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

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 the third and final part of the lightly edited transcript of our March 8 interview. If you missed Part I and II, you can read them here and here.

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


Ted, 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?


Having kids that have gone through K-12, we couldn’t do enough of what I’ve just been describing. If school had been 100% about picking something you really are passionate about, learn how to learn, draw on resources, create, carry forward, I’d sign up for 100% of it. Most parents wouldn’t. I understand that.

The point I make is that given that machine intelligence is advancing at an exponential pace, whether you’re a well-off parent or poor parent, whether you’re going to a school that most people view as successful, or school most people put on the watch list, if your kid leaves school good at jumping through hoops, that kid is probably going to spend much of their adult life either very unhappy or in a job where they’re getting nowhere, or flat out unemployed. So the stakes are enormously high.

This is why in my What School Could Be initiative we work so hard at supporting change in schools. I think most people (and I know your group is really focused on the change model), and so many groups, just skip over the change model. They don’t even think about how this actually could be embraced in a way that builds confidence, that makes people feel supported and respected, and doesn’t send parents into a panic. And so we have these great resources that can get your school community excited about a different vision.

You mentioned the film Most Likely To Succeed. We produced a lot of other videos; one on the future of work that just sort of says “hey wait a minute, wake up! This is happening! This isn’t just a nice-to-have!” We’d like to have things move in big ways quickly – I’d like to snap my fingers and have everything be different. But our whole change model is based on small steps. What are some small confidence-building steps that people can take to say “yeah, this wasn’t as daunting as I thought, and the downside here actually was remarkably limited?”

It’s ultimately a parental choice, and I recognize parents can be some of the most risk-averse factors in a school. I think they often misunderstand the college process.

I think there is a general sense that admissions officers are totally focused on perfect applicants. When parents run the lives of their kids to get that perfect application, they often circle back to me and say they got a disappointing result. And they got a very unhappy child.

Do I get to every parent? No. Not in a million years. But I’ll say to them, what if your kid happens to be applying and gets an admission officer that wants a genuine kid that pursued things that were bold, and actually did them because the kid wanted to do it? Which kid is going to be a happier kid, which kid are you going to have a better long-term relationship with?

You can pound your kid into submission to do three extracurricular activities they have no interest in, and put them on detention if they get a B-plus, and hire a super-expensive SAT tutor. You can do all that, but you may hollow out the sense of purpose in your child and break your relationship with that child, and put that child in a situation of feeling like they fell short when, by the way, all those first-choice colleges you thought this would help them get into are saying “no” because they look and say there’s something about this application that makes me think this was the parent’s application and not the child’s.

There is this irony that we live in a world where it’s easier and easier to learn whatever you want on your own, yet we obsess about more and more years of formal costly education being the key. They’ll say you’ve got to get an undergraduate degree, but when you get done there and still don’t know what you want to do and don’t have a skill that anybody cares about, then go to graduate school. Let’s turn $200,000 in student loan debt into $400,000. Let’s spend 10 years becoming a radiologist and on the back end find out that it’s all being done by AI. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

So the backlash [of talking about the 4IR], I think, is parents get nervous.

The other thing we really emphasize in our change model is letting every educator find their own level. You have some that just don’t want to change, and others that are dying to be innovative.

We say “let the sprinters sprint, the runners run and the walkers walk.” And some just want to stay in place, and we say, just don’t spoil it for everybody else, just keep an open mind.

And ditto, I think, with parents. I feel like a lot of times parents have the best intentions in mind – you’re genetically programmed to fight like crazy for the best outcome for your child.

But, there are a lot of unhappy kids in the selective schools that feel like they’ve gotten trampled, and if you’re a parent, and you’re hearing this, and you’re micro-managing your kid in college, you have failed as a parent. If you’re still correcting essays and texting them daily to make sure they did everything, that is not good.


One of the things that I’ve been worried about, and you said this earlier, is that people will assume that because technology is a big driver of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that all kids need to focus on learning things like programming and machine learning when, and I think you said it well earlier, that there’s only going to be so many machine learning programmers, but we’re all going to need to learn how to use machine learning and apply it in our lives. I think that’s one of the risks, and I also think there is a risk of devaluing the liberal arts. Sometimes people think when you start to talk about these things you’re de-emphasizing the importance of the liberal arts.


There’s no limit to the number of career paths you can create – it’s that entrepreneurial mindset and that ability to learn quickly. You don’t have to be a techie developer. There are some incredible proof points such as historians who are using existing tools to develop a following, and, and turning that into an incredible career with history expertise, and that’s pretty cool!


Great. So those are my questions, Ted. Is there anything else that I should have asked, or anything you’d like to share that we did not cover?


I think we covered a lot. I’d love to see how we can work on something together. Your [EXPLO Elevate’s] goals and our goals are very similar, so I’d love to see that. If you can use what we’re doing, that would be great.


We greatly appreciate Ted taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with us. Please check out the What School Could Be website and consider joining their new free community platform for educators, get the book, and watch the documentary Most Likely to Succeed.