Ted Dintersmith’s What School Could Be is a book that makes me feel nervous anticipation the entire time I read: not because of fear — but because the inspiring tone and message are so paramountly on-point that it siphons my feelings as an educator every single page. It makes me want to go into school the next day and forcefully demand education changes for the better.
In his book, Dintersmith (co-author of Most Likely to Succeed, another must-read) describes his journey across the United States seeking out best practice. Roughly every three pages, one is introduced to a new school doing something amazing — full of examples, philosophy, vision, and anecdotes. Frankly, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better resource to demonstrate what progressive education is in real life than this book. It’s inspiring to say the least.
Dintersmith opens by stating:
“Machine intelligence is racing ahead, wiping out millions of routine jobs as it reshapes the competencies needed to thrive. Our education system is stuck in time, training students for a world that no longer exists. Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling on life’s sidelines, jeopardizing the survival of civil society.”
Although bleak, there is no denying that automation will change our already altered society. We say we’re trying to “prepare our students for the future” in most of our school’s mission statements, but are we really? We can’t necessarily predict which the future holds — but we know that rote memorization and state standardized tests are the complete opposite of what we’ll need. So, what will schools look like if we’re not telling students to “eat their peas and carrots” to make it to college (where, sadly, they are most likely still not being prepared)?
In Dintersmith’s model, a great school has four parts (PEAK):
Purpose: Where students do actual important work.
Essentials: There’s a backbone to what they’re learning that they’ll need in the future.
Agency: Students are in charge of their learning and are intrinsically motivated.
Knowledge: Everything learned is deep and retained, they are creators and teach others what they know.
This is the opposite of what most of our schools are now. Our primary goal is to rank people’s potential to see where they’re at: not necessarily to figure out how to improve. In fact, when one really thinks about the purpose of standardized testing…is it to make our students learn more and address what they’re missing or to punish teachers and schools who aren’t meeting “state benchmarks”?
Ironically, in our rat race to make students “prepared for the future” — we’ve actually created an environment that does the exact opposite. When we look for the “most prepared” — we’re searching for “college-ready” students who are enrolled in multiple AP programs, earning “forced volunteerism” hours, and bolstering their resume with trivial high school awards. Dintersmith describes a traditionally “perfect school” and the harsh realities of a “high standard” suburban, well-off area: a place where students have amazing SAT/ACT scores, students go to great colleges, and everything is neatly arranged and scheduled. He talks about how administrators, wanting him to see an innovative education, show him:
“…[groups of students] instead of in rows and desks, although class discussion was controlled by the teacher. In chemistry class, students were memorizing the periodic table with a “cool” iPad app. Their new community service program requires students to log twenty hours each year, choosing from three faculty-defined options. Student infractures are punished by adding more hours of required service…[One senior described: ‘this school is like] being one of those hamsters on a wheel. We keep running faster and faster, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.’”
According to Dintersmith (as well as practically any progressive educator), our schools need more hands-on learning. We need to stray away from standardized testing and build activities that matter. We need real-world problems in education. We need to produce graduates that are better prepared than college students for the real world.
It’s not that this school is the target of Dintersmith’s wrath — but rather a lasting example of a timeless system of traditional ed. that has spread itself since the late 1800s. It’s not that these schools aren’t pushing for child to succeed — it’s just they’re focused on the traditional definition of “success” — a definition that most don’t question. In a traditional educator’s mind, a school with fantastic test scores and great college attendance rates isn’t doing anything wrong at all. Of course, this assumes that our society needs more people that perform great on tests.
The world of tomorrow isn’t going to require (arguably it doesn’t already) the memorization of low-level facts with little to no application, relevance, nor creativity. A large factor of our economy is starting to (and will increasingly) be irrelevant: those who can do processes that robots could do better. Anyone who simply repeats what they’re told and operates in an assembly line fashion will not have anything to do. And, of course, an assembly line world is what our education system is built on: “bell” schedules, standardization, worksheets, and authoritarian rules.
The obvious question then becomes: how can we innovate in school when colleges — which most students need or want to attend — value standardized testing? An excellent point is made by Doug Lyons, CEO of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. Colleges often say they want people with soft skills, don’t value tests, and need people with real-world experience, however Lyons states:
“‘We love everything you just said, but we know who you accept. You don’t accept the kids you just described. You take the kids who go to SAT test-prep summer camps.”
Granted, do our students even need traditional colleges? Are colleges simply an extended version of a traditional education system that already is outdated? Most college students don’t obtain a job in their field, let alone a job that requires a college degree. And, so many students in elite colleges are on antidepressants, without a passion in the world. Is this what’s best for the world’s future? Dintersmith makes the claim that high schools need to lead change — not wait for higher education to catch up. Why can’t we educate 13–18 year olds with a better education than colleges can?
Dintersmith describes the irony of when school gets more serious, students learn less. Typically, elementary grades are full of boisterous young children that can’t wait to learn. Conversely, high school is a dreaded confinement of jaded teenagers. It’s interesting that we’ve doubled down on making high school work, instead of looking towards earlier grades as an example worth replicating.
Importantly, Dintersmith also highlights our obsession with buzzwords and crazes that make us obsessed with “learning for the future” without any contemplation of what that means. He states on coding,
“It’s trendy to assert that computer programming is a basic skill that everyone needs to master. That’s just one of the inane statements that get tossed around education circles because it sounds good. In reality, a few brilliant coders write the software the rest of us can draw on. As machine intelligence advances, the number of coding jobs could actually decline. There will, though, be an explosion of opportunities for those who know how to leverage machine intelligence.”
And this is only in the first twenty pages.
The rest of Dintersmith’s work is a categorized experience of every school he visited across the school year. A retelling of best practice in an extended, exemplar form. A heightened sense of awareness is the least one could expect from reading these stories — at most a drive to start one’s own school that actually loves and cares for students.
So, what are great schools doing? Here’s a few examples:
Hosting Expedition Nights
One school featured kindergarten students working with robotics the entire year. Instead of spending huge amounts of time on traditional mathematics and reading worksheets, students simply learned how to operate and create different forms of robotics. One student made a working (albeit elementary, obviously) prosthetic hand with multiple prototypes. Students still learned reading and mathematics (in fact, they learned better according to standardized testing and observation) as everything was applied. Students demonstrated what they learned at an exhibition of learning at the end of the year: showcasing to over 300 people their greatest successes and failures. And, like most presentations of this nature, there were amazing results and some were not-so-amazing: but that’s completely normal. Our society is so fixated on everyone achieving a simple standardized result, that we’ve forgotten that learning is messy — and all learning will have failure.Incidentally, we offer a resource on getting started on expo nights at your school.
Starting a Genius Hour
Imagine living in a world where people go through their entire childhood and schooling, apply to spend 40+ thousand dollars, and still have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do. Sadly, that’s the reality of most of today’s learners. When visiting one school, Dintersmith was shocked to find students, when asked “what are you interested in?” — Googled, “what should I be interested in?” Why aren’t we engaging student passions!? Shouldn’t that be the entire point of human existence, not just schooling? Also — to continue our shameless plug of free resources, we offer two resources for genius hour: one to start planning it, the other a guide for students to discover and explore.
Go Against the State
The government does not do what’s best for students. Shockingly, our government is not the best example of collaboration, innovation, and continuous improvement. One innovator remarked,
“‘[Every morning,] I look at myself in the mirror and ask, ‘do I do what’s best for my students today, or do I do what the state tells me to do?’’”
Progressive educators cannot teach within a framework that doesn’t do what’s best for kids. The more a teacher commits to working within the system, trying to make small changes, the more likely they’ll burn out (the hero will live long enough to be become the villain). Instead, we need to embrace change in communities (or tribes) that care about children. Part of that will require educators leaving schools that don’t have their best interest at heart, instead opting for the many progressive schools seeking innovative practice.
Have Supportive Leaders
One physical educator instructor at a public school had enough of bored students. He brainstormed a program where students would build, operate, and learn about different types of boards (snowboards, skateboards, paddleboards). He wanted students to think creatively about managing new products, a business, and working with each other — and feared administrative backlash for going against the grain. However, his principal said something that every progressive educator needs:
“‘There will be obstacles. You may fail. But figure this out, and I’ll take care of the naysayers.’”
The teacher’s plan made sense for the community and had wildly fantastic results: students went on to be employed at their own snowboard shops, video production company (from the accompanying documentary), and working in the industry. They took their skills and applied them to career tech to PhD programs — without any traditional curriculum.
Every educator needs support from administration that replicates what’s best practice in the classroom. Not only should failure be normalized and a point of learning for students — it needs to be for teachers as well. Relationships aren’t just the prime indicator of success for students and teachers — it needs to be for teachers and administrators too.
Utilize Self-Directed Learning
Students need to be autonomous. They have to be able to manage their time and work without someone looking over their shoulder. Of course, this requires interest and a desire to learn — something not present in the majority of classrooms. Dintersmith introduces Acton Academy — a network of schools who focus on self-directed learning. Students spend the majority of their day preparing, researching, and designing for projects they’re interested in — while performing better on standardized testing (even though it isn’t something they focus on at all). Not present are any textbooks or standard curriculum. We happened to speak to Matt Beaudreau, the founding director of Acton Academy Placer about the importance of self-directed learning.
They Care About More Than “College-Ready”
Dintersmith offers an harrowing anecdote. At a film festival, he watched in awe as a documentary showcased a high-stakes “college prep” school in the inner-city, one that drills students in standardized testing and removes those who go against the grain. At the end of the documentary, it features students holding up acceptance letters to their colleges they were accepted to. People in the crowd cheered and cried tears of joy. Dintersmith states:
“Of the long list of colleges, I had heard of only one. No mention in the film of issues like loan obligations, likelihood of graduating, or how much these students will learn. I broached concern to the person next to me, who responded ebulliently, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re going to college!’ That’s America today.”
The more our schools are focused on preparing these “perfect students for college” — the more we lose the humanity of our children. The more our schools measure their success by how many students go to college, the more their preached mission doesn’t matter. What matters at the end of the day is college acceptance, and one is only successful if they do.
Engaging schools aren’t focused on preparing students for college: they’re focused on getting students to love learning through hands-on activities. Schools such as Olympic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, where students have the option of multiple career-tech style schools that specialize from biology to graphic design (and they can switch if they desire). Students find something that they’re passionate about, and work each day on enacting real activities and projects that help them learn and grow in the now rather than preparing for the next step. Furthermore, their assessment is not about memorizing facts (as most college-ready schools are). Dintersmith notes,
“Every school claims to teach its students to think, but few do. When we push kids along a content-laden college-ready path, they’re rewarded more for memorizing than thinking — a balance that would shift dramatically if students were assessed on the basis of authentic and creative work.”
From here, the book shifts to focus on reimagining college (not simply making it cheaper or free — as that still wouldn’t solve the issue of a growing unemployed/unskilled “college class” of young adults) — visiting various community colleges and small schools focused on some of the similar topics found in progressive high schools.
Then, Dintersmith takes aim at overparenting. Similar to the parenting lectures of Alfie Kohn, Dintersmith references Mac Bledsoe, author of Parenting with Dignity, who states,
“…parents need to effect an orderly transfer of decision-making responsibility, from making 100% of your newborn’s decisions to making 0% of your eighteen-year-old’s decisions. Not just unimportant decisions. All decisions. Prepare your child to enter adulthood with the skills, experience, and confidence to make sound decisions.”
Dintersmith argues that this model should be incredibly similar to how schools operate with their students.
Furthermore, an emphasis is placed on social equity in schools and the need for our public schools in lower-income neighborhoods for progressive education. It isn’t just money that these schools need (obviously they do) — but practicing more programs that are truly for a student’s growth. Often, poorer districts double-down on “academic performance” and “rigor” — ensuring that student testing scores are raised — but this comes at the cost as students being less prepared for what they need in their lives — critical thinking, creativity, problem solving.
Finally, Dintersmith offers suggestions that we can take as educators to improve our schools — not by making traditional practices “better” by doubling down or integrating tech tools that promote standards-based teaching — but rather finding new ways to creatively engage students. By banding together as progressive educators, we can make new techniques more legitimate as well as embrace more students — the more a vision is stated and seen, the more it is legitimized. Every progressive educator, parent, or student should read this book (and you should definitely offer it as a present to some not-so-free thinking teachers [thanks Annich Rauch.])