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Most Likely To Succeed: A Film About What School Could Be

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When his bright fun-loving fourth grader started failing in school and coming home frustrated, Greg knew something was wrong. The teacher called it an opportunity to learn perseverance (at least she had been reading about mindset). To the dejected picture of his daughter, Greg said, "She called BS on school" and to the worksheets and tests designed to prepare her for some job.

The opening scene of Most Likely to Succeed was particularly poignant for me having seen that same look after parent-teacher conferences with my own fourth grader at a very traditional school twenty years ago.

Produced by Greg Whiteley, the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed debuted at Sundance and will be featured at SXSWedu on Tuesday on March 10.

The executive producer, Ted Dintersmith spent decades as successful venture investor building and adapting mental models of the economic world. His career has been about innovation and entrepreneurs and, as a result, he claims to have some appreciation for what the new, "Economy will be like and what types of capabilities will be required." Watch a clip of Ted from the movie:

The mismatch between the economic demands and what Ted saw in most schools sent him on a search for a producer like Whiteley that could unpack the story of how we got here and what we should expect from our schools.

Ted brought the film to a Learn Capital summit in Utah this week where a small group of thought leaders and edupreneurs had the opportunity to get the backstory from Dintersmith.

"What I find shocking is that schools aren't preparing our kids for life in the 21st Century. Surrounded by innovation, our education system is stuck in the 19th Century," said Dintersmith. "The skills and capabilities our kids need going forward are either ignored or outright trampled."

Ted is now on a mission to change our education system "so that it promotes, instead of vitiates, innovative kids."

In a brief visual history of the last 124 years, the film outlines how the Committee of 10, based on the Prussian model, adopted courses, subjects and age cohorts. For decades this factory model prepared an adequate number of workers for the economy.

With stubbornly high levels of young adult unemployment and underemployment, the film explores the broken bargain that diplomas equal employability. Greg outlines the core premise, "Enduring school to get a job may not be true anymore."

A Starling Shift

In 1997 chess champ Gary Kasparov was beaten by a computer. Fourteen years later, IBM's Watson beat Ken Jennings in Jeopardy. By 2014, companies like Narrative Science are able to produce a coherent computer generated corporate earnings report. This "startling shift" according to MIT's Andrew McAfee signals the beginning of AI doing to white collar jobs what robotics did to blue collar jobs. The author of Race Against the Machine is featured in the film along with Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, and Linda Darling Hammond.

The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions.

"Most of life is a project and exhibition," said High Tech High founder Larry Rosenstock (see 10 more school design quotes from Rosenstock). Trained as a lawyer, Rosenstock taught high school carpentry. Larry's maker ethic is baked into the frequent exhibitions of authentic work at High Tech High.

Quietly railing against conventional wisdom of longer day, longer year, and test prep, Most Likely to Succeed argues that it's "time for another transformation."

The film honors the parental dilemma of wanting to see the enthusiasm associated with engaging work but hoping for good grades and test scores sufficient to gain access to target colleges. It doesn't offer a prescription but it criticizes the old model of rows of compliant students regurgitated facts and celebrates active engagement, challenging work, and authentic demonstrations of learning.

The story of students at High Tech High preparing for conducting their term-end Presentation of Learning is an inspiring picture of what many of us hope for millions of American students.

Theory Of Change

Beyond advocacy, Ted supports Future Project, an NYC nonprofit that puts Dream Directors in schools that helps kids identify dreams they want to explore. He also supports Providence-based NBA Math Hoops which leverages youth interest in basketball to help them develop stronger math skills, and appreciate and love the power of math.

Dintersmith is optimistic about the film's ability to create conversation with parents and teachers. He's already got another film in progress.

Like Ted, I've long been inspired by the High Tech High pedagogy of projects and presentation. As a conversation starter Most Likely is among the best edu-documentaries ever produced. It is a provocation rather than a prescription.


Go to LikelyToSucceed.org and sign up for updates and screening notifications. When you see it, I hope, like for any policy provocation, you ask, "How will this benefit kids from low-income families?" There's not a simple answer to that question.

For more on High Tech High, check out:

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