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Preparing K12 students for today’s ‘messy’ world

How some schools go against the grain to promote real learning
Innovation expert Ted Dintersmith is the author of What School Could Be (Princeton University Press, 2018).
Innovation expert Ted Dintersmith is the author of What School Could Be (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Our archaic model of education trains kids for a world that no longer exists, and accelerating advances in technology are eliminating millions of jobs.

But innovation expert Ted Dintersmith says the trailblazing efforts of many American educators gives us reasons for hope.

In his book What School Could Be (Princeton University Press, 2018), Dintersmith profiles schools that focus on innovation and “real” learning, rather than endlessly drilling on formulas and definitions that don’t matter in today’s world.

“In the Model T days, you needed to know how to take apart a carburetor because it might break down 70 miles from anywhere,” he says.

“If you couldn’t fix it yourself, you were hosed. Today, we don’t even need to know how to drive a stick shift, let alone take apart a carburetor. That’s math in our schools—it’s still taking apart a carburetor.”

You write that one of the big problems in education is the relationship between learning and technology. Students are becoming proficient at low-level tasks they can perform flawlessly with a basic smartphone.

I really don’t blame the teachers for it. I consider grade 7 through 12 math to be largely a waste of time. But it’s half of the SAT or ACT, so it shapes and influences the way people view their own intelligence. It’s often a requirement in many states to graduate from high school.

Yet what are students doing? They’re doing low-level procedures with their phone or tablet or laptop that they’re good at instantly. It’d be OK if it were the case that this gives you insight into the bigger picture, but it doesn’t. It’s just a bunch of low-level stuff.

None of the math that’s required on standardized tests tells you how you can use it to solve a problem you care about. So what’s the point of it?

If so few adults use any of this, why is it mandatory and why did we make a lot of people think they’re limited because they can’t do simultaneous equations?

Why do we keep a kid from getting a high school degree because he can’t do logarithmic functions when so few adults are doing them?

There’s a chart in the book that tracks the so-called achievement gap. I assume you aren’t surprised that it has hardly changed since 1986.

I know it sounds flip, but I say there are only two things we have wrong in America when we talk about the achievement gap. The first is the gap, and the second is achievement.

The gap that we talk about is the test score gap, because we put more resources into kids who need them the least, and fewer resources go to kids who need them the most. Nobody wants to have that discussion—nobody wants to talk about the fact that rich kids have much nicer schools and more money for after-school clubs, and everything else.

You have poor kids in American school buildings that should be condemned. It’s stunning to see those vast differences. That’s the gap we should talk about, but we don’t.

So instead, we talk about an achievement gap with test scores. It’s somehow the failure of those darn students and teachers who can’t get those test scores up—rather than a failing of society to give kids an equal playing field.

I met with probably 5,000 students during my year of visiting schools in every state, and I couldn’t find a single one who cares about test prep. No kid wants to do boring test prep.

But I found so many parents—particularly well-off, well-educated parents—who care intensely about their kids’ devotion to test prep. They pull out all the stops. They hire charismatic private tutors, bribe their kids with iPhones and cars—whatever it takes to get those kids to generate good test scores.

What I observed is that when you suddenly shift the focus and go to these innovative schools where kids are working on ambiguous, messy real-world problems—where there’s every opportunity to fail multiple times—everything changes. The kids that we think of as at-risk or underachieving often blow you away with that.

And many of these rich, micromanaged kids just freeze up with that. They’re almost allergic to a situation in which it isn’t clear to them what they’ve got to do to get an A.

So I ask you, which is better preparation for life? Is it endless drills on factoring polynomials and memorizing the definition of “obstreperous”?

Or is it solving real-world problems that are messy and difficult, and require you to try multiple things before you get any headway? Clearly, it’s the second, which is impossible for the College Board and the ACT to deal with.

You made a point in the book of how these overly involved parents told you “we” took the test prep or “we” hired a tutor, speaking as though it was a team effort.

Yes, and I see that so much. I don’t think they realize the impact it has on kids. When every aspect of their life is run by their parents, they think they’ll get into a much better college. They may even get into a great college. But they’re not going to be happy kids with a degree of agency and confidence and the ability to run their own lives.

And I say, imagine a different universe wherein kids were developing distinctive proficiencies and intellectual curiosities in high school. And what if we were to back off from some of this highly irrelevant, college-ready content that the kids don’t retain anyway.

Does it make life more inconvenient for admissions officers? A little. Does it work for the College Board and the ACT? No.

Does this mean that kids, when they leave high school, have multiple life paths in front of them? Yes. And I think that’s a good thing.

The other part of the equation, of course, is higher ed. Universities need to be more in tune with this “new” kind of student. Fortunately, there is a growing number of colleges that are looking beyond the SAT and the ACT to consider the whole student rather than some arbitrary scores.

Right. One of the top people at MIT recently told me that 40 or 50 years ago, MIT took a lot of people who grew up on farms and were really great at things such as taking apart tractors. They’d go to MIT and become incredible engineers.

But those kids don’t get into MIT anymore. They’re busy with farm chores. They aren’t doing test prep. They’re not taking four AP courses.

His point was, what a loss to the engineering field it is that kids who are that gifted mechanically feel the doors are closed to them because they don’t have the test score.

The University of Chicago recently announced it doesn’t care about SATs and ACTs. That’s a big deal, because it is uber-selective and swamped with applications. And no more on-campus interviews either, because that favors the affluent.

Instead, the school is asking all kids to submit short videos, making their case for what they are passionate about and why they want to go to Chicago. The admissions department will review examples of nonstandardized, noncurriculum-based accomplishments and work that the student is proud of.

When a school like the University of Chicago does that, it’s a pretty big deal. So there’s some hope here.

You tell some inspirational stories about these pockets of innovative schools around the country.

One thing I’ll say about the teachers I interviewed is that they were innovators themselves. No one said they were doing something in the classroom because someone down the hall was doing it. They weren’t copying; they were inventing and creating.

But every single one of them said their principal had their back, or a principal would say their superintendent had their back. When you have that support, you can try something different.

There will be some hiccups and some setbacks, but ultimately it’s going to get our kids to the place they need to be to deal with a world that’s so different. That’s where I think we’ve got enormous opportunity and power in our country. 


Tim Goral is senior editor.