Ted Dintersmith: Redesigning Education to Take on the Big Problems


Ted Dintersmith

Redesigning Education to Take on the Big Problems

December 17, 2015
by Ken Gordon

Life: It is more like a standardized test or a complex problem to be solved?

This question—nowhere to be found on any SAT, GRE, or GME test—was recently tossed my way by one Ted Dintersmith, an amiable, bespectacled, six-foot former venture capitalist. Dintersmith recently published a book with Harvard’s Tony Wagner, Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. He also executive produced a documentary with a nearly identical title, set in San Diego’s High Tech High, and is currently hoofing it around the nation on a 50-state tour (you can follow his adventures on Twitter).

dintersmith most-likely-to-succeed

As for standardized tests: Dintersmith believes that they don’t prepare students for much of anything—let alone the open-ended tests that life regularly hurls our way. Think of those screwball problems that will soon fly as businesses fully digitize, of the massive redundancies that will undo many legacy jobs, white and blue collar both, and you’ll see that his test-prep concern is no small matter.

His faith is invested in project-based learning: focused, multi-disciplinary work that has kids collaborate with one another and employ hands-on skills to become creative problem-solvers. In fact, the foundation of Dintersmith’s educational evangelism rests on the conviction that academic instruction ought to produce innovators capable of addressing an array of problems: civic, business, personal. As Dintermith and Wagner write in Most Likely to Succeed: “To have good prospects in life—to be more likely to succeed—young adults now need to be creative and innovative problem solvers.”

As someone who works for global innovation design consultancy Continuum, Dintersmith’s problem-solving mindset makes great sense to me. We work with a wide variety of projects—including Boston’s High School Redesign program—to help them find unique and effective solutions to their tricky problems.

Teaching to some standardized test will never give kids the skills, confidence, or permission to become innovators.

“I don’t care what asshole says we gotta have a number on it, we’re here to tell ‘em they’re wrong,” he says.

Note: he’s not suggesting that schools purely focus on project-based learning. Content does matter to Dintersmith, and he’s not suggesting that schools ditch it. As noted in Most Likely to Succeed: “The goal must be to choose the content selectively so as to create the required foundation for lifelong learning, without letting the quest for content coverage overwhelm the development of core competencies.”

Question is: How to evaluate student understanding of that content? Do tests have some place in his notion of education? Dintersmith says yes, but “only as a diagnostic.” Once the diagnosis has taken place, education should become personalized. This is one thing, he says, philanthropic businesspeople haven’t grasped about education reform. “Charter schools raise money from naïve business people based on test scores.”

“Charter schools raise money from naïve business people based on test scores.”

Dintersmith is, as you can see from this interview, a kind of anti-Bill Gates.

And not everyone buys completely into his thinking. Lisa Miller writes, in her New York Times Book Review piece, that his volume’s values “leave whole classrooms full of gifted memorizers, not to mention regular humans who never aspired to be or ever will be a Bill Gates—which is to say, most of us—without a path to follow.”

But this seems to miss the notion that Dintersmith isn’t the one cutting off the path: 21st century capitalism is! Miller’s gifted memorizers will have no place in an automated future, largely because those people can easily be replaced by computers and increasingly intelligent robots.

“What matters most in our increasingly innovation-driven economy is not what you know but what you can do with what you know,” write Dintersmith and Wagner. “The skills needed in our vastly complicated world, whether to earn a decent living or to be an active and informed citizen, are radically different from those required historically.”

Dintersmith is here to suggest a mode of learning that could lead students to create happy, productive lives for themselves. He is looking to the strong tradition of American pragmatism, saying that our education must be one of action, and that if we take it, we can make a vibrant, fulfilling future for ourselves.

“These kids need someone to fight for them—and the teachers.”

Life is an unbroken series of complex problems. Dealing with it is nothing like filling in the bubbles of a standardized test, except in its most formal, artificial moments. To prepare well for our future, we need to find effective ways to solve these problems. It’s essential to teach our children about the problematic nature of life, as soon as possible, and not pretend otherwise.

For Dintersmith, this is no academic exercise.

“It’s certainly the fight of my life,” he says. “These kids need someone to fight for them—and the teachers.”

filed in: education, innovation

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