We're currently in our 2023 funding drive. Nearly everything HRP produces is free — your donation ensures that our work sustains itself. We need your help to keep HRP alive! Check out our fundraising page, support us, and receive donor gifts. Let's restore humanity, together.
Dintersmith, in our view, has written a fantastic piece of work that covers all elements of - and most importantly exemplifies - progressive education with What School Could Be. You can read an extensive review on our blog. You can read more about Ted Dintersmith on his website.
If you've read the book and want to discuss more (or just to see what all the fuss is about!) check out #EdCoChat 's upcoming book talk on Twitter on May 10th at 9:30PM EDT.
Also, check out the accompanying video from What School Could Be surrounding (and entitled) The Future of Work. For more information on the exponential growth of AI (and its potential impact on education) check out AlphaGo - the story of a robot that could defeat the world's best Go players.
Ted Dintersmith is an accomplished entrepreneur - from serving as a top venture capitalist and running an incredibly successful business, to working in our government as an analyst and representative to the United Nations - as well as being an advocate for innovative education. Dintersmith offers a profound, visionary look at changing educational practice to be applicable, relevant, and creative and is well known for co-producing and co-writing Most Likely to Succeed as well as his latest book, What School Could Be.
Michael : Hey everybody, welcome to Things Fall Apart, the podcast here at the Human Restoration Project. This is Michael.
Chris McNutt: And I'm Chris.
M : And today we're going to do a little bit of housekeeping here first. Per usual, we're going to start with a book review. Chris, go ahead.
CM: All right, so we recently finished a book review over what school could be. We just had Dinter Smith's book, which of course is who we're joined by today. We really, really liked it. In fact, if you read that, you'll probably find a very glowing review with very few, if any, critique, which I don't know if that makes for a good book review or not. But honestly, the amount of experiences that Dinter Smith has, where he chronicles going across the entire United States, every single state, and visiting a lot of very innovative schools, it's very inspiring. And what we hope to learn today and what we hope to talk about today is if all these schools are doing all these great things, what can we as progressive educators do in order to spread this message to make it more normalized, to impact teachers who maybe aren't adapting to it or are hesitant to adapt to it, and overall what we can do in order to facilitate and incorporate progressive education and its importance.
M : The question really is, is how do we get those books or those ideas into the hands of people that truly need them and need to see that and read that stuff?
CM: Sure. So in a second here, we'll be joined by Ted. But in the meantime, really quick, a quick promo. We just released our project-based learning guidebook over experiential learning. You should go check that out. It's beautiful. It's like 34 pages or so of pure templated PBL, not templated in the sense that it's like step by step on insert project title, insert project. It's not that. It's really just a method of thinking. It's design thinking incorporated into designing the thing that you're designing, if you will. Go check that out. Even if you don't use it, share it to someone who maybe doesn't know much about PBL. We wrote that with the intent that it would be shared so that more and more people could adapt into hands-on learning and things that will really make our classrooms come to life.
M : It really is hard to put a price on a resource or a book when you know for a fact that that progressive method that you're talking about is of just absolute importance and that we need to have these things changing in our systems, especially our public schools and our traditional system desperately needs to totally revamp its mission and its idea. All that stuff is free. Like Chris said, please grab it and share it with everyone else you possibly can. Feel free, obviously, to donate to Patreon.
CM: For as little as a dollar a month, though, you can't keep us going because it takes a lot of work, sadly. Also thank you to our patrons, Cynthia Jester and Matt Laughlin, two little shout outs there.
M : Shout out. Thank you so much for keeping us afloat, just like Leonardo DiCaprio and The Door. Got them. Good one.
M : Got them.
CM: That was pretty good. Today, we're with Ted Dinnersmith, an amazingly accomplished entrepreneur, whether serving as a top venture capitalist, running an incredibly successful business, working in our government as an analyst and representative to the United Nations, or advocating for progressive education, Ted has been innovating. Dinnersmith offers a profound, visionary look at changing educational practice to be applicable, relevant, and creative, and is well known for co-producing and co-writing Most Likely to Succeed, as well as finishing his latest book, What School Could Be. So yeah, thank you so much for giving up your time to talk to us about your book. We really, really liked it.
Ted Dintersmith: I was thrilled with your write up. That was really nice. I tell people, it may not be the best book you ever read, but it's the best book I'll ever write. I've been agonized over these things, but people ask me, do I have a ghost writer? Not only did I write every word, but the copy editor for my publisher, they said you'd use track changes. I said you don't have to, because I look at it, I know immediately when somebody's changed a word, because I probably have tried it that way three times, and decided for whatever reasons to go with the way I went with it. So anyway, I'd say if nothing else on this book, to have covered, I think in many ways, the broadest of broad sweeps of U.S. education, and do it all in a little over 200 pages, because at least I was disciplined in my choice of words.
CM: Oh my goodness, yeah. I'm sure that many educators will feel obviously inspired while reading each account of these fantastic opportunities that exist throughout the country. However, then again, I could also see people, frankly, almost being depressed, because their school environment might be draining their desire to innovate in the manner in which you go about. I know towards the beginning of the book, you described the pseudo named Eisenhower High School, people that are in that kind of environment. So as you stated as a businessman, workers tend to know more about what to do or what was going on rather than maybe the higher ups, and it seems like your goal through the book was to showcase that teachers should be the ones given control over how education should change. So what kind of suggestions then would you offer a more progressive educator who works currently in a more traditional environment who might feel limited or discouraged?
TD: Yeah, it is the question. It's the question of the ages for our country, for our democracy, for our education system. How do you change an existing school? And one of the things I've been struck by is that anything you try to do in education has challenges, nothing's easy, but starting a school from scratch is actually a lot easier than trying to change an existing school. And so what I really try to highlight in the book are elements that sort of lead to a resource we have on the website, but any given school has its change agents. This gets to my whole strategy around how I distribute the film most likely to succeed because we turned down, I turned down Netflix for this reason, I don't think people really learn by watching something on a laptop, and I don't think you can change schools if five people in a school are 10 people watching on a laptop. And so the book is really not a practical guide. At one point, I had a section written at the end that was sort of, here's some tips or practical things. I just felt like it's attractive from the book. But on the website, we have this resource we call an innovation playlist. And I think when you read it, if you're excited and you sort of feel like you want to have more of that in your school, and you are maybe a progressive teacher at an Eisenhower high type of school, we lay out a set of things that can really help you energize your community and start making the kinds of changes you need to make. And it's all around the mantra of small steps leading to big change. But we recommend simple things. Ask as many people as you can in your school community to watch Ken Robinson's TED Talk. It's funny. It's great. We're thinking that maybe everything isn't completely right with the way we're doing it. Organize the screening and most likely to succeed. Work with Ken Kay and Valerie Greenhill and Ed Leader 21 to define the profile of your graduate. These are all groups I love and I support, but work with school retool at Stanford in their Shadow a Student program to start to get a sense of which school experiences reinforce the very profile characteristics you target in Ed Leader 21 with that process. And then start just doing smaller things that lead to bigger change. So I hope somebody, if they read it and they feel like, I do feel it's at its core a very optimistic book, but in the context of the acute urgency I think we all need to feel about change. But I hope somebody who reads it feels like, man, there are a lot of teachers in a lot of places making this kind of progress. And then if they go to the book's website, we'll have some things that can really kind of unblock the resistance and start helping schools make the kind of progress they feel they want to make.
M : That's actually a perfect segue. I wanted to ask about what you just said is unblock. I like that choice of words, almost like there's a chakra or something being blocked. Most of us, I guess Chris and I especially, what we often see is there are so many tools out there, as you mentioned, that like PBL guides and there's Buck Institute, there's so much, what are some of your ideas as far as unblocking for the teachers or the educators or the administrators or even the parents and oftentimes even the kids who they can't seem to wrap their head around the fact that things are truly broken and there is something wrong. So showing them the documentary or giving them these tools is almost like talking to a brick wall, I guess, if that makes sense.
TD: Yeah, although the upbeat aspect of this is I find that whenever a school screens a documentary, most likely to succeed, they just look at things differently and we get great feedback, not just around the country but around the world with the impact of the film on school communities. And so we've been supporting school-wide communities. We've got this innovative committee of 10 offering where 10 people can watch it, rent it for a month for a grand total of 15 bucks, so it's basically as close to free as my distributor and filmmaker would let me make it. And I think once people start to think that way, as I say, you watch Ken's TED Talk and at a certain point, people are nervous about change, people have concerns, but I think once they kind of cross that line and say, wait a minute, if I keep pushing my kid to – in my talks, I say in most places I visit, unfortunately, the way you get on the honor roll is by being able to memorize content, replicate low-level procedures, write formulaically and follow instructions. If you can do those four things, you will in most schools be an honor roll student and those are the exact four things that machine intelligence excels at. And I think once people start to emotionally – and I think that's one of the issues about the – or one of the characteristics in the film I love is it affects people emotionally and I think the reason I intensely wrote this book in the context of these remarkable stories, I hope I do them justice, but they are when you go visit these classrooms, they're remarkable. I feel like that gets people more emotionally bought in than if I had just quoted John Dewey or cited a bunch of statistics. And so what I attempted to do in the book, and I hope I did, but I attempted to make the overarching important strategic points about the issues that are at the crux of what we need to be doing in school, but in the context of very relatable but powerful stories about people and the things they've done and also in many cases I explain their motivations and it often gets back to heartbreak, just a feeling like if we just keep doing this to kids, grinding through, getting good at the things machine intelligence is already excellent at, taking the soul out of learning, the joy out of learning, the trust out of the classrooms, it won't end well. It's already not ending well. We see that.
M : As you mentioned that, I was just talking to Chris that I feel like that is a major – not to get too much into AI or down that path I suppose, although I guess that is sort of the 21st century, I do agree with you completely that so many people, maybe even educators, I'm not sure if they're turning a blind eye because they don't want to believe it's happening or maybe because it just seems so 2001 Space Odyssey-ish, too sci-fi, but this notion of sort of roboticizing careers, especially careers that people are used to getting out of high school or I mean a lot of them even out of college is absolutely happening and I don't think people realize how much they're currently happening. My neighbor worked at a candy factory called Esther Price. It's a local date and shop in Ohio and he'd worked there for over 15 years. He just recently quit and it was the only job he'd actually had for that long, but he quit because some new owners were coming in and essentially, I don't know if you ever watched – I love Lucy, but it was a lot of that, the candy factory line because if you kind of picture that, I mean that's essentially what they were for decades since they've been around and new owners have just recently sort of roboticized a majority of the jobs in the factory creating the candy. Obviously, you can't yet at least roboticize the delivery drivers. He quit because of some other changes and also the fact that you just saw so many people that he's grown to know over the course of 15 plus years just be laid off because of that exact issue. I think I'm very nervous that many educators or people in education don't truly see that for the threat that it actually is.
TD: Or parents or students, I mean I think it's one of those deceptive things about exponential growth is if you look at an exponential curve, which I'm always amused by how many people – I'll ask people questions in my talks about exponential growth and no one ever knows anything about it even though everybody had to study it in high school, which sort of makes the point that we have kids study all this math that they don't remember, they never know what it means, it's just kind of gone. The problem with exponential growth is if any point on that curve, if you imagine yourself being a little insect on an exponential curve, when you look to your left and your right, it looks flat. But if you step back and look at it, it's got this really sharp knee in it that's really taking off and we are at that point. When you just do the rough exponential calculations, what it means is – and I say this in the book – is that the amount of disruption in the coming decade will be 10x what it was in the last decade. That doesn't sound like, oh, I think I kind of get that or as you say, people could be fairly complacent or not really feel the urgency, but then you start saying, okay, 10 years ago, just a little over 10 years ago is when the iPhone was introduced. Think of every aspect of our world that's been affected by that in 10 years and now can you really imagine what 10x that disruption is going to be in the next 10 years? As you say, the I Love Lucy factory line, that's already being automated, the drivers are being automated. But it's not just that, it's like we've got this video called The Future of Work. I don't know if you've seen it, but I can send you a link and you could put it on your – if you've got a website that goes with the podcast. But it's three minutes and it just shows category after category after category and all the things that are already taking place and being rolled out today that will, if not eliminate every job, for every 10 jobs, they'll go to maybe one job that's really quite different and it's minimum wage jobs, but it's also lawyers, dermatologists, oncologists, radiologists, surgeons. Think about that. You bake yourself into a path where it's four years of college and then three, four years of graduate school and then two years of residency. Well, that's a 10-year path to get to a career. What I believe is that in 10 years, every career will be quite different. We just can't have those kinds of lengthy, painful approach paths to careers that by the time you get there are going to be really different.
M : The law is an interesting one. There's a podcast with Sam Harris and I think he was talking to – I don't remember now. It was either Max Tegmark or another MIT kind of institute of person looking at AI and they were discussing that exact idea that people think it's only just going to be factory-line jobs, but in reality, you will also see courtrooms slowly but surely utilizing AI. The argument was, of course, that imagine a justice system that is actually completely objective and it's one that is not subject to any sort of opinion at all, which is very intriguing.
TD: Yeah, there's an interesting documentary. It's on iTunes called AlphaGo and it shows – yeah. People need to look at that because if you're underestimating the impact, I mean, general artificial intelligence is both remarkably powerful but also at a certain level very frightening and so you have them basically program this so it knows the rules of this very complex, quite strategic and creative game called Go, which is as chess is to checkers, Go is to chess. I mean, it's that much more and in four hours, something – general AI program goes from being a novice to being competitive with the world's best Go players. They show them the AI program playing the world's best Go player and winning. Spoiler alert. Sorry about that. But since then, they now have this AI program playing concurrently 20 Go players, close to the 20 best they can find in the world and beating all 20 every time and that's a very complex, ultimately quite creative game and so when somebody says customer service jobs are safe, I say, you got to be kidding. I don't know. You just list a lot. One of the things everybody says, let's just take refuge and teach everybody how to code. That would be a safe haven and many, many coding jobs will be done by AI and so if you look at it that way, it actually is quite frightening. I think the one thing that we need to understand and really focus on is the fact that when you couple a person who is skilled in understanding and how the software, the machine intelligence functions, that human plus machine or human plus computational resources will beat the world's best software solution or robotic solution, will beat the world's best human. So it's that teaming that's really interesting but we, by and large, purge that kind of teaming out of our schools and you think about grade 7 through 12 math, I mean, honestly, you could replace six years of painstaking, difficult, frustrating math with about two weeks to three weeks on photo math or Wolfram Alpha. The rest of that, five years, eight months, we just wish it's all gone. All the low-level mechanics are taken care of. Then we could spend five years and eight months teaching kids how to actually use math in conjunction with their iPhone or whatever phone they have to start actually solving problems, to open career doors and you know what, who wouldn't like that? The textbook companies, the college board with the SAT, the ACT, all these people that just are making a large amount of annual money by pushing out onto our schools a bunch of low-level material that I think is far closer to teaching somebody to crank start a Model T in driver training school than it is something really useful and constructive.
CM: Yeah, I want to talk about a huge section of your book focuses on that reimagination of the college experience, especially on the track that we're placing on high school students to college like AP programs. So AP programs, as we both know, are extraordinarily fact-based. They focus on test prep really more than any other class. I know as a teacher, teaching an AP course is probably the death sentence of teaching in terms of all other subjects, you have to cover so much information and they really do expect you to cover it because it is test-based more so than any other class. However, obviously performing well on AP tests doesn't really have much relevance to how successful you are in real life. So how do we therefore go about communicating this message to parents and students that AP courses or IB classes or just even going to college, a traditional four-year college and college prep in general is not necessarily what's best for them because it's been rooted in for so long that you just go to high school, you go to college, you get a good job and that's it. But really that's not the society that we live in.
TD: Yeah. No, it's not the world we live in, but it's the world most people think we live in and as I write and as I travel, you see the well of high schools, they go directly to which college are these kids going to and I'll encourage them and they gasp to start that discussion with kids saying, do you really think you need to go to college? Why go to college? What do you want to get out of it? Which if nothing else would relieve a lot of the pressure kids feel about getting into a slightly more selective college, which is I think ultimately quite corrosive. Then the schools that are in tougher circumstances want to be like the well-off schools and so there it's all like every kid's getting a college acceptance letter. We just have sort of baked into society some deep sense that someone with a college degree, not someone who took a few college courses selectively and got to a much better point in terms of their understanding of an area, but actually going through the four-year process with all the distribution requirements and everything else and all the expense to get that quote-unquote college degree somehow makes you just a superior person. It's propagated by and large by a lot of people with great college credentials who just pass that off as just a given. If we continue to believe that, I think that directly leads to the undoing of our democracy because college's cost is out of reach for many, many families. There's actually not that much data. There's certainly very little data that people are learning that much in lecture classes in college. You can replicate that online so you can not learn as much online as you can not in a large lecture hall that you're paying a ton of money for. By and large when I ask audiences what really made a difference for them out of college, it was the interactions with people, the side bullshit discussions. People don't really offer the fact that their lecture courses made much difference. Then you have to ask the question, can you accomplish the same thing for a lot less than $75,000 to $300,000 and do you really want to continue to penalize somebody who doesn't go that path? Do you want to set up this schism in society between those, particularly those who are in fortunate circumstances where it's just a given you're going to college and the family doesn't blink an eye to write those checks? I think if we continue to hold out that that person is in some way, shape or form a superior person to someone who takes a different path, it's unfortunate for everybody.
CM: I think this really puts into perspective how important this educational movement really is. If no one really does anything to start fixing these things, which they have, but if people don't continue to push, it seems like society might unravel itself. It's kind of a restart as-
TD: Arguably already is. When I got going on these issues, which goes back now eight, nine years ago and started to connect these dots with these three words that sound like they have very little to do with each other, innovation, education, democracy, I'd start to say initially to my family members and then close friends that if we don't get education right, given how fast innovation is racing ahead, it's not obvious to me that our democracy will survive. Seven, eight, nine years ago, I think people actually thought something was wrong with it. What's happened to Ted? He's gone off the deep end. How could he possibly have this view? I would be at a dinner party and the last two seats to fill were the one on my right and the one on my left. I would say, if you don't want me to ruin the way you look at your kid's school, just ignore me. I don't get pushback on that now. I've probably given a hundred talks where I've addressed that issue and nobody's raising their hand and saying, you're all wrong. You just realize if you in fact put this barrier of 75 to 300K of actually immersing yourself in very academic, not terribly real world connected, not terribly career connected coursework, that we all idealize the experience there and that this is suddenly making this person just a dramatically different person because they will suddenly view everything in their daily life in the context of how Hamlet might have seen it or what Hegel might have thought about it. That's what we're there and then somehow that makes you just a flat out, obviously superior person. That's not the reality. Maybe for a few people, maybe for David Brooks, but by and large, a lot of people are doing a lot of partying, checking off the boxes on courses, taking notes, cramming, spending a ton of money. The people I really feel a great deal of empathy for, pain for are the ones who are told they need to do this, are told they won't be a worthwhile person if they don't. Head off to some anonymous college that doesn't do a particularly good job that in some ways has preyed upon them with a modest amount of scholarship money and a lot of student loan debt and they realize two years into it, I'm learning nothing and then what do they do? Do they double down on their student loans to finish and often have no real outcome to point to that they're proud of or happy about or drop out? The education PhDs that advocate this position, 25, 30K of loans, they don't think that's a big deal, but if you leave an anonymous college as a dropout, you get no credit for that. If you're doing 30 hours a week in a minimum wage job, do the math. You won't pay off that 30K of loans and it all likely that you'll go into the penalty zone and start paying 10% interest rates and we're doing a short on this. We interviewed a bunch of people and 10, 15 years later, you have a bigger loan burden you're carrying and you just want to say, I may never get out of this. That's a fair thing. That's the American dream. That's leveling the playing field. That's something we'd better get right and get right soon.
M : That description of university is pretty much spot on, although I do have a bit of a hard time picturing you doing a keg stand.
TD: I was a pretty serious student, but mostly because nobody wanted to do anything. The guy that was not much of a party animal, that's for sure. Maybe I was a good student, not by choice, but by the social climate voted for me and said, you're better off studying.
CM: If you love what we do, consider supporting us on Patreon. For as little as $1 a month, Patreon supporters receive goodies from being listed in the credits of our resources to early access to what we do. Thanks in advance.
M : Those who don't quite see the necessity for that change or the educators, not to dismiss all education educators at the collegiate level, but a lot of that is the same idea of they're setting a lot of educators up for disaster by continuing that same cycle, but I almost want to argue that it seems like most people who are in education who fail to see the change or fail to see the necessity of this very necessary change come at it from either a perspective of money or fear. By that, I simply mean maybe they have money to be made. For instance, I think of Teachers Pay Teachers, the website where you can just buy lesson plans that sully up curricula, make something fun or how to play a game with vocabulary and there's some money to be made in there. So no one really wants to see education change and be put into students' hands where there's less money to be made potentially. Also I think it could potentially come from, well, obviously fear. You've been doing this for this long. No one wants to see that change, whether you're a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher or a mechanic. When there's a big change happening and you're not used to it and you don't feel like you're ready for it, you're deathly afraid of what that change could be and what that means for you, I guess, in your field.
TD: Yeah. I mean, people just sort of gulp and say, my gosh, if you miss the Crimean War in history somehow, you're set back irrevocably as an adult. The reality is that most of what these kids, particularly in middle and high school study, it's gone. It doesn't stay with them. It's not really learned. You talked before about AP and in the film, we call out AP, the idea of going from 1491 to present day in one school year and spending 20 minutes on the Constitution and two days on the Civil War and two class periods on World War II. When you just point that out, people say, well, that's preposterous, but most people, if you say, what's the absolute pinnacle of history study in K through 12, they say, oh, my gosh, AP US history, that's got to be the best it can be. It's like if we don't get these things right, if we don't start understanding it, if we don't start baking, for instance, AP course coverage into ranking a school. To me, a school that's got the courage to walk away from AP should be getting extra credit in the rankings, but they don't. A student that applies to a college and happens to go to a high school that offers a lot of AP, if a student wrote a thoughtful note that said, I didn't take a single one of these courses because I think it's a profound waste of time, that ought to boost their prospects in a college application, but it doesn't. When we just buy into a set of these measures that really, when you dig below the surface, realize are not only not beneficial, but actually harmful, we owe it to our kids, we owe it to the message we deliver our students to be more thoughtful about that.
CM: Based off what you just said about AP testing, I'm curious to know your thoughts about ... We do tend to rank our schools based off their standardized test ranking or about their attendance rates or what have you. Do you believe that there's any way, or should there be a way, to rank schools based off of what they're doing, say with the community or about how authentic their work is? I know that's incredibly subjective, but then again, I mean, the grade in the first place is incredibly subjective. I'm wondering if there would be a way logistically to promote what schools are doing and make it competitive? I don't even know if that would be a good solution.
TD: Well, there's a great deal of difference between ranking and assessing. I talk about New Hampshire where it went competency-based and performance-based, and they're looking at authentic portfolios of student work to make those assessments. You can roughly get a sense of the kids at school X are doing actually flat out remarkable work and the students at school Y are doing solid work, but maybe not up to the standard of the first school, but that's course rankings, which is probably about all we're capable of doing if we were honest about it. It's tied to relatively expert review of direct bodies of evidence. I think what we've done, because that might take some more time because it's not as superficially precise, we tend to gravitate toward we've got this little formula. Your ranking is X-weighting times SAT scores plus Y-rating times AP courses taken maybe with a spin for some extra pop for a fours and fives and maybe Z-ranking for attendance. Everybody's got their different algorithm, but we might as well just say we're going to rank you by the average income level of the district, and we'd get the same rankings. That's where I think. Then the message you send to kids because you can go all the way through high school. You can do really well in a lot of high schools without having anything you've really created or produced during high school that somebody from the outside would look at and say that's really original creative work. In a lot of high schools, the only thing you're doing that arguably is even somewhat original might be some short essays you do for an English or history class, maybe social studies, but it's very difficult in a lot of places in high school to find anything original or interesting that's done in a science or math class. Even in courses that require essays, very often the students figure it out. They know that if they write a nice prose with a safe set of assertions or safe hypothesis, they'll do really well. That's what they do. Is it original creative work? Is it something that somebody might actually say none of that makes sense? Are they taking an intellectual risk with it? I think we actually tell them the opposite. We tell them don't. Certainly if you're doing, and it's a whole different long discussion about the essays for some of these standardized tests and how they're graded and how deeply flawed that whole process is, but if you're a tutor and somebody asks you for advice, the whole focus is four to five paragraphs, four to five sentences per paragraph, vary your sentence structure, use some vocabulary words that will impress them, and don't ever say anything controversial.
CM: Sure. It's very interesting too that we tend to gauge the success of our schools based off of college acceptance rates or how many students are doing well in these tests. There's really not a point where anyone's asking, are the students happy? Have they found their passion in life? If they are worried about college, are they actually getting a job after college? Are they learning in college? It's very odd that we don't have any kind of data on a large scale that showcases any of that. I know one thing that our school has been talking about, for example, has been if we go with a portrait of a graduate, we don't have one yet. Would happiness be one of those things? Because that should be a major part of a child's experience at school.
TD: You would think. When I talk to parents, and I talk to a lot of them as I travel, they will all say something like, well, you know, all I really want is for my child to be happy. They don't behave that way. They often make that child feel like a failure because they didn't get into the parent's dream college, not the child's. You think about just the contrast. I was in Finland three years ago. In Finland, it's just incredibly healthy. People sort of view the college path in the right light, which is if you've got a really strong academic interest, if you're in a field that really requires a college degree, it's like a path, and a path with, yep, it's expensive, not nearly as expensive there as it is here, but it's a path for certain people with certain objectives. It's not the mark of quality of the kid. It's not the seal of approval for parenting. It's just a path with trade-offs. The cost are X, and what you get for it is Y. In Finland, about half the kids self-select for careers directly out of high school. It's not the low-income kids that do that, and the high-income kids don't. It's the kids. When you think about it, and I write about this in the book where I contrast, one of my favorite sections is when I talk about the exercise I was part of where they gave a bunch of educators an essay. The goal of the essay was to provide constructive and creative problem-solving advice to a mayor of a Bangladeshi village about how to prepare for a potential earthquake. The essay, you read it, and it's very well-written, four to five paragraphs, four to five sentences per paragraph, varied sentence structure, lots of quotes and facts and data. It's a very well-written, articulate essay that says absolutely nothing. Zero insight, no constructive advice, no sign of creative problem-solving. When the educators were asked to evaluate the essay on the criteria of creative problem-solving, most gave it either excellent or quite good, four of threes on a scale of one to four marks. Then when you ask them to reread it and say, highlight where in this, if you were the mayor reading it, you would now have advice that you could act on. They all hold up their papers and there's none. The point I made was if your life depended on it, if lives of the people in your town depended on it, would you turn to an AP English student or to a kid taking construction arts in a CTE program? I think we would all say, I think, boy, in a second, I'm going to take the kid taking construction arts. Then I say, well, who the hell is the gifted student? If your life depended on it and you choose the second student, why in at least some way, shape, or form, wouldn't you view that student as gifted? I think that's what we've got terribly wrong and it just permeates all the distortion our education system is because we have put college on a pedestal because in many ways, the colleges are every bit as adept as De Beers was with diamonds. They've just made it feel over and over and over again in our society that if you don't have a college degree, somehow you're a zirconium. Why? You think about somebody today that's, I'll pick a random thing. You're an electrician, you've got to be very entrepreneurial, you've got to know increasingly large amounts about technology, you're creatively problem-solving, you're critically analyzing, you've got to collaborate. You've got to be-
M : But you never went to college, right?
TD: Yeah. Right. You just say, well, why? I mean, I don't really, and back to what you said before, if you interview that person, you say, are you happy? They say, you bet your life I'm happy. I can support myself. Every morning, I look forward to the challenges I'm going to face. I know if I blow it and do a bad job, people's lives depend on it. I'm not saying it's better than college, but I'm saying why should one be viewed as better than the other? Why would we view a kid who went through the motions in college, actually managed to get through and had it all paid for by a well-off family and got a degree and is now sitting at home doing nothing as a good outcome and a kid that became an electrician out of high school as anything other than a kid that just found a great path and is making the most of it.
M : Right. Chris and I have talked about that many times in our classes, attempting to help students like find passions or do these kind of passion-driven projects. What we sort of settled on is this idea that most kids truly do believe that an academic, I guess, career is the best one. So all of our schools, really almost, if not all traditional public high schools or schools in general and of course universities, all sort of cater to the interests of maybe 20% or less of the people who are attending them. So I guess the worst part of being is that those 20% and the rest of the other 80 obviously believe that that's the only way you can be successful, which is just so unfortunate. Like you just mentioned, and Chris and I have talked about this in our classes before, but you mentioned to the students, like imagine, raise your hand in this classroom of 25 right now if you would love a school only focused on athletics, that was always athletic, always kinesthetic, and you were always running. Maybe five or six kids raised their hand. And that's the whole point is that imagine now that you're those five or six that truly just love academics. You love reading from textbooks, memorizing information, and that's just what you love. Like you said, it's not that college is bad, it's that there are so many more options. But the fact that we know this about our children and they can even say it out loud, but still don't quite believe it, I think is incredibly detrimental and actually really scary. And it reminds me as well, sometime back, I remember I had students, I was teaching, you're probably familiar with the whole idea of college credit plus, so I got caught up teaching that for about a year and then I instantly, I just philosophically couldn't, I hated it so much. So I ended up not doing it, but while I was doing it, I had students just focus on the word success and I had them do some interviews with somebody and just sort of look at what does success mean? Let's try to define that. My plan sort of worked despite the fact that the plan was rather dark. Most of the kids ended up talking to their parents or grandparents and a lot of people were shedding tears solely because exactly like you said, when you ask the parent, hey mom, hey dad, like what do you believe is successful for me? Usually they respond, I want you to be happy. Like you said, it's exactly like you said, I want you to be happy. And then the student or the kid would say back like, okay, well, if that's true, I don't want to go to high school anymore. I hate it. I hate high school. I don't want to go to college. I want to drop out right now. I'll just get a GED and I want to start learning how to do art, engineering, dance. I don't want to do this anymore. The parents instantly just, well, happy to an extent. That's not exactly what I meant.
TD: Yeah. It's really me that's got to be happy here, not me. And it's one of the points I make in the book is, I make the point both in the context of parents but also education, which is ultimately I think we need to define our goal. So let me start with as a parent. Our goal is to make ourselves not an essential part of the child's life, to make ourselves dispensable instead of indispensable. Now, when you've got a newborn, you're indispensable. If you don't take care of a newborn, that's it. This has been, it's certainly been my approach. I've got two kids that are out of high school. I just felt like the best thing I could do as a parent is to get them to the point that by the time they were 18, they knew they could make all their decisions, not some, not the inconsequential. Every one of their decisions, they could and would be making, and they would be confident that they could make it, and if they felt like they needed to ask for advice from me or somebody else, they were good at asking for advice, but ultimately it was their decision. And I think that's what leads to happy, independent, fulfilled kids, and same thing with school. I mean, supposing we just turned it upside down and said the purpose of school is to get kids to the point as early as possible where they don't need us anymore. They have a mission and a drive in life. They've learned how to learn on their own. They can manage their own time and resources and efforts and draw and think selectively around them, and if they can do that earlier instead of later and move forward in life successfully, celebrate it instead of penalize them, and I just sort of say, well, what's wrong? What am I missing with that view? I mean, when in fact parents and teachers everywhere tell me some variant of this, they'll say, you know, it's interesting. These days if a kid is really focused and wants to learn something, they can be an expert in a matter of days, and I know what they mean, but I'll say, well, what do you mean by that? Well, they just, they can go online. They can just learn a million things. They can Skype and find experts. They do, they're really resourceful, and if they really want to know about something, they are just off to the races, and I'd say that should have monumental consequences for how we organize school, and it doesn't. I mean, it does in some places, and I try to celebrate the places it does, but by and large the mindset is that we're going to keep preparing you for the next round of even more courses that then prepare you for the next round and then the next round, and so kindergarten prepares you for one through six, one through six for middle, middle for high, high for college, college for graduate school, graduate school for the first dreary job you don't really want, so you can get the second dreary job you don't really want, so that, you know, on and on, and before you know it, your life is, you know, largely behind you, and you've never found the thing you want to do, and I just say, my gosh, is that a model? Is that an approach? Is that a set of values and sort of a process you want your child to follow? I mean, that sure as hell seems like a bad idea to me.
CM: I mean, exactly that point you bring up about self-directed learning, the trust that we should place more in children in general, let alone as students, and I know that you visited Acton Academy, the school where I think it was like third and fourth graders, maybe younger, who were just working in a room, getting things done, researching things, they understood what they were learning, they were doing more than they probably would have if they were just being lectured, in fact, we know that they were learning more, because they're actually finding all this information, they have it all available to them. I think a huge part of this is understanding that that trust that we can give to students is not just when they're in middle or high school or college or whenever, it happens really early on, I mean, kids start learning, any Montessori school could tell you that, the point of responsibility to young kids is being lost if we want to teach them those soft skills of responsibility and leadership and creativity and all these things that we desire that is not taught by the teacher, that's taught by kids learning on their own with the teacher there just as a mentor, if you will.
TD: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, and Acton was a particularly bold example, but it sort of permeated all the things I write about, where the students have agency, the teachers have agency. The students and the teachers are both trusted, and I think there's just this basic aspect of human nature that the bureaucrats and policymakers and all the outsiders that set the agenda for our schools have just blown right by, which is if you are working on something you think is important, if you set your own goals, you are so much more motivated and push yourself so much harder, and instead we feel some sense of comfort in insisting that all kids memorize and forget the same information, and to what end, right? To what end?
CM: Speaking of Acton, I feel like I have to ask this question, even though you've answered it a million times. You are a businessman. I'm sure that you're probably tired of answering this, but obviously you're not someone originally from the educational field, and that view of outsiders in education is always something that scares people, especially with the amount of charter schools that are giving all other charter schools a bad name. Like for example, I think it was last week, Noble Charter Schools had a huge documentation and NPR about people and how controlled they were to the point of, I mean, issues with females not being able to get to the bathroom in time, just serious controlling authoritarian schools that are disgusting, to say the least, and you've responded in the past by stating that your vision obviously is not to do that, of course, but it's to help kids. You don't have some hidden agenda of sponsoring some financial need to promote kids. Basically, not only how would you reassure educators that you're not trying to manipulate the education system as someone financed in the past, but also how do we get rid of this negative stigma that's associated with all charters as opposed to just a few charters?
TD: Those are all great questions, and actually I'm glad you asked them and happy to address them. When I first started spending time on this, people would introduce me as a person who had a career in business, now interested in education, and I'd see the reaction of the audience, particularly if it is teachers, which was not enthusiastic, let's just say that. Sort of one of those blood draining out of the faces, or kind of like if it had that thought bubble, it would be, oh no, here we go again. I do write about the fact that a bit to my amazement, I think most business people, I have to be careful about how I say this, not the kind of businesses that I talk about like in Charlotte, North Carolina, where school asks the business community for support and the business community totally steps up and helps, or what I saw in Pittsburgh earlier this week with Remake Learning, so there are a lot of businesses that are very generous and supportive, but fundamentally, a lot of the people that made a ton of money, I made maybe a couple pounds of money, the people who made a ton of money in business have been anywhere from irrelevant to harmful, and I wish I could say otherwise. I really do. I feel like in many ways, I not only have to try to help, but I've got to try to reverse damage done by people that from a distance probably, the average person in a classroom might say they're pretty much like me, and so yeah, I think that's true. Now, what do I say? What do I write about? I mean, I think two or three things I hope set me off. I mean, first, I get my butt out, and I'm traveling about 275 days a year, and I visit school after school. I mean, the trip that I write about was a lot of schools, and I traveled every day for a nine month school year, but it's not like that's the only time. I mean, I'm traveling all the time still, and I listen, and I genuinely respect, and I write about how many business people say this, so we should be trusting teachers to lead the way, and so when somebody's first reaction is, I know, here we go again. This is some business guy that thinks because he went to school, he's the one who should tell us what to do, all I can do is hope, encourage, ask, read what I say, read what I write, because I do feel like I have done my homework. I have worked really hard to listen, to learn from, and capture stories of people that, honestly, at the start of this process, it wasn't like when I got going on this, I said, my mission in life is to validate, and support, and celebrate some really great things that teachers are doing. I was just trying to figure out this stuff. It's a complicated system, but as I traveled, that's kind of the conclusion I reached. I mean, I really feel like they're the heroes, that they are consistently dedicated and passionate, that they want to do great things for their kids, that they entered the profession to engage and inspire their students, and that we've largely given them the worst of all marching orders. Through it all, not all, but many, many, many have stuck with it, and just are not going to give up on their kids, despite the really ill-conceived conditions we impose on them. What can I say? I do feel that this is an enormously important issue. I do feel that it's always gratifying to me to hear a teacher tell me, thank you for saying this, that you as a business guy are saying something. I'm very open. I say, when I say these things, I don't expect a teacher to say, oh my God, I never thought of that. I never realized it'd be better if I were given the trust so I can engage and inspire my kids. Telling me that, I don't expect that they're not going to think that. I'm telling them things that by and large, I'm not really actually trying to tell them, but I write about things that I think teachers, when they read it, say that's fairly obvious in some respects. I think it is important to have, not that I'm well-known as some of the names that come immediately to mind when you think of education, billionaire philanthropists, because first I'm not a billionaire, and I'm getting further away from that number every day. It's like I do feel like it's important to have other voices join on the side of trusting teachers. I feel like I can have a discussion with legislators with some level of credibility, having spent my career in the education world and having been top-ranked in the industry for several years in a row. I'm not somebody that they're going to say, let's just check this guy out the door because he knows nothing. I actually think I'm quite credible when it comes to where the economy, where society, what innovation will do to those, where they're headed. All I can say is I hope I'm not overstepping. I don't think I am, but if I am, I apologize. I hope that people don't say, here we go again, another guy telling us what we have to do, but really somebody that's ... At the end of the day, the honest truth is I never charge. I travel 275 days a year. I donate money. I could easily take all the money I'm donating and spend my time on barges in France or some bullshit like that. If you believe as I do that this is the most important issue our nation faces and that if we don't get it right, our democracy is in real jeopardy of collapsing, then I hope that people will say, we need to have as many allies in this fight as we can and that it is helpful when teachers strike in Oklahoma or Arizona that somebody from a business perspective is saying they do deserve fair compensation. They work like hell. This isn't somebody that's trying to pick an easy path because they get the summer off. This is actually an incredibly demanding job and these people are fighting every single day for the future of kids. That's my hope. If I fall short, if I failed in that in some ways, I apologize, but I believe it's the most important thing I can do with my life and I'm doing the best I can. When I make mistakes, I'm sorry for that.
CM: I think that for me, when I read your book, the major thing that it did, kind of as you said, didn't necessarily give any new ideas per se. It's normalizing those ideas that everyone else is doing it. I think that part of a challenge for progressive educators is that sometimes you feel like your school or like your small collective or let's say your small Twitter PLN, whatever it is, is not something that you're seeing at large. It feels sometimes like you're in a bunch of little pockets and there's nothing really connecting us all together as something cohesive. I feel like your book does a really good job of showcasing that there are hundreds of schools that are doing all these amazing things. The more and more we see those things, the more normal it is and therefore the more it seems like, oh, things will definitely change. We're starting a movement, if you will, that's existed for over a hundred years since really all this started to become more standardized. People pushing back against it, of course, starting with Dewey. Kind of based off of that, I know you have a very optimistic approach and I'm curious to know, do you see that the wave is starting to turn towards critical solutions and openness for true education reform? Do you feel like that's going to be done at a national level or is it going to be done very slowly district by district? Because, I mean, obviously we've had Dewey, we've had Montessori, we've had to hold these people over a hundred years that have really tried for this and we saw a little bit of progression but nothing that would be a nationwide major change. In fact, we've almost seen doubling down on a lot of the standards. So what are your thoughts on kind of where we're going from here?
TD: Yeah, and just to put it a shout out, I'd add to your list, you know, Ted Sizer and Tony Wagner who I think have been giants and have been on these issues for decades. I'm really encouraged. I mean, our film has done 5,000 screenings at least. I mean, at this point we've lost track around the globe, 35 countries, but I'm going to talk about why I think that we could see a real groundswell change in the US and then I want to talk about international for a second. But lots of progress in schools, lots of encouraging things in districts. I spent a lot of time in two states now, North Dakota and Hawaii, in very different ways but both are making enormous strides, again, not in a school here and there but across all their schools and sort of embracing a, you know, permission from the top, teacher-led, small steps lead to big change, you know, sort of an innovation change model instead of a top-down central planning model. And I'm very encouraged by the progress and the energy and the excitement there. You know, I was just in Pittsburgh this week and they did this remake learning, it's actually now nine days, remake learning days coming up in two weeks and it's just a community-wide celebration of exactly the things I write about and that I think people really need to embrace. So there's a lot of progress. Now I don't think we have infinite time here and if in fact, you know, this future work video I alluded to before shows category after category that employs today two to ten million people and all those jobs are going to be gone in ten years and, you know, and so we don't have the ability, you know, like if we just say, yeah, we'll get there, you know, it's hard to change schools but we got plenty of time because I think if we just put in a nice polite request, the guys involved with innovation will just put it on pause for a decade or two to give us time. They don't have any problem with that, you know, that of course isn't going to happen. And so I do feel there's urgency, that's why, you know, I wouldn't throw myself at this if I thought it was hopeless, I wouldn't do it, why bother? If I thought it was inevitable, I wouldn't do it, why bother? I think it's possible, I think there's a growing sense of commitment and understanding that we need to do something different and the phrase I use is change happens slowly right up until it happens quickly and when I start to see districts in two to three years completely transform themselves and when I see kind of remarkable innovation in public schools and public districts that have been put into no child left behind straight jackets but then when they have a chance to actually do it, run with it, that's very encouraging. International, I just want to explain that, is I've been kind of in touch with, I've got some contacts that go and spend a lot of time in China and then they say, you know, will you come? I'm not going, I don't want to go to China. And I've been there once and when I left I said I'm not coming back and I mean it and no, no, you got to come, you got to come, I don't want to go. And they said, well, can you give us some DVDs? So I gave them some DVDs and then in January three people flew to the US to meet me and said you really need to go. And I said, I'm not going. And they said, well, we need to explain this to you. Your film's been pirated, it's being shown online, groups are organizing big online screenings and they regularly get 10,000 to 25,000 people to sign up and watch your film online and then have online chats and discussions or a hangout equivalent discussion about it. And we think in four months, easily a million people have watched this film online and so you ought to come and see how serious China is about rethinking school. And so I'm going. So I'm going June 8th to Tokyo for a few days and then June 12th through 27th to China, conveniently missing my anniversary and my birthday, smart move, my wife's not next to me so she'd be staring daggers at me right now. But I really think it's important to see that because machine intelligence is not going to slow down, other countries aren't going to slow down and so anybody who's sitting there in a position to influence education, whether you're Tweedledee or Tweedledum in the Department of Education or in a senior position in your state or a legislator or whatever, if you really do think it's okay to continue to drive the classroom behavior around these state mandated tests, if you think that you're doing kids a service that they only are getting good at memorizing content and replicating procedures and writing formulaically and following instructions, if you think all that, you are completely and totally responsible for the bad outcomes that those kids are going to suffer and they will. And so I feel like both from a fear point of view, we need to make sure people understand that the stakes are incredibly high and then honestly when people see what this looks like, when they see kids who can't wait to get to school, when they see teachers that are just thrilled to be guiding and supporting and encouraging and when you look at what these kids are doing and you say this is so relevant to what they're going to do as adults, there's no turning back and I think that's the vision, the aspirational vision of what's possible. We need to promote everywhere we possibly can, which is why I spent so much time traveling.
CM: I feel like you might make the same amount of waves that you did with Most Likely to Succeed because I feel like it has the same cohesiveness and the same narrative that book does. I like the message of optimistic change that it's not just a doom and gloom philosophical book about what we're doing wrong in education, it's more about what we're doing right and I think it should be something that many, many, many schools should be reading.
TD: So far I've been really thrilled with the response but Back to China, they've already translated it there in Mandarin. If I weren't going, they would have released it before we released it in the US and they're now holding it up for the first day I get there, they're going to officially release it and then do a bunch of events around that but they're like saying, I say, wait, really? This is about US classrooms, how much interest is there going to be in China in this? They said, we will sell way more copies here than you'll sell in the US and I write in the book that Posse Salberg, a good friend of mine who really made amazing amounts of progress in Finland with education and you ask him, how did you come up with these great ideas and he said, well, we didn't come up with them. Every country gets its great ideas from the US, we just do something about them and you don't and I think that's the risk we face if we do just say, we're doing fine or why change or it worked for me, why doesn't it work for them? It's like these 10-year-olds look in your eye and they're trusting you to make good decisions, we owe it to them to make a good decision and to say you should work for the next 6, 7, 8, 10, 12 years in your schoolwork on stuff that you don't care about, you are unlikely to retain and even if you do, you're never going to use this as an adult, we can do so much better than that and let's do it. That's my attitude.
CM: Sure. It reminds me of, I'm not sure if this is in what school could be or not, I know it's in a lot of different educational texts but that idea of if we just framed what we're doing right now as a war on education as opposed to just being problems in education, perhaps we would compete in order to ensure that places like China or Finland don't surpass us in critical thinking.
TD: It's a great point because what they all envy is the creativeness of our society, the ability to invent, the boldness, the audacity, that is an inherent enormous advantage that our country has and then they marvel, they say, why would you ever do No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top? Why would you intentionally impose on your classrooms, on your students and teachers a regimen that actually handicaps you in the very thing, not only do you have a global advantage in that area but it's the essential thing you're going to need, every kid's going to need going forward. Why would you do that to yourself? I think it's actually a very good question and so when I was at a conference two weeks ago when George W. Bush spoke and talked about the incredible benefits of No Child Left Behind, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever and Arnie Duncan talks about don't believe it when they say the reform agenda isn't working. Look at all the great progress because NAEP scores, we won't mention the fact that NAEP scores are flat as a pancake since we put in No Child Left Behind but if we look from 1979 to 2017 or whatever, there's been modest upticks. Isn't that incredible? It's like, you got to be kidding. You guys just need to go away. You don't know anything about education, you never have and it's time for you to just check out. Go play basketball or clean up brambles on a branch but stop talking about education because you had your chance and you blew it.