Episode 17 – Ted Dintersmith
IN THIS EPISODE, DORIS DISCUSSES THE STATE OF THE AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM WITH ACCLAIMED FILM MAKER AND AUTHOR, TED DINTERSMITH. THE EDUCATIONAL REFORMERS DISCUSS WHY WE SHOULD WANT OUR CHILDREN TO ASK THE HARD QUESTIONS ABOUT SCHOOL INSTEAD OF ACCEPTING A SYSTEM THAT REWARDS MEMORIZATION AND FORMULAIC ANSWERS.
Ted Dintersmith is on a crusade to change our nation’s education priorities from testing and measuring our students to engaging and inspiring them. His works include an acclaimed film and book called Most Likely To Succeed. Learn more at the film’s website (www.mltsfilm.org), Ted’s website (www.edu21c.com) or by following him on twitter @dintersmith.
Doris: So, Ted, you’ve been traveling all over the country. And one of the things that was really interesting to me when we first met is that you, when you were talking to our students here in the entrepreneurship class, you almost immediately connected and engaged with them around what they were doing and what they were getting out of it. You knew. And I assume that’s because in part, you’ve been going all over the country and meeting with students who are part of programs where they’re having a transformative experience, and it’s different from traditional school. You seemed to get it, when you talk to our students, right away.
Ted: Yeah. It’s been one of the interesting things. I mean, I was in Cleveland. I was at Hawken early. So I was there in the middle of September. I basically left home in early September, and then back Thanksgiving. I was back on the December holidays. I’ve been back a few weekends, but I’ve been pretty much traveling nonstop for whatever that is, eight or nine months. I will have covered every single state in the country. And I’ve been to some places two or three times. And so I’ve got a chance to see…you name it. I’ve seen it from all angles of all perspectives. And it’s particularly great. People will look at my travel schedule and say, “You must be exhausted,” and I really am not. Because you see in a lot of places, often you might not expect, really inspiring things. When you give students and teachers the support and latitude to create and invent things they’re passionate about, they blow you away with what they do. And I find those both everywhere and nowhere. I find them everywhere in the sense of almost any school, and certainly any community, any state, will have lots of examples where the students and teachers are just on fire doing things.
Unfortunately, that’s still a tiny amount relative to all the kids going through school just grinding through worksheets. They’re not interested. When they ask the question, “When will I ever use it?”, the teacher kind of crosses their fingers and puts their hand behind their back and says, “Trust me. This may come in handy someday.” Which is just not a good enough answer, particularly since we know that most of what they have to do in high school, they’re never going to use.
Doris: Yeah, absolutely. What are the patterns that you see? When you look across the landscape of the students and teachers and programs that you’ve witnessed that are really on fire doing cool things, what are some of the common ingredients? What do you see?
Ted: That’s a great question, Doris. Let me give you two different perspectives on it. One is that they have clarity of what they want to accomplish, that they are setting out to generally help kids develop skills that matter. When you ask them, “What do our kids want to be good at through this experience?”, they have an answer. It’s not just “I’d like them to be 7% better on a test relative to last year.” It’s that, “I want these kids to be creative problem solvers.” So they have clarity they trust. They are letting the teachers and students do the things they feel they want and need to do to reach that goal. So instead of micromanaging them, they trust them.
The third thing…and I’m sort of percolating along with a way to phrase this, so bear with me. But I feel most of our approach in education is predicated on the existence of what I call the three T’s, which are we obviously can’t have kids doing something at school unless we have a teacher trained in the subject matter, we have a text or a carefully worked out curriculum that marches them through what they need to know, and we have a test in place so we could test what they’ve learned. That is, in fact, U.S. education strategy for decade after decade.
Where I find the great things are, when you absolutely walk away from all three of those. When you have the teacher with the courage to say, “We’re going to go after this area. Honestly, I don’t know much about it. You’re going to have to do most of the figuring out, and I’m going to be here to help you figure it out…” It’s open field. We don’t have a text. We don’t know that we’re going to go from paragraph 27 to paragraph 28 in this exact sequence. We’re going to figure it out as we go. And we don’t have some carefully worked out multiple-choice standardized test that will let us compare a kid in Cleveland to a kid in Tallahassee to a kid in Juneau, Alaska. We will depend on authentic reflections of real accomplishment, public displays, peer-engaged review, and something that the kid can point to that they are proud of, that shows they achieved a level of excellence. And when you walk away from those three T’s and replace them with one T, which is trust, you could see some amazing things happen.
Doris: Well, that’s a great answer. One of my favorite statistics to quote is that I think they did a study in Maryland, at University of Maryland, if I recall correctly. That between 1999 and 2002, the newly human recorded, I should say, information was, in quantity, the equivalent of what existed prior to 1999. I didn’t word it that well. And then after 2002, every year, human recorded technical information doubles. So when I think about the current teacher-text-test model, that is, sadly, what’s in place at the vast majority of schools and in the vast majority of classrooms, that specific content that somebody decided whenever constituted a good education, a good high school education or a good K-12 education, if you look at how that content, even if you assume that the students who are fed that content for four years retain all of it, which is a horrible assumption because they don’t, but deciding that that content constitutes a good education is crazy at this point.
Ted: Yeah. We labor over whether our kids could come to high school knowing 0.001% of what’s knowable, and then express disappointment when they only know 0.00005% of what’s knowable. And when you think about it, really it is silly, right? Even look-upable or obsolete or just generally not retained. But if you, in fact, think of school, of helping kids move forward in life by laying down these completely rock solid pillars, the foundation of knowledge, and then you look at things like every adult in America studied the Constitution and only 1 in 20 can answer even a basic question or two about it.
I always point people to this great YouTube video. If you Google “Civil War Texas Tech,” you’ll get this three-minute video with this young reporter in a college campus who we’ve all heard of, which he asked these students, “Who won the Civil War?” And student after student doesn’t know who won the Civil War. And so are we really going to like, just because we covered something, it doesn’t mean that in any way, shape, or form, somebody’s learned it.
Doris: Oh, that’s for sure. My favorite line that I get abused around here is, “It’s not about what you teach. It’s about what they learn.” And it’s a really interesting thing when you evaluate everything we do at schools through that lens, because they don’t retain it. You were talking about skills. Creative problem-solving is one you mentioned. You’ve spent years really seeing startup after startup, entrepreneur after entrepreneur come in, innovators, and you picked really well. So you came to some really solid conclusions about what you are looking for when somebody came to you and said, “Hey, we’d like you to invest. Here’s what we’re doing.” And now you’re in this education world, and you’re going across the country, and you’re seeing innovators in education. And when you look across the entire spectrum, and entrepreneurs, businesses that you’ve seen, individuals, students, teachers, what do you see in the innovators in education? And what do you see that is consistent with what you saw in the most innovative entrepreneurs in the earlier part of your career? I don’t know if that makes sense.
Ted: Yeah. No, it makes total sense. So through my career, I was really fortunate to work with people that had certain characteristics in common. They were passionate about what they were doing, about the impact they could have on the world with their life, with their time, their talents, their willingness and ability to learn. They were focused beyond belief, but they were willing to challenge convention. There was no entrepreneur that was ever successful that tried to do what everybody else was doing. They sought out doing the unusual, asking the question that other people weren’t comfortable asking. And when you look at that, those characteristics…I’m going to give you another example. They ask lots of questions, think outside of the box.
The point I make to audiences, that the entrepreneurs that make the world better, that the bright, creative, innovative people, when you look at what they’re good at, it is really no different from what you find in almost any five-year-old, right? It is not as though they had to develop those skills and characteristics only through some amazing education system that took raw material that showed none of it, and built it up over a 16-year period. That is not the model. They just didn’t have it crushed out of them the way many of the kids do. And so when I look at the educators that are so innovative, they are the ones willing to go rogue. They are the ones that say, “I’ve got a great idea I believe in that I think will help my kids learn at a rapid rate, learn things that are going to matter, but most importantly, inspire them, help them form the character traits we really want instead of becoming docile sheep through a process that rewards kids that come up with formulaic answers instead of kids that ask hard questions.” And I think that’s what really led me to take this on with such, I don’t know what you call it, passion or energy is when I realized that not only was school not helping kids prepare for a world with innovation, but was actively…
Doris: Crushing them.
Ted: Yeah, and tearing their prospects.
Ted: This is really important to emphasize. It is not just the bottom 20% of our test score kids that are at risk. Actually, the kids that are outstanding students, the high-achieving students, I think they are set up to fail in a world of innovation.
Doris: I couldn’t agree more. They’re being hurt. I could argue they’re being hurt more than anyone else by our system.
Ted: Well, they’re all being hurt in different ways. I always joked that there are 80 million parents in America. 40 million need to spend way more time with their kids, 40 million need to spend way less time with their kids, and maybe a dozen have it kind of right.
Doris: Yeah, that’s true.
Ted: When you see the lives of some of these kids who at age 10 and 11 have responsibilities at home and face challenges that very few adults, particularly well-off adults, could ever begin to imagine, that kid is facing enormous challenges. And those challenges, I think, are…they’re certainly different. But they’re worse, I think, in many ways…I mean, they’re heartbreakingly worse than the kid that’s micromanaged who’s had everything done for them so they can get into Yale, and then have the internships and everything else. I think that the Yale kid from privilege will be unhappy, will do something they don’t want to do, and will just kind of go through the motions, but they will not be homeless. What I feel is our opportunity, but right now it is not in the opportunity category – it’s in the huge challenge category – is that if, in fact, the metric of merit in our schools is largely tied to breadth of vocabulary and ability to do low-level math questions quickly under time pressure, which is largely what shapes the view our schools, our adults, and even our kids, have of who is gifted, who is talented and who isn’t, as long as…
Doris: It’s how we’re defining success now, right?
Ted: Yeah. As long as that is out there as a figure of merit, which is what largely the colleges look for, by the way, we will have this dynamic where we will spend infinite amounts of money testing to show an achievement gap on these measures. We will spend no money to close it, and it won’t close. I mean, it’s just not going to happen to a kid that grows up with only one parent who’s working three jobs, who can’t do the flashcards at home at night, who can’t read book after book after book, but who also can’t tutor the kid or hire a tutor. That kid is not going to meet the kid who is in that situation, if we evaluate them on reading boring reading passages they have no interest in and asking sort of formulaic questions on it that are largely tied to subtle vocabulary words.
And if we say, “You’ve got to do 20 math problems quickly, recognize the pattern, and get it right,” if we shifted that, at least started to evaluate and reward kids for perseverance, resourcefulness, thinking outside of the box, staring down failure, overcoming adversity, you start to shift that, right? That kid who grew up in amazingly challenging circumstances, they have those characteristics in abundance. And the micromanaged rich kid from the suburb…and that, these young adults who had thrived in academic settings that had everything done for them, put them in a world of ambiguity, a world where there’s every prospect to fail not once, but daily, they were like the deer in the headlights…
Ted: So I said, “What world do I want to live in, a world that rewards and prioritizes on skills during a school year that are irrelevant in life, or a world that prioritizes on exactly the characteristics you need in life?”
Doris: We all know there’s tons of research and data, that it’s a completely changed workplace, that for a graduate of college or high school or whatever to be well-prepared for today’s workplace, let alone tomorrow’s, these skills we’re talking about are what’s most in-demand: creative problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, all that stuff. Regardless of sort of what school system you’re in or what community you’re in, whether you’re in the privileged, the not privileged, our current system isn’t preparing our students well for that. And the student who is killing themselves to be “successful” in the current system is putting their energy and time into memorizing, into training themselves to, as you said, do math problems of a certain type under time pressure. And they are spending crazy amounts of their childhood on activity that doesn’t matter, that’s not helpful. I think that when teachers are really focused on allowing the learning to happen, the skills development, and stepping back, as you said, in a way, and making it all about inspiring the students, having students learn what they’re able to learn, it’s empowering. It’s really empowering for these students. It’s really the democratization of education in our current time.
Ted: Exactly. And I wrote this article. I encourage your listeners, if you want to find it, just Google my name, “Dintersmith, Washington Post, purpose.” But it’s one of the casualties of the education system we have now is that for 10, 12, 16 years, the message we give kids is, “Excel at something you have no say in, you have no interest in, where the only point of doing it is to show somebody on an inconsequential measure that you will be able to get good at it.” And so is it any surprise that so many of our kids come to these school years with no real sense of purpose about what they want to accomplish in life? Because instead of asking them to go out, find problems you care about, figure out where you can make your world better, learn the things you need to do it, and persevere to accomplish something you’re proud of that actually does make your world better, right now most of our schools say, “Oh, we do that. It’s community service.” And then I ask, “Well, tell me about your community service program.” And they will say all too often, “Well, it’s a mandatory 20 hours a year. They get to pick between three options defined by the faculty, and they have to fill out time cards. And, oh, by the way if they do something bad, if they need punishment, we will add another 20 to 40 years to their community service requirement.” And I’d say, “Wow. I mean, this really gets kids excited about making the world better, doesn’t it?” And it’s tragic, right? It’s tragic because…
Doris: Yeah, it is.
Ted: You used the phrase “students killing themselves.” Well, many are killing themselves on the workload. But I actually encounter, I think, not mainstream views about this whole, I think, misguided discussion in terms of are our kids under too much stress. And oh, they just need to cut back. And oh…
Doris: No, it’s not that. It’s what they’re doing.
Ted: It’s what they’re doing.
Doris: It’s what they’re doing. I agree with you. It’s not about they’re spending all this time and they’re all stressed learning this stuff. It’s that it’s irrelevant.
Ted: It’s irrelevant.
Doris: They are doing things that are irrelevant. And the difference between today and when I was in school is I also sat in class often and thought, “Oh, I don’t know when I’m ever going to use it this. I don’t know how relevant this is.” The difference is there was no technology. There was no media. I didn’t see the rest of the world. So when my parents and teachers said, “Trust us. You’ll need this one day,” I trusted them. Kids today know that’s not true. They know that when they’re sitting in a room, and they’re being fed the quadratic formula, and you need to memorize it, and have it memorized by Thursday, that it’s irrelevant.
Ted: It’s just building sand castles on a windy beach. And really, in the film that Greg Whiteley directed that I organized and funded, Most Likely to Succeed, which I’d also encourage audience members to go to the website, and…
Doris: Oh, yeah. It’s awesome.
Ted: Yeah, it’s really awesome. And bring it to your schools. That’s our distribution model. I turned down the online guys just because I want schools to see it. But there’s this amazing scene. It’s my favorite scene in the film. And it’s students at a high-powered, public school outside of Denver. And they’re in a group, and they’re asked the question, “Are you in high school to learn? Are you in high school just to get good grades so you can get into the right college?” And they all answer the question. They look at the camera, and they’re actually surprised that any adult believes a high school kid would go to school to learn. Like, “Of course, we’re not here to learn. Are you kidding?”
Doris: “Are you kidding?” Yeah, exactly.
Ted: “We’re just here to jump through the right hoops, check out the right boxes on extracurriculars, put together the right application so that we can get into the right college to get the right jobs.” Now, what they don’t realize is that they do all that, and maybe they get a good job. But often they don’t. But all too often, they then say, “Well, we’ll really learn and do what we care about in college.” But then they get to college and they’ll say, “Well, I just need to do more of the same to get into the right graduate school.” Then they’re in the right graduate school where they then are going to learn and figure out what they want to do in life, except then they’re going to do everything that they think will look good to an employer. And then they will get their first job, and they’ll just keep at it. And then they’ll wake up someday when they’re 50 and say, “Gee, I kind of wish I had done something with my life I cared about.”
Doris: Yeah. Everything was in preparation for the next thing, and we never got to the thing.
Ted: You never got to it. And that’s just heartbreaking, right? This isn’t happening to a kid or a few kids. I find that this is happening to all of our kids. And as I said, in different ways, you have the kids with all sorts of talent and potential, that I always joke that one SAT word they know is “proficient.” Because we subject them to standardized test after standardized test, and the message they get back is, “Right now, you are not proficient. We need to drill more to help make you become more proficient.” And what they’re hearing, right, is “You have very limited potential in life.” Well, nothing could become further from the truth, but that’s what they hear. And it’s self-fulfilling. And it happens with the kids in these high-powered environments where they’re doing everything because adults are pushing them to do it, and almost nothing because they want to do it.
Doris: Absolutely. I have to say, you brought up your movie. Your movie is phenomenal. Your book’s phenomenal. Showing the movie here at Hawken was really important for the conversation we’re having. It created additional conversation that has continued to this day. Really, really important. Thank you for this conversation. But more important, thank you for the really important work that you’re doing to change really education.
Ted: Well, you know, I always say, now, I think I’ve done so many sessions on the last year with great audiences. But I say to them, “Of all the fights you could fight, this is the one so worth fighting for.” Because you think about it, right? You have 10-year-olds trusting the adults to make decisions about what the school experience is like that will be in their best interest. That is not happening today. Of the large number of things that my generation has dropped the ball on, of all the problems we failed to step up to, of all the failings we’d show on a regular basis, and there is a long list, the top of the list would have to be having totally screwed up what we want to do with our kids during these precious years where they could develop their skills and talents and passions and purpose. And instead, we say, “You who have kids, spend time on stuff because it’s easy to test and measure, not because it’s important to learn.” And we just need a total reset of our priorities. But I’d also say, hey, thanks for all the work. Your podcast is great. We’re doing amazing things. For me, it’s just inspiring to, when I meet people like you that are fighting the fight, that are doing everything they can to essentially put in place the right condition so our students and teachers could thrive.
Doris: Thank you. What’s exciting to me is that there are so many people coming together to do this. And your work and your travels are really inspiring to a lot of us. And anyway, thank you, Ted, so much.
Ted: Awesome. To be continued.