapped in districts stuck in the morass of test-prep.
The Lab Atlanta program guides students in spending a semester exploring their city and engaging in research and project design to bring something new to it. In their own words, “Lab Atlanta offers a learning experience that satisfies the requirements of a 10th grade academic semester through a transformational, transdisciplinary model focused on immersing students in the city and making their learning “whole.” Students will develop civically-engaged, design-minded leadership skills and discover how they might help create a bright future for themselves and their city. “
This network of schools in New Mexico prepares students through project-based learning for specific industry areas like health leadership, entrepreneurship, technology leadership, and architecture and engineering.
In their own words, “NFTE activates the entrepreneurial mindset and builds startup skills in youth from under-resourced communities to ensure their success and to create a more vibrant society.”
The Future Project embeds “dream directors” in high schools to help lead change. In their own words, “Research shows that young people who learn to imagine and build a future of their choosing are more likely to thrive in school and life. Through our Future Schools service, we partner with young people and educators across the country to turn their schools into vibrant, engaging places where every student can develop these mindsets and skills and bring their dreams for self, school, and society to life.”
One Stone is an innovative student-led nonprofit offering students the possibility to participate in three unique programs, Project Good, Two Birds Creative Studio, and The Innovation lab. In their own words, “One Stone is a student-led and -directed nonprofit that makes students better leaders and the world a better place. Our program empowers high school students to learn and practice 21st century skills through experiential service, innovative initiatives, social entrepreneurship, and the radical reinvention of learning.” Amazingly, One Stone’s board of directors is always made up of more than two thirds students.
School Retool helps leaders embedded within school bring change and innovation through an intense period of professional development and support. In their own words, “School Retool is a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders like you redesign your school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.” Hacks may start small, but they’re built on research-based practices that lead to Deeper Learning, and can create the kind of big change you aspire to—namely, preparing your students for life in the real world.”
Saying Goodbye to the Obsession with “Testable Skills”
One of the clearest and most critical points in Ted’s book and in our interview is that the era of testing and endless memorization is coming to a close. The evidence is out, and focusing our educational energy on practicing tested skills and cramming information in order to succeed on tests is not working.
America needs to get unstuck from “coverage” (memorizing vast quantities of materials that won’t stick with students and that they will be able to access at the tap of a button in future) and from the testing processes that falsely appear to validate that coverage.
Ted describes one school that did an experiment, asking students to retake their final exams in the fall after the summer off. Each teacher rewrote the exam to focus only on the essentials, not on the tiny details you would expect students to forget. Still, the average grade fell from a B+ to an F.
Then there’s the fact that standardized tests aren’t keeping pace with the skills we actually want our students to have in the modern era. “Standardized tests can evaluate low-level reading and math capabilities, helping ensure that children are ‘learning how to learn.’ But bulk tests don’t lend themselves to higher-order competencies like creativity, communication, critical analysis, collaboration, leadership, tenacity, and entrepreneurship.” (64)
Ted quoted one educator in the book that really stayed with me, “‘If a cow is starving, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.'” (125) It seems so obvious, doesn’t it?
Over and over, Ted points to the evidence that shows standardized testing doesn’t help our students develop any of the skills they will need in the future of our country.
While it’s a leap of faith to accept that education is going to look different in every classroom and every school, based on the needs of its students, the talents of its teachers, and the community partnerships that spring up, it’s a leap of faith we simply must make.
About Ted Dintersmith
“I’m on a mission to help catalyze and accelerate progress in our schools. We need to equip our children with skillsets and mindsets that are essential in a world of innovation. I can’t overstate how fast machine intelligence is accelerating (and this short video makes the point). No school can be complacent. My travels have convinced me that our best path forward is to let our teachers do what they entered the profession to do — engage and inspire our kids — and draw on the insights of our most innovative teachers.” -Ted Dintersmith