What School Could Be author Ted Dintersmith in Pittsburgh

What could school be? Education innovator Ted Dintersmith shares insights in Pittsburgh visit (airing on C-SPAN)

They came from Ohio, West Virginia and throughout western PA to hear him. Not just teachers but superintendents of school districts (Dr. Anthony Hamlet sat front and center) parents, students and others, who share the concern that our schools are not preparing our kids for what they need to succeed in life.

More than 400 people gathered to hear one of the thought leaders in innovation and education, Ted Dintersmith, the producer of the acclaimed documentary Most LIkely to Succeed and the author of the most recent book, What Schools Could Be.

“If we don’t get school right, if we don’t start thinking forward about how we prepare our kids, I started sharing with my family and friends that I wasn’t convinced democracy would survive,” he said at a May 2 appearance at the O’Reilly Theatre, hosted by NEXTPittsburgh  and Remake Learning.

Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist from Virginia, spent one school year traveling the U.S., stopping at over 200 schools in all 50 states. He visited rural schools in North Dakota, tribal schools in Alaska, and an impoverished high school in Newark, N.J., meeting teachers and educators who are exemplifying the best way to engage and inspire students. Much of it revolves around project-based, relevant learning.

“Kids are trusting us to give them school experiences that will open life’s doors for them,” Dintersmith said during the  Q+ A interview with NEXTPittsburgh Founder and Publisher Tracy Certo. “I feel like too often we’re putting them into situations where we’re not opening those doors.”

When learning is relevant, kids tend to flourish, he says. And when schools “teach to the test” — that is, schools focus on preparing kids for college admission and not for life, kids’ learning and creativity is impeded.

In his book “What School Could Be: Insights and Inspirations from Teachers Across America” (Princeton Press), Dintersmith writes that students thrive in environments where four principles – purpose, essentials, agency, and knowledge (PEAK) – are emphasized.

  • Purpose: Students work on projects that are important to them and their community. They complete projects with real-world impact that can be displayed publicly. They learn over time that they can make a difference in the world.
  • Essentials: What do students need in the 21st Century? Creative problem solving, communication, collaboration, critical analysis, citizenship and good character.
  • Agency: Students have voice in their own work. Starting young, they learn to set goals, manage their efforts, assess their progress, and persevere to completion.
  • Knowledge: Students master deep knowledge. There’s no better way to learn than to teach to they teach others. Their knowledge is reflected in the quality of what they create, build, make and design.

During the interview, which was taped for Book TV by C-SPAN and will be air within the next week, he offered many examples of innovative teaching strategies. He talked about third, fourth, and fifth graders in Dunbar, WV, who staff IT functions at their school, who own their learning and manage their progress. And he spoke of third graders in North Dakota who are given “genius time” to work on their own areas of interest.

But Dintersmith warned that students, because of timeworn teaching regimens, may be losing the ability to think outside the box. When a high school English teacher in another North Dakota school district gave juniors one class a week to learn about whatever they were interested in, half the kids did a Google search: What should I be interested in?

“When I tell this story, people do laugh,” Dintersmith said. “But then it settles, and you realize, is that what we’re doing to our kids? Are we really just so obsessed with their studying a standardized path so that the College Boards make sense, or what some bureaucratic committee thinks makes sense, and we’re not respecting their ability to go deep with what they care about?”

Ted Dintersmith and Tracy Certo in Pittsburgh
NEXTpittsburgh founder and publisher Tracy Certo interviewing Ted Dintersmith in Pittsburgh

Dintersmith reserved his harshest criticism for college admissions testing, specifically the SATs and other standardized tests that employ Bell curve grading methodologies.

“You’re not testing competency,” Dintersmith said. “You’re not testing proficiency. You’re not testing if a kid’s reading skills are good enough. You are coming up with a set of questions that generate that (Bell curve) distribution.”

Dintersmith has found much reason for hope during his travels, and one of the most innovative new approaches to teaching he found is in Pittsburgh. He praised Remake Learning, a network of schools, libraries, learning centers, museums, and education professionals working together to develop creative and relevant approaches to learning.

“There are a lot of interlocking parts that impede real innovation,” Dintersmith said. “What just blew me away here is the way this collaborative community comes together to aspire to do something so important. Businesses come in and civic-minded non-profits join in, and they celebrate this thing.

“It showed me the very best in what a community is capable of doing. … It isn’t in any way surprising that Pittsburgh would lead the way. There’s a deep sense of philanthropy here, a great community engagement, and it’s special, it’s important.”