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Movie Review Most Likely to Succeed Questions Our Education System, Offers Alternative

Last week, the NMSI team attended a screening of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed at the Dallas International Film Festival. The film sparked great discussion around our office about the effectiveness of American public schools in educating today’s children for the future. We asked our Brand Manager, Elliot Mayen, to weigh in on the conversation. Here are his thoughts on the film:
 
At a panel discussion following a recent screening of "Most Likely to Succeed", executive producer Ted Dintersmith summarized his reason for underwriting the film: “…within ten years time, we will have a population of over 50 million chronically unemployed young Americans.”  "Most Likely to Succeed­" is an exploration of what is arguably the most pressing concern of our time: how do we prepare a generation of students for a future that is already here?
 
Dintersmith, a successful venture innovator, funded the production of the film to bring attention to the misalignment between the demand for innovation in the workplace and the preparation students are receiving in our schools today. He supplied filmmaker Greg Whiteley with a list of schools to visit, a stack of reading material and—as he tells it—no agenda. The resulting film, then, ostensibly paints a picture informed not by politics or education reform agendas, but by direct and impartial experience in our education system.
 
The film opens with a brief, but eye-opening overview of the history of education in this country. In short, our system was designed for an era in which worker obedience and standardization in the name of mechanization and factory efficiency were the norm. The digitization and automation of entire swaths of our economy, coupled with the growth of entirely new sectors, stand to upend this system and its goals. Breaking free from this 100-year-old model requires  reshaping the fundamental way in which students are educated, and High Tech High School in San Diego is set forth as an example of what this innovation might look like.
 
High Tech High is the brainchild of a coalition of education and industry innovators. The result is a school unbound from classical education concepts that strives to foster creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration among its students. One class, for example, is set up as a hybrid of a physics and a humanities course and is helmed by two teachers. The whole school operates in this untraditional model and students are assigned to teams to complete course-length projects. Students complete a variety of individual assignments in connection with their team projects, but it is the capstone projects that are the main focus of the courses (and the school). This focus on a single point of success or failure is the closest the students can get to a simulation of the real world and is a critical component of their experience. A book, a film, a research project, a financial spreadsheet, an article – all are judged not by the steps towards its completion, but by the end result. At High Tech High, this takes the form of a single exhibition night where the projects must be displayed for parents, teachers, and peers to judge.
 
The onus of expectation looms large at High Tech High and the film shows us that rather than shrink from it, the students embrace it and excel because of it. Engaging students in this type of demanding, collaborative, creative work can foster personal skills that will benefit students well beyond school walls. It is this kind of preparation that the film champions over the old industrial models of standardization and test-based metrics as a signal of competency. Confidence, resilience, introspection, empathy – in an economy where human labor is slowly being eroded by machines, these “soft skills” will be the keys to successful careers in which only our most human qualities cannot be replaced by machines.
 
"Most Likely to Succeed" does an incredible job of presenting its main points without delving too far into the pessimism that typifies many of its peers. Focusing on the success at High Tech High allows for a levity and optimism that is genuinely inspiring to watch. Admittedly, the film takes square aim at the culture of standardization, testing and, most interestingly, the notion that success in high school and then college will lead to a successful career. Nevertheless, there is something special that permeates the film. It is something that educators might recognize from their own experiences – a sense of hope. Near the end of the film, one of the students experiences nothing short of a complete failure. It is a high point in the film to watch this student pick himself up and try again, and again, and again, and eventually arise successful from that failure. It is an apt metaphor for the promise and hope the film sees in our education system.