Full text of education change agent Ted Dintersmith’s talk: Prepare Our Kids for Life, Not Standardized Tests at TEDxFargo conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Best quote from this talk:
“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.
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.
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.
And so that changed my life. And my life in many ways stopped… I stopped being a person and started to being a cause, much to the chagrin of my wife and kids. And I started traveling everywhere and meeting people and reading books. I watched every education documentary I could find.
And in the process, I learned so much. And one of the things I learned… one of the things I thought I’d be discouraged about was the design of our schools, because here I am staring at this thing that says: kids need to be good at X; we’re making them good at something that’s irrelevant. This is a big problem.
But our schools actually were thoughtfully designed by very farsighted people… people that anticipated a world that was changing.
So in 1893, the Committee of Ten said the world is going to move from agriculture to manufacturing. There will be millions of opportunities for young kids that can do the same task over and over efficiently and without error.
At the same time, Henry Ford does not need creative bold innovative assembly line workers. So let’s organize a school to promote efficiency and routine execution of operations and let’s discourage creativity. And that’s a school system we changed to over the course of about a 20 year period from 1893 to the early 1900s. And it worked.
And America became the most important country on Earth and we created a robust and strong middle class. And we were the envy of the world. We saved the world in World War II.
But then what happened?
Let’s fast-forward. Is it… the same characteristics we would hope for from the Committee of Ten somehow didn’t materialize in the 20th century, and by the time we got to even the 1980s, it was clear our education model had run out of steam.
So there was a report done in 1983 about education called A Nation at Risk. And that report had this telling sentence. It said “If our education system had been imposed on us by a foreign country, we would declare it an act of war.” Think about that: an act of war.
But what did our equivalent of the Committee of Ten, the philanthropists and policymakers and business people who can really influence education do? Did they step back and say we are making a transition from manufacturing to innovation, and just as in the last century we changed our model, we need to change it again. That’s not the path we took; that’s not the choice we made.
And so instead we said let’s take the same obsolete system and make it better by doing more of it, more intensely. And let’s test and measure more carefully, and let’s not really give any thought to how relevant it is to life but let’s just put the pressure on our schools to catch up with South Korea and Singapore on these standardized test measures.
And the results I think you all know have been catastrophic. And you would think that being immersed in that for this period of time, I would be incredibly discouraged but I wasn’t. Because at the same time I was visiting schools, they were doing the most incredible things.
It’s not that we don’t know what we should be doing with our schools. It’s not that we haven’t figured out how to prepare our kids for a very different world that we as adults grew up in. We know that.
It’s just that those are isolated pockets of great innovation and practices. And so what I said is my contribution to this should be: how can I spread that message? How can I share that vision of schools that are schools of possibility and hope, instead of placement and percentile measurement on standardized tests?
And so the vehicle I chose to do it, I am NOT by any stretch a filmmaker but I’m a believer in the power of film. And so I did a six-month search and I found a documentarian that I think is the best in the country. And I supported him and his team for two years to film across the country in all sorts of situations, all demographics, all geographies, all age groups and all types of schools… public, private, charter, as it captured the story, show our audience what schools are capable of; show our audience what students and teachers can do if we trust them and let them engage and inspire and things that are authentic.
And that’s film called Most Likely To Succeed premiered in January at Sundance. Since then we’ve been to more than a dozen major film festivals. We’ve been at every important education conference. We’ve had more than a thousand schools request that film, because when you’re there and I’ve been to 50 of these Q&As now, there was response of an audience when they see school situations that are aligned with life preparation, they are so enthusiastic and so committed.
And people over and over again are saying, “This is what we need to do.”
And so what I’m doing going forward is I actually am taking this film to all 50 states and so I called my wife last night, she couldn’t be here but here’s what I said. It was a very short phone call because I did between things. I said “Elizabeth, Fargo is awesome.”
I said we are coming back here, and I said we’re coming back here soon. But when I bring this film to a community, I can only do a small amount myself. I can be here, I can bring the film. But I have to… in the words of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, I have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
And so what I’m asking this community to do, and I’m asking it in all 50 states is to find the people who share this vision of what schools are capable of and pull together an audience that includes teachers and parents and students but also includes your communities, your state’s own equivalent of the Committee of Ten, the people that make the most important decisions about the future of your kids and let’s communicate to them this important message.
Our country is the most innovative and determined on the face of the planet in a time that begs for those skills; let’s educate to our strengths instead of chasing Shanghai and South Korea on standardized tests. Let’s change the center of the universe in education from accountability and failed test measures and make the center of education be inspiration and engagement and trust and purpose.
And let’s carry the message forward to all schools that what we want you to do is to prepare our kids for life.
So thank you.