Whatever you think is wrong with education, chances are you’re wrong.
Whether you think school spending is too high or too low, school testing is taken too seriously or not seriously enough, teachers and curricula are too liberal or too conservative, private schools or public schools are better — if you’re focused on such questions, chances are you’re wrong. Because those are the wrong questions.
That’s the takeaway from a new documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” which argues the right question is whether our schools teach kids what they really need to know. Its answer is an emphatic “no.”
“Our school system was developed at a time when ‘innovation’ meant beating the mule harder so it would run faster,” says Ted Dintersmith, a retired venture capitalist who produced the film that has appeared at the Sundance and Tribeca festivals and, last week, in Brookhaven. “Now we’re in an economy that demands Formula One race cars.”
You may have heard this before: Education was transformed in the 1890s from one-room schoolhouses for future farmers to veritable factories producing factory workers. But with the increasing automation of factories, that model is obsolete.
“Most Likely to Succeed” starts there but takes it further. The film recalls the 1997 defeat of world chess champion Garry Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue computer, as well as the time IBM’s Watson computer handily won a 2011 “Jeopardy!” match against 74-time winner Ken Jennings.
Suddenly, it’s not just our muscles that machines can replace. Soon, computers will be able to drive our cars … and our taxis, buses and 18-wheelers. Already, there is software capable of (gulp) writing basic newspaper stories.
The filmmakers ask how education can remain relevant — or, perhaps, become so again — as middle-class jobs are rapidly destroyed.
Their answer includes a shift from drilling kids on content, a readily available commodity, toward developing “soft skills” (Dintersmith prefers “critical skills”) such as written and oral communication, collaboration, creative problem-solving, and constructive critical analysis. These skills, the argument goes, are most likely to help students succeed in jobs and a world they’ll be asked to help create on the fly.
But that’s about as near as they come to an answer; they are content instead to ask the big question. Although their narrative is built on the innovative High Tech High in San Diego, they stress that school’s method doesn’t work for all kids.
The film is studiously apolitical. It takes no stance on the public vs. private debate. It portrays parents, not educators, as most wary of this paradigm shift. After all, if school doesn’t prepare Johnny for the SAT, how will he get into a good college? And get a good degree? And get a good job?
The film’s implicit point is our serial credentialing is pointless if such credentials no longer open doors for the credentialed.
“I think there is a huge opportunity for Atlanta,” particularly after the cheating scandal and trial, Dintersmith says, “to just say, wait a minute: Do we want to get the covered wagon to go 3.7 mph instead of 3.2 mph, or do we want to do something different that will really give our kids a fighting chance in life?”
Answer that question correctly, and we can get back to haggling about the others.