Thursday, September 24, 2015

Most Likely to Succeed or This Whole Thing Called School is...?

Last week I had the honor and pleasure to be invited by Renee Boss of The Fund KY to a round (well sort of a long rectangle) table discussion with a group of stakeholders in Kentucky education. The conversation starter was the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, and we were joined by the producer Ted Dintersmith. The documentary was part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is currently being screened around the country including October 8th in Louisville. I had the opportunity to view the documentary this week and it reaffirmed many of my beliefs about education as a student, teacher, and now consultant with the opportunity to work with and be in schools around the country. The documentary and our round table discussion also left me with questions including this biggest one: how do we get the American public to understand the urgent need for change in our education system in a way that they will act?

The film opens with the director and narrator Greg Whitely's 4th grade daughter as he explains that his previously "good student" is now bored and frustrated by school and in tears over a bad score on a math test. As she's wiping her tears we hear the teacher in the parent conference telling the little girl that she is building character and perseverance. Suddenly the narrator stops and shares what he thinks is going through his daughter's mind: "This is bullshit. This whole thing called bullshit." Now don't get me wrong, I understand that this is anecdotal and there are more than a few moments in every child's life that elicit tears and that's not always bad.
credit: Most Likely to Succeed
But this opener really hit home with me because I've lived it too. I saw something frighteningly similar a few weeks ago with my 3rd grade daughter when she found out that she regressed two points on her MAP score. Keep in mind that my daughters attend arguably the most progressive and innovative public school district in Kentucky and we made that school choice largely based on the leadership's philosophy that generally de-emphasizes tests and scores focusing more on teaching and learning than "achievement" (for more on that: How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools). That's not to say they don't care about their accountability scores but they don't place them as such a high priority that their teachers feel compelled to teach to the tests. So if that's still happening in our school district, how is this playing out in the less progressive districts? And why? Why is learning put in "subject area" silos that don't in any way replicate the world that most of us, outside of teachers and students, live in? Why are students schooled according to their birthdate with standards that correspond? Why are our schools being held accountable for the data they produce when it doesn't reflect real learning? Why are our students being asked to learn loads of content they are very unlikely to ever use, and most certainly won't remember because they have no contextual connection to things they care about? Why are they being asked to recall facts for tests that really only matter to people other than students? Why aren't our students engaging in authentic work with real meaning and assessment that helps them (and their teachers) improve their learning as they pursue craftsmanship because, well's not "bullshit"?

credit: Most Likely to Succeed
Much of the rest of the film shows students and teachers in a much different setting at High Tech High and does a nice job of documenting parent fears and concerns around this very different approach that emphasizes deeper learning of less "content" and "standards" while students develop what they feel are more important skills like critical thinking and collaboration. In the interest of full disclosure; much of the work I do with schools around the country focuses on this kind of (primarily project based) learning, so call me biased. But if we're truly looking to move our education system (and country) forward I don't see how we'll ever do that by continuing with the status quo where only the students who are good at "playing school" experience anything remotely looking like success.

As a student I (maybe way too often) wondered and asked "why am I doing this?" when it came to schoolwork. When the answer was "because I said so", "it'll be on the test", "it's for points or a grade", or "you'll need this in the future" I almost always immediately checked out and quite honestly my report card often reflected that I just chose not to do it. You see, I was always interested in learning and excelled in extra-curriculars like Future Problem Solvers but I was almost never interested in school and there are millions of others who feel the same way. In fact, as a senior I once informed my parents that I was not going to college because I just wasn't interested in doing school anymore. Thankfully they "advised" me otherwise but think about the absurdity. We want and hope for students to continue their education past high school after they've endured what is likely a very uninspiring 13 or so years and oh by they way, we also want you to pay (and likely go into debt) for it. This is not to say that college is always the right post-secondary path but if we really want students to be excited (and prepared) for learning past the compulsory age then shouldn't we be doing much more to empower their learning in K-12?

1991, sound familiar?
Fast forward to my adult life where I often felt marginalized by my administration and peers as a teacher trying to operate on the premise that the best way to teach content is through thought, not the other way around. As a consultant I almost never encounter a teacher who places content before skills and thinking until we start talking about testing and scores. One of the most frustrating things about this as a professional is that we have been having this conversation for decades but in many ways regressing. At this point, the single biggest obstacle to teachers creating great projects and authentic learning for their students is the list of content standards they feel beholden to. So how do we move this conversation forward and get past the industrial model in which we've all grown up? Ironically it's education. I firmly believe that if parents understood what education could and should look like they'd demand change one vote at a time. As it stands our policymakers have little incentive to shift from a system that attempts to efficiently quantify student learning into a number.

So what can you do? Ask lots of questions and learn more. The folks at Most Likely to Succeed have put together a nice set of resources called Moving Forward to help learn more about how our school experience could look for students.

Reach out to me at if you're interested in project based learning and/or re-visioning your school culture, let's talk.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.