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Documentary explains well the need for education reform

By Kevin Kelley

With the term “Common Core” eliciting such visceral reactions from parents, teachers and politicians, it would be nice if there were a way to restart the conversation about reforming public education without all the baggage.

Fortunately, there is. It’s a documentary called “Most Likely to Succeed.” I saw it in March 2015 at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

During his tenure as superintendent of the Fairview Park City Schools, Brion Deitsch spoke frequently of the need to rethink the practices of the current educational system, some of which were developed more than a century ago. Technology has changed the world, Deitsch and other reformers argued, so why haven’t our schools changed?

In the fall of 2013, Deitsch brought Willard Daggett, a noted education consultant and reformer, to the district to speak on the need for changes.

“Our schools have become museums,” Daggett lamented.

The model must change, he said, from one in which students simply collect knowledge, to one in which students can successfully apply knowledge to solve problems.

That needed change is supposedly what Common Core is all about. But educators haven’t done a good enough job explaining that, and the very words “Common Core” have become a poisoned term to many.

What’s great about “Most Likely to Succeed” is that is makes the case Deitsch and Daggett have been making, but only better. And without using the term “Common Core” even once.

“Most Likely to Succeed” is actually two documentaries in one. In the first part, director Greg Whitely shows how the current U.S. K-12 education system was largely patterned after the Prussian school system at the urging of Horace Mann in the middle of the 19th century. Such a system has become outdated thanks to technology, Whitely argues.

The villain in the movie is not the teachers unions, or the people behind Common Core, or the Chinese workers who now have Americans’ jobs due to outsourcing.

Instead, it’s Watson, the IBM computer that has beaten the smartest humans at chess and “Jeopardy!” Watson and future artificial intelligence systems will do many of the jobs the U.S. education system trained Americans to do. But the computers and robots will do the jobs better and cheaper.

How should schools best prepare students for those jobs that computers and robots can’t do as well as people?

The search for the answer made up the second half of the documentary, in which filmmakers visited High Tech High, a California charter school where students follow an unconventional, project based model of learning. There, “soft skills,” like confidence, time management and collaboration, are valued above the memorization of facts.

Tests give way to the students’ collective projects, which are viewed by parents and community members at an open house. Viewers watch as the semester culminates in students’ creation of a large Antikythera mechanism-type display showing what they had learned.

The best part of “Most Likely to Succeed” is that it looks at the need for education reform from a completely apolitical point of view.

Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center, located at 1005 N. Abbe Road in Elyria, will present a free screening of “Most Likely to Succeed” at 4 p.m. Sept. 17, 2015. Registration for that showing can be made online at www.lorainccc.edu/ Stocker+Arts+Center/ and clicking on the film’s title on the left.

I mentioned my viewing of the film to current Fairview Park City Schools Superintendent Bill Wagner, and he and Melanie M. Wightman, the district’s director of teaching and learning, expressed an interest in the film. They say they hope to sponsor a screening by the end of the current school year, perhaps in January.

The makers of “Most Likely to Succeed” aren’t the only ones concluding that computers and robots will assume human jobs and that humans will need to adapt.

“Unlike human workers, whose collective performance doesn’t change much over time, robot employees keep getting more efficient,” wrote Illah Reza Nourbakhsh in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. “With each advance in robot capability, it becomes harder to justify employing humans, even in jobs that require specialized skills or knowledge. No fundamental barrier exists to stop the onward march of robots into the labor market: almost every job, blue collar and white collar, will be at risk in an age of exponential progress in computing and robotics.”

A new book, “Humans Are Underrated,” by Geoff Colvin, argues that the large-scale takeover of many thinking tasks by computers is becoming a broad phenomenon. As a result, the book argues, people will pursue jobs that involve the deeply human tasks of social interaction.

“Ask employers which skills they’ll need most in the next five to 10 years, as the Oxford Economics research firm did, and the answers that come back do not include business acumen, analysis or P&L management – left-brain thinking skills that computers handle well. Instead, employers’ top priorities include relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity and ability to manage diverse employees – right-brain skills of social interaction,” Colvin wrote in a book excerpted in a July 2015 issue of Fortune.

So those who are aware of the robotic invasion of the workplace, and best educated to respond to it, will, in fact, be the most likely to succeed.

 

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