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May 2, 2016
Film Review & Reflection: Most Likely to Succeed

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 The documentary convincingly makes the case for changing our outdated education system, and focuses on High Tech High in San Diego and its PBL-infused program.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:

  • While the film mostly focused on the economic argument for changing education, so students can succeed in the modern workplace and as entrepreneurs, we loved the line where a teacher says the project-based approach is also “good for their souls.”
  • Appeciated the point that showing student work is a “truer test” and more powerful demonstration of what they know and can do than a standardized test score.
  • One study cited said students who were asked to re-take the final exam for a science course three months later forgot almost all of the content; their grades went from a B+ average to an F. My colleague Meg Parry notes that this raises policy questions for schools and districts where teachers struggle to shift to PBL because they feel the need to “cover everything for the sake of their district, school, and students” when standardized tests are used for accountability.
  • Re: the issue of “Does a PBL school’s approach help with college?”: HTH boasts a 97% acceptance rate to four-year colleges for its students, far above the average for a comparable demographic, and 85% of them graduate from college within five years – so that pretty much answers that. When asked whether HTH students are prepared to handle the lecture-dominant teaching style at most colleges, one student panelist said, “We’re prepared to solve problems, so if moving from a hands-on class of 25 to a lecture hall of 500 is a problem, we can handle it.”
  • I had not heard this point before: when asked about whether colleges use PBL, the student panelist said applicants from HTH often pick colleges that offer a PBL-ish approach. I wonder of this will help pressure the post-secondary system to change, if enough applicants start looking for PBL?
  • The film focuses for dramatic reasons on two students who were leaders, but I found myself wondering about the other kids on the team: Did they learn as much? Were they as invested? And for what kids is the HTH approach not a good fit, and why?
  • Love the line that went something like, “We build strong people, not just test-takers.”

Do you have questions or comments? Please enter them below.


  • The AP Capstone Seminar class of Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Chicago, recently concluded a PBL research cycle about our students’ education concerns by hosting a community screening of MLTS. This event provided a beautiful conclusion to our PBL. Reflections submitted by students immediately afterwards were enlightening. While all were fascinated by the arguments and approach, many are also highly skeptical. Overcoming the vast momentum of the extant educational system will be no small feat! Having personally dedicated ~25 years to “systemic reform” via multiple institutions (e.g., K-12, university, teacher education…), I have grown to appreciate any effort to catalyze forward motion. The conversation that MLTS promotes is both necessary and healthy.

    SRRogg on May 16, 2016 
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