Prepare Our Kids for Life, Not Standardized Tests: Ted Dintersmith (Transcript)

Full text of education change agent Ted Dintersmith’s talk: Prepare Our Kids for Life, Not Standardized Tests at TEDxFargo conference.

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How can I share that vision of schools that are schools of possibility and hope, instead of placement and percentile measurement on standardized tests?


Ted Dintersmith – Author & Education Change Agent

This started innocuously. When my kids were in middle school, I got an email from the school saying we’re having a session next week, explaining to you what we’re doing to teach your children important life skills.

And as a parent, that’s irresistible. But that was the essence of the communication: teach your kids important life skills. And if it had been more descriptive, I wouldn’t be here today. But because it was so concise and so vague, I spent a week saying: What will they cover? What in fact should schools be doing to teach kids important skills that are useful in life?

And I started making my list, and my list included things that were skills, like inventive problem-solving or communication or teamwork or figuring out complex situations; or characteristics and character traits like determination and perseverance and resourcefulness, being able to stand up to failure, being bold or appreciating the wonder in nature and human achievement; or capabilities we all need, like setting bold goals for yourself, learning how to learn, being able to persevere through difficulties, finding your passion and purpose in life and figuring out how you can make your world better.

So I made that list, and I put it on a piece of paper. But I left a lot of blank space on the paper because I knew I would hear way more than that. And I wanted to take notes; I wanted to learn from this session.

And I expected to be surprised. And I was surprised. So the session consisted of the initiative that they were unleashing was 45 minutes a month; these middle school kids would go to a presentation run by the gym teachers and they would pick the problem or the challenge of the month.

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And so if you didn’t want kids to ever smoke, we would show the most grisly gruesome videos of tar infested lungs and the advanced stages of tongue and mouth cancer, and somehow that would be transformational to our kids.

And so I left that session and somehow felt vaguely dissatisfied. And so when I came home, I started to think about my kids in their education. I’d always cared about their education but I think like most parents I’d really focused on two things:

I focused on how my kids were doing; what grades they were getting. And I focused on how much they were doing: were they buckling down and doing their homework?

But I never had stepped back and said what are they doing, let alone how does it relate to life? So I made a great big sheet. I divided into two columns, that I said over here I’m going to track things they’re doing in school that help prepare them for life. And over here I’m going to track things that are irrelevant.

And I’m just going to pay attention and watch this over a matter of days or weeks or months and see what pattern emerges.

And a bit to my surprise, the column on the right, the irrelevant column was full and then some in less than a week. And when I say the names of things that were on it, you will immediately associate them with school. And the reason is because that’s the only place you ever used them, things like factoring polynomials, or gerunds or Coulomb’s law.

The left, the column of what’s preparing kids for life, I was doing my very best to get things a benefit of the doubt. But that column remained stubbornly empty but that wasn’t what really concerned me.

What concerned me was that I ended up having to add a third column, and that third column was things that would jeopardize or impair a kid’s prospects in life. And I knew something about that, because I spent my career in innovation.

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And as a career venture capitalist, backing some of the top for-profit but also social entrepreneurs, people that want to make this world better, I knew two things with the utmost clarity.

One was that innovations sprinting forward in a way none of us can even imagine, every structured job in the economy if it hasn’t disappeared already will disappear.

And so kids coming through education simply trained to follow instructions and jump through hoops are kids that are going to be marginalized or chronically unemployed, and that’s not ten kids and a hundred kids; that’s millions of kids.

But the second thing I knew is that this was a time of incredible opportunity. And if you look at the characteristics you see in every five-year-old: inquisitive; bold; creative; totally comfortable with taking risk and failing. If we could just preserve these characteristics, this would be the best of time for our young adults.

But my list of things were going on in school that jeopardized kids’ prospects were all around that, and that we were actively in schools discouraging, eliminating those types of characteristics and traits.

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