The American education system dates to an era of factory and assembly-line jobs, acclimating kids to a life of carefully outlined tasks and regimented schedules preferred by the industry leaders in power at the turn of the 20th century. But facing a rapidly increasing machine intelligence, and the growing ability for technology to take over tasks once designated to human hands, whether that kind of education is still the right fit for kids today has come up for debate.
The film Most Likely to Succeed, which screens Tuesday evening at the Center for Contemporary Arts, followed by a discussion with producer Ted Dintersmith and Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd, presents a scathing critique of that model and issues a call to action to educators to update their models.
"We are still working with a 125-year-old school model that was specifically designed to crush creativity and innovation out of kids," Dintersmith tells SFR. "It wasn't an accident. It was a core design principle, because Henry Ford did not want creative people on the assembly line."
But instead of having the courage and vision to reimagine schools as industry moved from manufacturing to innovation, the designated solution, "somewhat bafflingly," Dintersmith says, has simply been to test more frequently. If the world has radically changed from when this generation's parents went to school, why are we teaching these students the same way?
"We all think the way we went to school is the way they should go to school, and the reality is in every important respect, the world is different," he says. "The very skills our students need are getting crushed out of them, and the things they're being rewarded for are the things machines can do better."
That means filling in blanks and bubbles instead of creating and stretching their education to its limits, a "death march of the textbook," as one source in the film calls it, that fails to inspire students to succeed or engage them in ways that make their education meaningful and lasting. Along the way, he adds, instructors are suffering through a witch hunt for bad teachers that drives the good ones away.
For evidence that this system is failing, Dintersmith points to the 50 million chronically underemployed Americans.
Most Likely to Succeed spends a lot of time with students at High Tech High in San Diego, where high school students follow a Socratic model for discussion and project-based learning that puts their skills to the test. The depth to which kids explore a topic—creating a play about one subject they're studying, for example—means there's a loss in breadth, but the film argues kids don't retain content they see in exams anyway. And despite this loss in breadth, these kids do just fine on the state's standardized tests and in getting into college. That's not the only way that schools should be run, Dintersmith says—just as charter schools like High Tech High aren't the only way of approaching this kind of educational reform—but it offers one idea for how to radically change the education system to provide what the 21st-century workforce needs.
The movie was offered standard distribution contracts through some of the film festivals at which it screened, but Dintersmith says he wanted it to be hosted by area schools and organizations, surrounded with talkbacks and discussions, rather than screened in theaters. Some places he's taken the film (for example, in meeting with lawmakers) have been more receptive than others.
"A state like New Mexico is small enough, agile enough—what do you have to lose?" he asks. "When you're 10 years old in school, you can't be a self-advocate. You're counting on adults to make the right decisions for your future. Those kids are in situations that aren't going to help them in their futures, that actually are going to damage their prospects, and not only can we do much better than that, we have to."
Most Likely to Succeed screening
and discussion with director Ted Dintersmith and SFPS Superintendent Joel Boyd
6 pm Tuesday, March 8
Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, 982-1338
Free, advanced tickets recommended