Future-Ready: A Conversation with Ted Dintersmith, Part II

Preparing Students to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Mark Greenlaw

On March 8, 2021, I had the opportunity to interview Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America and co-author with Tony Wagner of Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, and executive producer of the documentary film of the same name. The interview was for research we are conducting on the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and what schools should be doing to help students thrive in a future that will be shaped by the 4IR.

Below is Part II of the lightly edited transcript of our March 8 interview. If you missed Part I, you can read it here.

Note: The original transcript was generated using the artificial intelligence-aided software Otter.ai. 


What should schools be doing to develop the skills, habits, and dispositions required for students to thrive in a future shaped by the 4IR?


First, let me say I have a great deal of respect, admiration, and empathy for our teachers. And even more so after this past year. They are so dedicated and committed to the fundamental goal of helping each kid understand their strengths and their interests, and develop those strengths and find their lane, their path forward. That’s why they enter the teaching profession.

Now the problem is we’ve handed our teachers a pretty lousy set of marching orders.

In this interview, we’ve been talking about how kids need to be developing certain skills that will really help them do well in a future largely defined by machine intelligence, where certain things are irrelevant, and other things are valued. I’ll refer to this metaphorically as heading north.

But our policies are pushing kids to go south, and the way we decided we can get there faster is to go south faster. Nobody says we need to stop going south, turn around and start going north, and you see it and it’s heartbreaking to me. With a change of [US Government] administration and a new Secretary of Education, the first thing he’s saying is we’re going to continue to do these high stakes tests this spring. They’re sort of saying, don’t worry, we’re not going to make them high stakes.

But the scores won’t be very good, the media will ramp it up, parents will get anxious, and we’ll be right back to more worksheets and drilling and more tests, which will be a heartbreaking setback because the fundamental issue is that, when you push kids, when you evaluate teachers, when you rank schools based on those tests, you force kids to get good at these narrow sets of skills, you push them to get good at content memorization, replicating low-level procedures, and following instructions, since that’s what it takes to do all of these tests.

And that’s exactly what machine intelligence does instantly, perfectly, and for free. The more you’re good at something useless, there’s a price you pay for that. And what’s that price?

I visit schools all over the country, at all grade levels. Which kids ask great questions? Kindergarten and first-grade kids. What do I see in high schools? One question and one question only: “Will this be on the test?”

Who will do something bold, not worried about failing? Pre-K, kindergarten, and first-grade kids. Who is incredibly risk-averse, just wanting to jump through the hoops so it doesn’t cost them a chance at the college their parents want them to go to? High school kids.

It’s hard to give quantitative scores for creativity, but when you ask students to come up with as many uses as you can for a paperclip, the five-year-olds come up with hundreds and the high school kids come up with two or three. We know we’re doing that to our kids, and what is tragic is that we’re diminishing – even erasing – the very things that could be their source of thriving going forward. And we’re pushing them to be good at the very things that nobody cares about other than state legislators, the testing organizations, and to a very large and tragic extent, college admissions officers, who I think, own a lot of the responsibility for ruining kids’ childhoods and pushing them to get good at stuff somewhere between irrelevant and meaningless.


I recall that incredibly memorable segment from your film, Most Likely to Succeed, where there’s a conversation between a High Tech High student and her mother, and the mother asks her daughter how she feels about this new kind of learning she’s experiencing, and the daughter says she’s worried because she might not get into the right college.


The film is still going strong – we’ve done 10,000 community screenings of that film in 35 different countries. The director Greg Whiteley filmed some high school kids in a high-powered suburban school in Denver, and asked the question: Are you here to learn things that will make you more productive and help you later in life, or are you here just to get good grades?

And these kids look at the camera, and they’re in shock that any adult in America thinks that a kid goes to high school for any other reason than to just to get good grades? “Of course we’re here just to get good grades. Don’t you know that’s what high school is all about – getting good grades so you can get into the right college, and maybe there we will actually start to learn how to think or learn something useful?”

And you get to college and it doesn’t happen there either, and when you get finished with college and you have no idea what you’re going to do and you have no skill desirable or useful, and you end up working at the local coffee shop or something. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of work – that’s not a bad job, but, after $75,000 to $300,000 of education, you would hope for more, that you’d have options – multiple options.


Particularly if you went into massive student debt.


Then what do we do as a nation? We say, “oh my gosh we need to forgive every penny of student loan debt.” But let’s not spend any money on fixing the fundamental problems. You realize if we spend a trillion dollars now wiping out student loan debt, what do we do 10 years from now, when we are back in the same place?. We need to put pressure on our colleges to be a lot better and more affordable. And not just say whatever you charge is fine because we’ll take care of it. That doesn’t make sense to me.


My next question is: in your research and travels for writing Most Likely to Succeed and What School Could Be, were their particular schools, organizations, or programs that stood out to you in terms of their ability to prepare students to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution?


It was such an interesting experience for me because when I set out on that trip I had no preconceived intention of writing a book, so I traveled ten and a half months to over 100 schools. We met in St. Louis for the FIRST robotics finals, which was fascinating.

I wanted to listen to and learn from the educators in the field, and maybe to some extent sound some alarm bells and say if we keep doing the same-old-same-old, millions and millions of kids’ futures are at risk. And I was just blown away by what I saw. When I wrote the book I was quite intentional in trying to find an inspiring example for each state to make the point that good things are being done in a lot of places. We may only reach a few percent of the kids but it’s not just in one geographic area or another, or in just one school.

You find these great educators in the field all over the country creating great learning experiences, sometimes in the face of real challenges.

And those learning experiences were quite different.

There was a kindergarten class in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that was designing robots and doing 3D printing. I had an eighth-grade class in Fargo that was doing documentaries on the history of local buildings. I saw a whole range of these things that in some ways defied categorization, but the common denominator, which I think is so powerful is this: if you want kids to be innovative, then the teachers must be supported and trusted to be innovative. If you want kids to be collaborative, then the teachers must be supported and trusted to collaborate among themselves. We’re not going to get kids to come out of school with these characteristics if we don’t support the educators in their lives modeling them in some ways.

When I saw these great examples I’d always ask, where did this idea come from? It was always that educator’s idea – it didn’t come from the State Department of Education or Common Core or No Child Left Behind or the College Board. The teacher simply thought this would really work for this set of kids, and I was excited.

And when you trust an adult to do that, they will go to the ends of the earth to make it succeed because it’s their idea. And they would in turn pay it forward because they were often creating these learning experiences where the kids can, in turn, invent or create or set an ambitious goal for themselves, with some fairly broad boundaries.

And so, pick a building you want to [have your students] do a documentary on, but don’t have them do it your way – invite the kids to think more broadly. The North Dakota example was so telling because they started by thinking they’d write the classic essay on some aspect of North Dakota history. They found that the kids were sort of bored with that – I think appropriately bored.

They said what would you like to do? And the kids said, “well, there are all these cool buildings in Fargo, can we capture their histories?” Well, how do you want to capture their histories? And the kids came up with doing documentaries. And different kids said let’s put them on a website. And different kids so let’s do great graphic design of signs. And different kids said let’s do QR codes on the sign so you can link to it on your phone and watch the documentary about that building. And then somebody else said let’s do an exhibition for the entire town and show them what we came up with. And then they approached me and I gave money to do a feature-length film for the film festival.

But if their Superintendent of Public Instruction had said every eighth-grade class will do a documentary in history on local buildings, we take all the joy and the passion and the spirit out of it, the “this is my idea” out of it. And when we do that, when we decide kids have to learn what somebody else wants them to learn, when we say teachers have to teach what somebody else tells them to teach, you get uninspired activity which should not come as a surprise to us.

And if in fact, being able to create and carry out your own bold initiatives is one of the most important life skills a kid can develop in the course of school, then I say, why wouldn’t that be a big part of our school experience?


Do our current standards amplify this problem?


Yes and No. Should we have standards? Yes. Are all standards bad? No.

Look at New Hampshire where [former] Governor Maggie Hassan and [former] Commission of Education trusted teachers. Everybody says we hate our current accountability measures and I think they’re right to hate the mainstream accountability measures, but in New Hampshire, they said okay, don’t you just complain, how can we make it better?

And so they put together a game plan to value kids, with performance-based and competency-based assessments, based on real examples of student work, that were then evaluated by the teachers in their lives, subject to checks and balances. They do audited samples, and then get together over the summer and let different educators and school board members, and concerned outside citizens look at how that set of teachers in a school were evaluating their kids.

If you picked 30 kids from a district, and 29 were reviewed as excellent writers, but you looked at the writing samples and said these writing samples are horrible, then you know something is wrong. Cutting corners on real standards is not going to do any kid a favor. But that’s not what happens there [in NH]. The year I was there, they had 500 audited sample reviews, and there were four or five where there were some differences of opinion.

I think there is another thing that’s really important that we confuse in the standards world: The facts and definitions of a field, versus being able to think like somebody who’s in that field.

We’ll teach history facts and trivia, but we won’t spend any time teaching somebody to think like a historian. We’ll teach science definitions and formulas, but we’ll spend no time teaching somebody to think like a scientist, and by the way, the way scientists think about the world and approach it is quite different from the way historians do. And there’s a lot to learn from each, but it’s a very different challenge to say, this year we want you to teach your kids to think like a mathematician, or to think like a social scientist or, you know, pick your field.


And to find the joy in those things! We’re so focused on all the facts and the memorization and there is not much passion in that. Whereas if you actually got to apply yourself to an interesting problem you might actually develop some passion.


That’s one of my pet priorities. Middle school is such an interesting area for experimentation, and I’ve had discussions with the group that sponsors the global science fair, and I told them they should dump the science fair and do something else. I challenged them: what if you put together the resources, and we went to middle schools and said we’re going to spend a year at science, and we’re only going to have one goal, one stinking goal: We want kids to get really excited about science!

And so each month we’re going to ask them: how cool do you think science is? We’re not going to grade them, we’re not giving any tests, it’s just going to be pure, unadulterated “joy of science” this year. Go!

Do we really think our kids would be set back by that? Imagine if every 13-year-old was getting up every day saying, “I don’t know if I want to be a scientist, but science is cool! We were learning about subatomic particles, we were learning about the universe, we were learning about genetics.” All these topics are great, and we could do some incredible things to bring it to life and make it amazing for kids in schools in every single neighborhood, every single day!

But if you were to say you’ve got to get your kids excited about balancing chemical equations or memorizing the periodic table, you will struggle. I did a lot of graduate work in physics. What’s the point of Newton’s third law? I mean really, what is the point of this stuff? And yet that’s the stuff of science classes and now you’re an under-resourced high school and you’re teaching 35 kids in a class and it’s not really your field.

How do you make kids spring into life on balancing a chemical equation, particularly once even one kid raises their hand and asks “are we ever really going to use this? Do you really think we’re going to remember this even in the unlikely event we would need to do this?” And you’d like to answer, but the honest answer is “No”. The odds you’re ever going to use this are .1 percent – one out of 1000. And the chances you’ll remember it by then even if that does happen is another one in 1000. So maybe one out of a million kids actually remember balancing chemical equations from junior high or high school, and then actually has to do it professionally.

Those are pretty long odds! Versus “we’re gonna make you really excited about science.”Why wouldn’t we just say, particularly for middle school, “bombs away!”, we’re going to make these topics exciting. Your goal, middle school teachers, is to get your kids excited about this topic! Just get your kids so excited about this topic, and then we’ll try not to ruin it in high school.


That’s great. One last question: There are lots of good reasons to try to want to prepare our students to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but what are some of the potential negative consequences for schools and parents in focusing on this? Could we take it too far? Could there be some unintended consequences, maybe sending the wrong messages or the risk of overreacting or heading in the wrong direction?


See Ted’s response in Part III of the conversation. You can also view an earlier post in our 4IR series, “Is it a Robot?