by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
One of the best films ever about education has been making the rounds lately in indie theatres and other venues around the country: Most Likely to Succeed. The documentary convincingly makes the case for changing our outdated education system, and focuses on High Tech High in San Diego and its PBL-infused program. The executive producer is venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith, and Greg Whiteley produced, wrote and directed this lively and dramatic story that appeals to both hearts and minds. Dintersmith also co-authored a book with Tony Wagner with the same title.
I saw the film last week with some BIE colleagues at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, California, where we were hosting the screening with the Marin County Office of Education and the California Film Institute. A good crowd showed up. The screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by BIE’s executive director Bob Lenz, with teachers and students from High Tech High plus Sharilyn Sharf, a teacher from a PBL program at Tamalpais High School here in Marin.
The film interweaves commentary from various experts about our changing economy – and mostly-unchanging schools – with the story of High Tech High. It follows two ninth graders as they work on a project about why civilizations rise and fall. One girl is directing a play about the Taliban written and performed by her and her female classmates and based on Euripides' Trojan Women (the boys performed the original play, since in ancient Greece all actors were men). In another classroom that included math and science, the ninth graders are expressing their understanding of the driving question by building an elaborate work of art involving interconnecting gears, made mostly of laser-cut wood. The central drama: will they be ready for Exhibition Day in the spring, when fellow students, parents, and the community show up to hear about and see their work?
The film also raises issues about the merits of High Tech High’s approach, with parents wondering if their children are being prepared for their future in a school that’s so different from what they’re familiar with. The New York Times’ David Brooks voiced some of these concerns in his column last October, which was quickly rebutted by Dintersmith and BIE’s Bob Lenz and Jonathan Raymond, President of the Stuart Foundation.
I don’t like film reviews with too many spoilers, so I won’t say more, but suffice to say that anyone who cares about the future of education should see the film. If it’s shown to non-educators (as it was to parents at the school where BIE’s systemic partnership coach Sarah Shannon was principal) the film requires some explanation. We can borrow ideas and gain inspiration from High Tech High, but it would be hard to replicate everywhere. Wonderful as it is, it’s “on the high end of the scale” of schools using PBL, we always make sure to say when referring to it in BIE workshops and presentations. In the movie, they do make it very clear that the school’s population is diverse, with many low-income students, and the school gets no extra funding from the district or state. However, the film also makes it apparent that HTH’s leaders and teachers are exceptional – and the school was started with the help of capital investment from a rich man, Gary Jacobs of Qualcomm – so I'd steer viewers to focus not on the particulars but on the PBL concepts the school exemplifies: learning by doing, student engagement, voice and choice, real-world connections, public exhibition.
Highlights & Questions
If you haven’t seen the film, try to asap. Or at least read some reviews, like this one by Tom Vander Ark or this one at The Hollywood Reporter. If you have seen it, I’ve love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Here are some takeaways, questions and reflections from me & my BIE colleagues:
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