Most Likely to Succeed

I just saw a showing of the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, and it was incredible. The movie discusses the history and future of K-12 education. Back in the day, the purpose of schools was to create obedient factory workers, but in today’s society, what we really want is a workforce of innovative individuals.

The documentary takes a closer look at the unorthodox teaching methods of High Tech High, a San Diego high school whose principles are “personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.” High Tech High emphasizes cross-discipline, project-based learning and focuses on developing students’ soft skills in addition to content knowledge for their projects.

When I was watching the film, I noticed a few similarities between High Tech High and Mission Hill, a middle school in Boston that I also really like. For one, both schools offer teachers autonomy in the classroom. Rather than teaching straight from a list of educational standards, teachers have full power over what topics they teach and how they teach them. Teachers can teach what they’re passionate about and cater their teaching style to their students. High Tech High and Mission Hill treat teachers as professionals who are capable of educating students without someone telling them exactly what to teach.

A second similarity I found was the innovative approach to assessments. Instead of your standard multiple choice, short answer exams, both of these schools have a project showcase at the end of each term. Mission Hill calls them portfolio presentations, and High Tech High calls them project exhibitions. What I think makes this form of assessment so much more effective is the “publicness” of the project showcases. If students know that their parents, their friends’ parents, and other people in the community are going to see their projects, they are more incentivized to do their absolute best on their projects. They also see direct applications of everything they learn because they’re using that knowledge for their projects.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, both schools have environments that recognize that students are humans, too. Students have hopes and dreams, as well as insecurities and uncertainties. Educators at these schools understand their role in developing each student as a whole human being rather than just a data point on a graph.

Just some other thoughts about the documentary…

In part because of the autonomy given to teachers, teaching positions at High Tech High are highly coveted. The school receives about 1,800 applications per year, and about 20-25 are offered jobs. It makes me wonder what type of training and/or experiences prepares people to be successful teachers at High Tech High. I was really inspired by the teachers featured in the documentary, and I would be interested in learning how to reach that level of comfort with working with students and leading a project-based classroom.

Because so much time is spent on projects at High Tech High, students don’t cover the same breadth of topics compared to students at traditional schools. This fact, in addition to the lack of report cards, worries a lot of parents, who went through traditional schooling. Parents are worried that their kids won’t score well on standardized tests, and as a result won’t get into good colleges and get good jobs. Personally, I think this is a valid concern and one that I think could be addressed by changing the way college admissions works. I understand that that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but I still think it’s interesting to think about. Graduates from High Tech High are better prepared for working in teams and taking on projects in life, but it’s unfortunate that parents still worry about their kids’ chances of scoring well enough on standardized exams to get admitted to prestigious colleges.

MIT’s motto is “Mens et Manus,” which means “mind and hand.” So obviously we value the idea of learning by doing. However, a large portion of my classes are still taught through lectures. In fact, a friend of mine brought up the fact that the freshman chemistry class has absolutely no lab component to it. I understand that there must be some sort of balance between learning background knowledge and doing hands-on learning, but how do you determine that balance? Also, I would be interested in discovering more about how content knowledge is woven into project-based learning, if not through lectures.

Overall, Most Likely to Succeed was an outstanding documentary, and I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already!