Producer of film ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ shares views on education

Ted Dintersmith talked to EdScoop before his documentary screens at CoSN's annual conference.

Ted Dintersmith, executive producer of the documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” doesn’t think schools are succeeding.

The former venture capitalist-turned-education philanthropist explored how project-based learning can be a better approach to education, rather than having kids answer multiple choice questions or checking off a list of content covered in class.

The film, which is screening at CoSN’s annual conference next week, follows ninth-grade students at High Tech High School in San Diego, Calif.

Dintersmith sat down with EdScoop for a Q&A, which has been edited and condensed, about his views on the state of education in the country.


EdScoop: Is technology helping or hurting education?

Ted Dintersmith: I think it’s both. I think a lot of what’s going on in education technology is just misguided. For example, an app that you look at on your tablet or on your smartphone is the equivalent of a flashcard that helps you memorize atomic numbers of the elements. Why would I want to memorize the atomic number of copper on a smartphone? What I have to do is say, ‘Siri, what is the atomic number of copper?’

So, much of the edtech that schools in our country use today is the equivalent of electronic flashcards. It’s [about] definitions and low-level math procedures. Nobody has to do these anymore because they are always at your fingertips. The thing is not to teach obvious content more efficiently through technology. What we need to is to understand that technology makes so much of what kids are doing in school irrelevant, rather than doing things that are far more valuable and important.

ES: Why do you think standardized education doesn’t work?

TD: It’s a lot easier to design a test. [For example], ‘Question number 17: What is the atomic number of copper?’ A much harder and more interesting test is something that requires thinking, and the problem is that you can’t standardize it. You can’t really do anything in scale that values and appreciates creativity in the answer.


Somebody says, ‘Yes you can.’ I say, just look at the sorry history of the SAT essay questions. They tried for dozens of years, and they finally gave up. Even something as simple as writing an essay on a topic turned out to be very difficult, because they insisted that they had to take the essays and turn them into a specific number – that means you’re going to be graded. You have to ask the question, ‘Why did the College Board feel compelled to reduce the kid’s essay to a number?’ Why didn’t they just let the [college] admission officers see the essays? I think the answer is, if you just let the admission officers see the kid’s essay, written without any adults’ help, it would highlight how much of a college essay is actually done by the parents and coaches.

ES: What kind of education did you want your kids to have?

TD: My son is 19 years old and taking a gap year. He’s doing concert photography. He is learning how to do it by himself. That’s the thing – kids learn so much on their own. Part of the learning is by accessing things online. You can go online and look at a bunch of different people’s perspectives on how to do it. If you look at his work, nobody needs to grade it. You just look online, and you either say, ‘I love them, or I like them, or they’re OK, or I don’t like them.’ So what he doesn’t need to do is a laborious course on photography on Coursera that replicates a tedious course in lecture halls on photography.

ES: What can we do to fix the problems you have perceived in education? Who should lead the way?

TD: This is a system issue. I think the good news is, so much can be done locally. What we really push for is schools to just step back and say, ‘What are we supposed to accomplish with our kids?’


What we’ve said is, ‘How can we take the grossly obsolete education model, and make it better by more testing and more accountability?’ That is, in a nutshell, U.S. education policy. It’s failed in every way that you could have imagined. It will continue to fail because it misses the point. The point is that what teens need to be good at today has nothing to do with what they need to be good at in the last century. The more we test, the more we hold our teachers accountable to it, and the more we’re actually hurting our kids and teachers.

I love teachers. They’re really dedicated. We all too often blame teachers for what’s going on in school without knowing, behind the scene, the twists and demands that we place on the teachers.

Read more about Dintersmith’s documentary.

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @yizhuevy and @edscoop_news.

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