Most Likely to Succeed
This book is a product of an unlikely collaboration that began with a breakfast in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a snowy day in early 2012.
We come from very different worlds. Tony Wagner has spent his career in the world of education. He taught English for more than a decade, ran a school, got a doctorate from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, started an education-related nonprofit, is a frequent keynote speaker at major conferences around the world, and has written five books on education. His body of work points the way toward a completely reimagined education system, one optimized for a world of innovation and the complexities of twenty-first-century citizenship. His two most recent books, The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, have sold almost a quarter of a million copies, received widespread critical acclaim, and have been translated into more than ten languages.
Ted Dintersmith spent his career in the world of technology and innovation. He got his PhD in Engineering from Stanford and then ran a start-up making the semiconductors that helped enable the digital revolution. The majority of his career has been in the field of venture capital, as a senior partner with one of the nation’s top-tier early-stage venture firms, Charles River Ventures. He’s been on the board of directors of the National Venture Capital Association, championed their national competitiveness initiative, and was ranked by Business 2.0 as the top-performing venture capitalist in the United States during the period 1995–1999.
A few years ago, Ted began directing more of his focus toward education. As a father of two school-aged children, he was concerned by what
he saw as a disconnect between schools and an increasingly innovative world. He knew that rapid advances in innovation were eliminating traditional jobs from the economy. Workers performing routinized tasks were becoming an endangered species. Companies wanted to hire creative problem-solvers able to continually invent ways to add value to their organizations, but found few of them graduating from our schools. Alarmingly, the schools he visited seemed intent on crushing the creativity out of students—erasing the very skills that would have allowed them to thrive.
Ted began meeting with education experts to learn more. These meetings were highly informative, but they often ended with, “Well, the person you really need to meet is Tony Wagner.” After reading Tony’s books, Ted sent him a blind email, asking him to get together on one of Ted’s upcoming trips to Boston. Tony agreed, and a one-hour breakfast turned into a three-hour discussion about how our obsolete education system was stymieing the innovation crucial to success in today’s economy.
By the end of the breakfast, the two of us found that, despite vast differences in professional backgrounds, we shared convictions that could be distilled to these points:
• Rapid advances in innovation are eliminating structured routine jobs from our economy, leaving millions of young Americans at risk;
• The critical skills young adults need in the twenty-first century for careers in the world of innovation, and for responsible citizenship, are the very skills the school years eviscerate;
• The education policies our country is pursuing to “fix” schools only serve to harm students and disillusion teachers;
• While education credentials were historically aligned with competencies that mattered, they have become prohibitively expensive, emotionally damaging, and disconnected from anything essential;
• Unless we completely reimagine school, the growing divide between the haves and have-nots will threaten to rip civil society apart; and,
• We have an urgent obligation to speak out, since we know what our education system needs to do to give every student a fighting chance in life.
That initial three-hour breakfast conversation subsequently blossomed into a daily collaboration. The two of us have worked closely with award-winning documentarian Greg Whiteley on a feature-length film on education, Most Likely to Succeed, which premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. The documentary has served as the foundation for a broad and ambitious initiative we are launching to help schools move forward. Together, the documentary, the outreach initiative, and this book provide a framework for reimagining school.
What Mattered to You
When we talk to people, we always find it revealing to inquire about their school experiences; we’ve all been students. For starters, we thought it might help if we provide a bit of context on our own school experiences.
Tony hated school, had average SATs, and went to two nondescript colleges before finally earning his BA degree at what was then one of the most experimental (but equally anonymous) undergraduate programs in the country. He went on to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching and a Doctorate in Education at Harvard University, where he found himself to be a complete outlier. While at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Tony was almost constantly at odds with the mainstream of education, and he developed his views despite what was covered in classrooms. Tony is an example of someone who survived the education system and went on to have a successful career as an author, speaker, and consultant. And he’ll be the first to admit that a doctorate from Harvard has a sort of “Wizard of Oz” benefit—the credential is important largely because everyone thinks it’s important.
Ted has an innate ability to do simple math problems quickly. While this skill is of limited value in life, it was his best friend in school. He never missed a point on a standardized math test, and excelled at his math and physics courses. Only when he went to Stanford for graduate school did he realize that what is required to be a great physicist has almost nothing to do with what is required to be a great physics student. Fortunately for his career prospects, after earning an MS in Applied Physics and a PhD in Engineering from Stanford University, he switched out of physics into technology and innovation, where he experienced considerable success. He is now an active education philanthropist, providing guidance and funding to several high-potential organizations seeking to move education into the twenty-first century.
The authors went to school in the 1960s and ’70s, a period that stands in stark contrast to today’s pressure-packed school years. Back then, there was dramatically less competition to get into colleges. The concept of test preparation wasn’t on the radar screen. Kids didn’t do activities simply for the sake of building the perfect college application. Instead, they had ample time in their childhoods to explore, create, and develop passions. And no matter what your education level was when you entered the workforce, entry-level jobs were relatively easy to secure. For children in America today, those days are long gone.
Whether over the dinner table or in large auditoriums, we have found it invaluable in setting the tone for a discussion about education to ask participants to reflect on their school years. Specifically, we ask them to describe what aspects of their education had a profound positive impact on them: experiences in and out of the classroom, teachers, mentors, coaches, et cetera. The sharing of these results is revealing, and it gets everyone energized to think hard about what really matters in education.
We’d like to encourage you to take a few minutes to reflect on the most transformational aspects of your education—experiences that took place either inside or outside the classroom. You can jot them down on a piece of paper or in the margin of this book (assuming it’s not an e-book!).
We’ve asked this question to thousands of people and received a wide
range of responses. People describe participating in an after-school club; leading a committee; designing and completing an ambitious project; being inspired by a teacher with an infectious love for a given field; hearing from an adult who believed in them; practicing and playing on an athletic team; failing at something and recovering. Not a single person we’ve asked has responded, “Well, there was a lecture class with multiple-choice quizzes that really changed me.”
In case you’re curious, here’s who each of us would like to thank:
Tony: I changed schools in the twelfth grade, and sadly I cannot recall the name of the teacher who made the greatest difference for me in high school. I’ve tried to track him down, but the school I attended then has since closed its doors.
I was a late starter as a reader, but I grew to love the beauty and evocativeness of words and stories. I devoured great novels and began writing stories of my own in ninth grade. I wanted to be a novelist. Unfortunately, my English teachers throughout high school were of no help. To the extent that we received any classroom “instruction” in writing, it consisted of lessons in grammar—subject-verb agreement, the proper use of commas, dangling participles, split infinitives, and so on.
The few papers my teachers assigned were usually essays, where the purpose of the paper was to repeat the teacher’s interpretation of the book we’d “discussed” in class. (The teachers did all the talking!) And they’d spend an inordinate amount of time spilling red ink all over our papers. We, like most students today, would glance at the grade, ignore the corrections, and toss the papers in the trash on the way out the door.
The twelfth-grade English teacher at my new school was the same as the rest, but there was another English teacher at the school, a kindly and soft-spoken British gentleman, who seemed different. I don’t know why but for some reason—maybe desperation—I mentioned my interest in writing to him and asked if he could help me. “I’d be delighted” was his reply. At his suggestion, we’d meet once a week, and he encouraged me to experiment with a different kind of writing or genre for each meeting. One week he’d say, “Why don’t you try writing a dramatic scene with just dialogue.” The next week he might say, “How about writing a humorous story this week.” Or, “Give a childhood reminiscence a try.” Or, “Have you seen any good movies lately? How about trying a review?”
He’d read each piece as I sat beside him, and he’d make just a few comments. He’d pick out a word choice or a metaphor that he thought was especially effective. Or he’d comment on the evocativeness of a particular scene or the persuasiveness of a paragraph. He’d also often suggest things I might want to read: novels, short stories, poems, or essays that were examples of the genre I was playing with in my writing that week.
And “playing” was really the operative word. Years later, I realized that these weekly assignments were the equivalent of artists’ sketches—ways to train the eye (or ear, in this case) and free up the hand. His comments were intended to highlight what was my best writing so that I had a sense of what to strive for.
The effect on me was profound. I couldn’t stop writing—and still can’t. I did far more work for this noncredit activity than I’d ever done for any of my required classes. And years later when I began to teach writing to a wide variety of high school students—from kids at risk in an alterative public school to privileged kids attending an elite private school—I used the same method of instruction: I had kids experiment with a new writing genre each week, met with them individually to go over a piece of work, and then encouraged them to polish pieces they especially loved.
Ted: Jim Canavan taught me Spanish in high school. He was charismatic, inspiring, and passionate about the Spanish language. What was so unusual about the way Mr. Canavan taught is that it was all about fun. In his class, multiple laugh-filled conversations took place simultaneously. For the entire fifty-minute class period, we’d talk—entirely in Spanish—about
school, current events, sports, or funny things that happened in our lives. I can still remember his telling us how his Pontiac Firebird caught fire in his driveway, and the irony of the car’s name!
Mr. Canavan didn’t stand at the front of the class—his back to the students—writing vocabulary words or verb conjugations on the blackboard. His focus was leading and coaching a great conversation in Spanish—with vigorous class participation. At the end of each class, though, he would say, “Vaya, y si usted quiere la clase de mañana sea aún más divertido, es posible que desee aprender algunas palabras del vocabulario y los verbos de esta noche en casa, y el uso de ellos mañana.” Or, in English, “Gee, and if you want tomorrow’s class to be even more fun, you might want to learn some vocabulary words and verbs tonight at home, and use them tomorrow.” And we all did, enthusiastically.
By the end of his course, we were all conversationally fluent and learned the language in a way that would be retained for life. I’ve traveled extensively in Spanish-speaking countries, and forty-five years later can still navigate my way around. In contrast, the two years of French I was required to take in college disappeared completely from my mind seconds after the final exam.
In a field where the prevailing (and failed) way to teach a language is a death march through memorization, Mr. Canavan was an outlier. Shortly after I graduated, he gave up the teaching profession. I have tried a few times to find him to say, “Thanks for inspiring all of us, and showing that meaningful learning and fun aren’t mutually exclusive,” but I haven’t been able to track him down. I hope, wherever he is, he reads this book, and gets my thank-you.
This exercise highlights an irony of our education system. For the last century, the classroom experience for most students has revolved around lectures, note-taking, recall-based tests, and grades. Clubs, sports, and social interaction were regarded as providing a welcome break from the intense learning process. We will see, however, that most lecture-based courses contribute almost nothing to real learning. Consequential and
retained learning comes, to a very large extent, from applying knowledge to new situations or problems, research on questions and issues that students consider important, peer interaction, activities, and projects. Experiences, rather than short-term memorization, help students develop the skills and motivation that transforms lives.
In this book, we will explore the contradiction between what students must do to earn a high school or college degree versus what makes them most likely to succeed in the world of work, citizenship, and lifelong learning. We’ll also show what can and must be done to transform education for the twenty-first century and provide examples of best practices in high schools and colleges around the country. And we’ll emphasize the urgency of effecting change. In coming chapters, here’s what we’ll cover:
Our beginning chapter, Our Education DNA, delves into why society places such outsized value on academic credentials—associating them with a person’s intrinsic “quality,” not just with skills that have been acquired. We have been conditioned to view some types of credentials as being marks of outsized distinction, and certain types of “learning” (e.g., Latin conjugations) as vastly superior to more base endeavors (understanding how a piece of machinery works). Education credentials are our country’s caste system.
Given this obsession with education credentials, people repeatedly follow the assertion that “education is key” with the concern that “our schools need to do much better.” But few can answer the overarching question: “What is the purpose of education?” Few can define what constitutes real learning. And few can articulate a direction forward for our schools. We will in chapter 2, The Purpose of Education.
As our education system muddles along with unclear purpose, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Chapter 3, What’s at Stake?, argues that not only are millions of young lives on the line, but our social fabric is at risk. As tens of millions of young adults exit our education system destined for chronic unemployment, the growing divide between the rich and the rest will broaden. Civil society faces the real prospect of being ripped apart.
Our frenzied chase for the college credential adversely affects all aspects of K-12 education. Chapter 4, The Formative Years: K-12, will show how the academic priorities of colleges, coupled with the hypercompetitive
admissions process, have outsized influence on secondary (and increasingly primary) school. The net result is that we’re letting our entire education system become intense yet vapid, setting our students up for failure.
Chapter 5, The Gold Ring: The College Degree, examines what’s taken as a given in our society—that college is the key to preparing kids for life. Our colleges, despite exorbitant tuition levels, are failing to produce graduates prepared for careers or citizenship. In many cases, students graduate with alarming debt levels and no real improvement in the minimal skills they were taught in high school.
Testing is a prerequisite for gaining education credentials, but these tests are antithetical to meaningful learning. Increasingly, we rely on flawed assessments to gauge student—and with Race to the Top, teacher—performance. Chapter 6, Teaching, Learning, and Assessing, examines the trade-offs between scale and authenticity in ways to assess student achievement.
Chapter 7, A New Vision for Education, outlines key elements of a systemic strategy for the creation of an education system that can meet the needs of the twenty-first century. We will discuss the need for both a top-down and bottom-up strategy for systemic change and outline a framework for an accountability system that measures what matters most, incenting powerful teaching and learning. We will outline the ways in which education, community, and business leaders must work together to advocate fundamental change.
Unbeknownst to many, there are incredibly exciting things happening in many schools and school districts around the country. We view much of this work as “educational R&D” that points the way toward a radically different education system. We will showcase some of this work and discuss what parents and community members can do to advocate for change.
Finally, we will describe exciting new initiatives being built around the acclaimed documentary film Most Likely to Succeed. The film was originated and funded by Ted, directed by Greg Whiteley, and relied heavily from strategic advice from Tony. We will highlight available resources for effecting change in your school, and show how our readers can play a key role in improving the life prospects of the children in their lives.
Ultimately, we hope that our readers will benefit from what we believe
has been a vibrant melding of our careers in the worlds of education and innovation. As you consider the points we make, we anticipate that you may be impressed by our credentials from two of the world’s finest universities. Don’t be. We’re here to tell you that credentials are increasingly a sucker’s game. We hope you’ll benefit from this book, despite—not because of—our five graduate degrees from Harvard and Stanford. If you find this book useful, it will be because we understand the dynamic forces profoundly reshaping our society and the role education needs to play in preparing our students to succeed. These insights come from a combined eight decades of real-world experience, not from a few years of advanced education that, in hindsight, taught us little of relevance to our careers or the world we live in.
Our bottom line? Our nation continues to plod away with incremental fixes to an obsolete education system, as innovation races ahead. Our world continues to place outsized weight on education credentials, despite skyrocketing financial and emotional costs and considerable data that the value proposition behind most credentials is empty. For the millions of Americans charting the education waters today, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Today’s youth live in a world brimming with opportunity. Some will create, catalyze, and capitalize on a dynamic world hungry for innovation. Others will be left behind. Students who only know how to perform well in today’s education system—get good grades and test scores, and earn degrees—will no longer be those who are most likely to succeed. Thriving in the twenty-first century will require real competencies, far more than academic credentials.
During my years in school, the mentor who had the biggest impact on my life trajectory was _____ because_____.