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July 02, 2018 Monday 05:58:43 PM IST


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Ted Dintersmith is one of the America’sleading voices on innovation and education. His four-decade career spans technology, business, public policy, and education philanthropy. He was the executive producer of the acclaimed documentary Most Likely to Succeed, as well as the author, along with Tony Wagner, of the book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. His newest book What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America (Princeton University Press) was released this April. His background includes a PhD in Engineering from Stanford, running a start-up micro-chip business, two decades in venture capital (ranked as the top-performing U.S. investor for 1995-1999), and representing the U.S. at the United Nations General Assembly in 2012. When he’s not visiting schools, he lives in central Virginia.

“Our kids study these academic topics, in isolation, yet never connect what they’re studying to anything real. They invariably ask, ‘When will I ever use this?’, and conclude they won’t,” says Ted in an interview with Pallikkutam.


In an article you wrote in Washington Post in November 2015, you open your essay with a slice of delicious irony: “Once in a blue moon, our nation focuses a modest amount of attention on our schools, and their purpose.” It is, well, almost a universal story, country after country, barring, say Finland or some such. What is required to bring about significant and meaningful focus on our schools


When it comes to re-imagining school, we’re a bit like the frog and the pot with water brought slowly to a boil. There’s no single urgent event to prompt us to act, but inaction leads to a very undesirable outcome!But as I travel, I meet so many people who know things are way off track. Teachers are passionate about helping their kids but are held back by ill-conceived accountability measures. Parents see their kids losing their sense of curiosity and joy. Young adults find themselves adrift in life, but with mountains of student loan debt. Employers grow sceptical of academic credentials and look to alternative ways to gauge the competence of applicants. I’m convinced a consensus is emerging that we can, and need to, do much better.I love the phrase, “Change happens slowly, right up until it happens quickly”, and we may be at an inflection point.


You further write and I quote: “I realized that our country’s big challenges — the shrinking middle class, stagnant median wages, and rampant malemployment for our graduates — are the by-product of this economic disruption” (how innovation was eliminating jobs). In India, we have a comparable situation, except for a burgeoning middle class. But significant ‘malemployment’, yes indeed. The latter owing to, among other reasons, a clear lack of employability of the tens of thousands of engineers, doctors, and other professionals who emerge out of India’s educational institutions. Comparably, in fact, you say, “yet such patently qualified people often proved hopeless in the world of innovation”. How do we equip our young, universally, for real-world situations, expectations, and careers?


Great question that leads directly into my response.How do we prepare youth for real-world situations? Well, for starters, we need to connect a lot more of their school experiences to the real world. Think about it. Our kids study these academic topics, in isolation, yet never connect what they’re studying to anything real. They invariably ask, “When will I ever use this?”, and conclude they won’t. So, students in chemistry class study how to balance chemical equations, with little chance they’ll retain this or ever use it later in life. Why? It’s because our accountability measures push our kids to study what’s on the test, not what’s important in life. Consider, though, an education world where students get the chance to identify opportunities to make their world better, create their own initiatives, and persevere to complete something they’re proud of. That is real preparation for adult life — both for career and citizenship. Yet that kind of endeavour is often missing entirely from a student’s education, even after four years in college. Makes no sense. 


The Three-Column Matrix, if you will, (Irrelevant, Preparing Kids for Life, Impairing Life Prospects) you drew up in evaluating how/what kids were “antipreparing” for was a lucidexposé of what education is in school today. It applies fairly universally. So, what/how do we teach our children in school?


In my new book What School Could Be, I profile a wide range of compelling classrooms that I found across the U.S.I made this the focus of the book for two reasons. First, I make the point that innovation is happening in almost all communities but reaches just a sliver of our kids.Second, remarkable learning experiences are the furthest thing from the cookie cutter — each is creative and distinctive, not standardised. In stepping back and looking at these great classrooms, I found four core principles that define them. The students go through their school ‘work’ with a genuine sense of purpose — they work on things because they think it matters, not because they’re told to do it. They are developing essential skills and mindsets (e.g., creative problem solving, communication, citizenship, perseverance), not just cramming on low-level material for some high-stakes test. They have shocking amounts of agency — they own their learning and manage their priorities and progress. And the knowledge they develop is deep and retained, as evidenced by their ability to apply it, to create with it, to teach others about it. I call these principles the peak conditions for learning — purpose, essentials, agency, knowledge. Oddly, they define many after-school programmes, but are missing in most classrooms, and certainly entirely missing when we push kids to do things like SAT test preparation. 


How do we either do away with (or revisit) the all-pervasive standardised testing — with what you describe as being characterised by “low-level cognitive skills” — that is so remarkably global in nature?

Fortunately, there’s growing recognition that these measures reflect little of consequence and don’t deserve the high stakes we place on them. Recently, the University of Chicago announced they’re no longer interested in the SAT/ACT scores of applicants, a big, big deal. Not coincidentally, U Chicago’s Dean of Admissions Jim Nondorf is a leader of The Coalition for Access, which is working to reshape college admissions. At the high school level, Scott Looney is leading the charge on The Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is working on a complete re-think of the high-school transcript. All are very encouraging. 


We need to assess high-school students on the basis of their ability to identify opportunities to contribute to society, create initiatives, and stay at it until they’ve produced something they’re proud of and that matters. We can use this far more authentic standard for any traditional disciplines — history, literature, math, science — as well as art, sport, music, entrepreneurship, and many others.This is what matters in life, so why shouldn’t it be a big part of our kids’ K12 experience and our assessments.


One thing is obvious: there’s very little learning happening in our schools. How do we bring back, or shall we say usher in learning in our classrooms?


I think it’s a very fair question to ask groups like the College Board. What evidence is there that our kids are actually learning what they study? If kids spend endless hours prepping for SAT or memorising content for an Advanced Placement exam, how do we know they’ve really learned. Why not, on a sampled basis, re-test kids three months later without any advance prep, and see whether they retaining what they may well have crammed into short-term memory for an exam? My bet is that the answer would shock many — that most of what we view as ‘learning’ is more myth than reality. Unless they apply what they study, or are called on to teach it to others, they are mostly wasting their time in school. Shocking, but where’s the evidence to the contrary?


You speak about “Deeper Learning” schools and project-based learning that these schools espouse. You also speak about The Future Project. How can we replicate or drive such initiatives further and deeper in communities around the world? Political will is one, but, more importantly, community involvement, that of specifically parents, teachers, and administrators is.


Communities are capable of doing remarkable things once they make up their mind to take on an important goal. To help advance change, we’re offering a resource we call the Innovation Playlist — small steps that lead to big change.It starts with offerings that help energise and mobilise your school community, setting the stage for important innovations. Then, we have a set of small steps, or hacks, that a teacher or school can try, each with very limited downsides, but with the potential to be transformational. The model isn’t about insisting that all teachers do something but inviting a few to try a small step — such as a single class period where students lead the discussion in a Socratic Seminar — and sharing insights with others. As we pilot this, we’re seeing real impact.It empowers teachers to lead the way, without shoving something down anyone’s throat. It’s fun and generates lots of insights. Students, including those who have checked out on school, often blossom. And with a model based on ‘small steps,’ teachers have the latitude to take this only as far as they feel is helpful. You can check out this resource at


‘Most Likely to Succeed’ strikes at the heart of the education system to salvage the soul of learning. How do we roll back the assembly line and usher in creativity, invention, innovation, accountability, and critical thinking?

I’d go so far as to say that if we don’t transform the heart and soul of school, our civil society is in danger of collapse. Machine intelligence is racing ahead and marginalising any adult whose skillset is limited to memorising content, replicating low-level procedures, and following instructions (which will get you on the Honour Roll in most schools today). Adults will need a ‘special something’ to plug into an increasinglyaut0mated economy. And the challenges to citizenship are mounting by the day, requiring adults to be much better prepared to fact check, to think independently, to critically analyse. Absent change — profound and urgent change — too many will end up on life’s sidelines, struggling to find and hold any kind of fulfilling job, and our citizenry will not be prepared to work collaboratively to meet these challenges.


In What School Could Be, I write about the power when communities come together with the aspirational goal of re-imagining education.Cities like Pittsburgh, and states like New Hampshire, Hawaii, and North Dakota, are showing us that we can transform schools — not a few schools, but all schools.Not with a top-down standardised model, but with a teacher-led innovation change model. These locations are showing us the power of trusting our classroom teachers, aligning what kids learn in school with what’s important in life, and making the learning full of joy, depth, and purpose. It can be done, and we owe it to our children to fight this very important fight.

K G Sreenivas

The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Pallikkutam. He can be reached at

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