What Could the Future of
Schools Look Like?

with Ted Dintersmith of What School Could Be


Take a moment to think back to your high school days. What was the most valuable lesson you learned in school? Was it how to do your taxes? Maybe it was a crash course on how to apply for a mortgage or how to prepare for a job interview? 

No? Me neither. 

If you talk to a recent high school or college grad, it’s no secret that many of them still feel unprepared to enter the working world. Beyond that, 70% of high school students experience anxiety and depression as issues in their communities. In trying so fervently to prepare students for the world, standardized curriculums and stress really just stifle their inner curiosity and cause burnout. 

As a father, Ted Dintersmith noticed something was off in his children’s middle school curriculum when he started tracking their studies. Instead of learning life skills, they were factoring polynomials and taking tests on reading comprehension. As a lifelong innovator, Ted dedicated his career to understanding how teachers are preparing students for real life. Through visiting more than 200 classrooms across all 50 states, writing a book, producing a film, and starting a nonprofit, Ted hopes to amplify the critical message that kids need access to an education that fosters creativity, encourages failure, and prepares them for the world we can’t yet imagine.

What Is the Future of Schools? 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen most schools shift to completely virtual or hybrid models. We know that schools and teachers are inherently creative and innovative, which are key determinants for the future of schools. So why don’t the policies and curriculums in place nurture that same creativity for the benefit of our students? 

Our students have changed and the world has changed, but the information we’re teaching kids hasn’t changed. So how did we get where we are and how can we move forward?

A Brief History of Schooling in the United States 

In the first 200 years after colonists arrived in the United States, public education was a way to teach students about religion and solidify skills like obedience and discipline, which made them good farm or factory workers. Standardized testing in its earliest form dates back to the mid-1800s and in the early 1900s, standardized testing became more common as the SAT came out. In 1929, standardized testing was met with criticism as it became more clear that tests encouraged memorization and guesswork instead of usable life skills.  

children-taking-testIn 2001, the No Child Left Behind bill mandated that students in public school be tested each year in every state starting in elementary school. Curriculums were designed to teach material that would be on the yearly exams and each school year, the school would report out their scores. 

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gave states more flexibility in determining testing requirements and actively encouraged states to get rid of unnecessary testing. Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government could influence and encourage states to choose certain uniform standards for students. In ESSA, states still have to adopt challenging standards for math, science, and reading, but it doesn’t have to be the Common Core. If you attended school in the 2000s you might be familiar with the Common Core curriculum, which is controversial but as of 2015, prevailed in 43 states

Standardized testing is a highly disputed topic within the public school system because it prioritizes certain content and edge out time to teach crucial life skills. It also has a role in determining how much funding public schools receive, which could mean that low performing schools don’t receive the financial help they need to improve. 

The Future of Education 

Preparing students for a future that we can’t yet imagine is a difficult task and there isn’t a one size fits all solution. However, there are a few distinctive characteristics that will facilitate a productive learning environment for young people whether they’re in a public school district, a private school, or a charter school. Along with these practices, it is crucial that progress is made to close the digital divide and inequities among students. 

Here are some key ways education might look a bit different in the next few years, as What School Could Be imagines.

  • Flipped Classrooms: Student-driven learning is a key trend in education that builds agency in students. When students are able to explore interests and use a teacher as a guide, they have better problem-solving skills and are better able to adapt to change. 
  • Addressing Real-World Challenges: When students take on real challenges, they know the work they’re doing matters. It’s exactly why mission-driven companies outperform traditional business. When we’re connected and invested in the goals and purpose of our work, the work is simply better. Experiences like this can also drive kids to see what kind of work they’d actually enjoy doing after school, like social impact jobs or maybe they discover they want to learn how to start a nonprofit
  • A Different Type of Test: Instead of filling in bubbles, alternative forms of assessment in school allow kids to learn from their work instead of just receiving a grade. Through exhibitions and conferences, students can retain what they learned from the entire preparation and execution of the project, instead of memorizing information for a test, doing the test, and moving on. This builds confidence and competency for the real world. 
  • A Collaborative Environment: Learning doesn’t stop when kids leave the classroom. This has become even more apparent as online learning and homeschooling is taking precedence during the Coronavirus pandemic. Distance learning might replace real-time in-person learning for some, but virtual instruction on Zoom isn’t for everyone. Students need individualized and supported educational experiences that encourage the use of digital tools and blended learning, but also connect the student to their immediate support system of family and the wider community of the school. The success of all students in the future of schooling is completely dependent on collaboration among peers, family, and the community. The power of convening is crucial for a social impact network, so why not use the same model in classrooms?

Education policy is always a hot topic in election season and it’s worth noting that President-Elect Joe Biden has a rigorous plan to address the inadequacies in the current education system during his 2021-2025 term. Here are a few notable action-items from President-Elect Biden’s platform, although there isn’t mention of standardized testing.

  • Triple funding for the federal program responsible for supporting schools with a high percentage of students coming from low-income families. Along with this, an increase in teacher pay and benefits. 
  • Double the number of health professionals in schools to prioritize mental health among students. 
  • Invest in infrastructure that encourages a healthy learning and working environment for all individuals in school buildings.

What School Could Be: Supporting Communities to Reimagine Learning

Ted’s nonprofit focuses on exactly what their name implies. If we moved away from standardized testing and micromanaging educators, what could schools be? What School Could Be helps people to reimagine what a classroom, a test, and a student all look like. Instead of stifling children’s interests and curiosity as the current public education system does, we need to allow each student to create their own path of learning and become purposeful contributors to society based on their own interests, talents, and potential. 

As an organization, What School Could Be seeks to amplify the work of educators forging paths of innovation for their students. The purpose of school isn’t to provide data for our policymakers to use for funding and bills, the purpose of school is to help children live happy, fulfilling lives. 

The Innovation Playlist is a framework made by What School Could Be for educators to stimulate, facilitate, and support education initiatives in their classrooms. Through a curated set of videos, community partners and teachers can begin to assess the needs of their communities and design a curriculum that addresses core learning objectives while encouraging what makes each child unique.

 Ted Dintersmith, Founder of What School Could Be

As a film producer, author, and speaker on education and innovation, Ted is eager to shift conversations around education to make it a more valuable experience for students. With a background in venture capitalism and innovation, Ted was quite familiar with the change-making work of social entrepreneurs. Once he became more aware of what his children were learning in their middle school classrooms, he became increasingly concerned about the direction their education would take them. 

Ted has spent his career traveling the United States and visiting classrooms to see how teachers are incorporating creativity, purpose, and accountability into their curriculums. He produced the documentary film, Most Likely to Succeed, and wrote What School Could Be, to detail his journeys to more than 200 schools. His nonprofit of the same name supports educators on a quest to reimagine learning.

If those kids have agency, if they can direct their own learning, if they’re drawing on their intrinsic motivation and they’re still curious, whether they’re in the classroom or at home, they’re still learning.

How To Promote the Future of Education

Whether you’re a current student, a parent of a student, or simply someone interested in the world of education, there are ways to be involved in how education is shaping future generations.

  • Ask Questions: If you have a child in school now, stay engaged and informed on what your child is learning in school. Have conversations with their teachers, visit classrooms in session, and ask to participate if you’re able to help fill gaps in their education with your own expertise. If they don’t seem fulfilled in the classroom, allow them space to explore their interests at home, through extracurricular programs, or in the community. 
  • Educate Yourself: Check out Ted’s book What School Could Be or organize a screening for your local school of Most Likely to Succeed. 
  • Give Back: Do you work at a nonprofit or change-making entity in your community? If you’re a farmer working on regenerative agriculture, open your farm to field trips or facilitate learning experiences in conjunction with a local school. If you work for a small business or are a social entrepreneur, offer an opportunity for high school students to shadow you and learn what it’s like to build something from the ground up. There are so many ways for the public to engage with the next generation, all we have to do is reach out.

Closing: What Will Education Look Like in the Next 10 Years?

Access to a quality education is one of the key issues of our time. While the issue in the United States is largely related to standardized testing, that isn’t the case in many other countries where only elite or male children have access to education. 

All children have an inherent right to a high-quality education that prepares them adequately to enter the world and pursue happiness. Education has the power to lift people out of poverty and open doors of opportunity for students who might otherwise have a limited life. We’ve seen how educators have prevailed and built resiliency to adapt to current remote learning, and there’s so much we can do to support these efforts for students.

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