4 Key Takeaways From “What School Could Be”

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

I first met Ted Dintersmith a few years ago in a meeting in downtown Louisville, KY (TeachThought is located in Louisville) to which I was invited to discuss innovation in Kentucky’s schools.

I don’t think I’d yet seen his documentary, Most Likely To Succeed, but I was struck by his approachable but focused demeanor and later became impressed by the work he had done and would go on to do. Fast forward to the present and I think even Ted has been surprised at his trajectory and remarkable journey since then.

Following the “release” of MLTS (actually screenings meant to promote discussion and dialogue) Ted went on a whirlwind tour of the United States, visiting every state at least once, in search of the stories of education in this country.

In that time he was gracious enough to:

What School Could Be is a powerful set of reflections of Ted’s journey and visits with public, private, charter schools, teachers, and leaders. It’s an inspirational read with a sense of urgency and some important takeaways that resonated with me and the work we do here at TeachThought PD.

The Future of Work is Changing Rapidly

We talk of preparing students for the ‘modern world’ and Ted’s work as a venture-capitalist provides unique insight into this. The acceleration of machine intelligence will make it increasingly important for humans to be critical thinkers, great questioners, and be able to fluently and creatively navigate ever-changing environments.

It’s not that content, in a traditional sense, won’t still have a role. It’s really more that ‘content mastery’ as part of school will continue to be less important. The machines will have the content and be able to do so many things more efficiently it’ll require humans to be able to think like content area experts rather than just be content area experts.

Innovation is Happening and We Need to Empower It

Ted describes multiple examples of teachers doing amazing work but sadly it’s in small pockets that are reaching a small fraction of our students. Almost all teachers are passionate about their work and many have already embraced the need for sea change from the traditional industrial model. But how many are being held back by the systems in which they teach?

School leaders, if the mission and vision of your school is geared toward producing students prepared for the modern world how can you empower your teachers to do just that? What things are getting in the way and how many of those obstacles are real or perceived because that’s just how you’ve always done it or you haven’t actually checked?

Testing and Accountability is Driving Curriculum and Teaching in Unhealthy Ways

I’ve written about the dangers of a Culture of Achievement before and Ted hits on this as well. The mantra of college-readiness and the test-scores required to get there are a fool’s bargain. How much of our content and curriculum is used by nearly no adults but is keeping kids from being successful?

How many students are driven to get into college only to be saddled with a lifetime of unmanageable debt and in many cases a career they don’t enjoy? How many teachers wish they could slow down and teach fewer things more deeply instead of racing to ‘cover’ the content? In what ways is this approach helping our student grow into healthy and and competent adults?

Too Much Ed Reform Policy is Geared Toward Doing Obsolete Things Better

The ecosystem of education is complex and I often tell teachers and leaders that moving one part of the puzzle can help you move another. That said, what is expected of teachers often puts them in a bind. So many teachers want to, and are trying to, teach differently but often at the risk of coming under fire from leadership or feeling like they’re letting students (or parents) down by not “covering content”.

If we know this world will require a new set of skills, or at least being better at a set of skills that were previously less emphasized, then we have to move past the short-sightedness of most recent reform efforts.

The moral imperative to shift education’s purpose, practice, curriculum, and systems has never been more clear. What could school be if we reimagined it with this quote from the book in mind, “Our children should study what’s important to learn, not what’s easy for you to test.”