Earlier this month, The University of Technology Sydney held a screening of the Sundance documentary, Most likely to succeed in which filmmakers Ted Dintersmith (Exec Producer) and Greg Whiteley (Director) take a look at the role schools play in preparing students for success.

Ask around and many parents and will tell you that students need a good school mark to get into a good university to get a good job. But is that actually how it works?

In the opening minutes of this documentary we hear that more than half of America’s new college graduates are unable to find employment. Business is getting more done with fewer people. Computers are replacing humans in performing both physical and cognitive tasks. Jobs increasingly require skills in innovation, and the associated tenacity and resilience that come from taking risks, learning from failure and trying again.

The film features engaging interviews with employers, academics and educators. Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice-President at Google, tells us that students getting the best grades are not necessarily the ones he wants to employ; they may not be good at teamwork, not be collaborative enough.

Sal Khan from Khan Academy emphasises that the growth jobs of the 21st century are highly creative. When he is hiring, Sal wants to know about a person’s logical and creative thinking skills, their ability to communicate, to give and receive feedback; and he wants to know how curious a person is, how empathetic and self aware they are. A resume from a university will say very little about any of these things.

The case is clearly made that our education system is not preparing students for the modern world of work and a rethink is long overdue. The system was developed to create obedient workers for a dawning industrial age. It is no longer effective in an information age dominated by technology and communications.

So how should we organise learning? What is the best preparation that education can provide?

The filmmakers focus on one school doing things differently. At San Diego’s High Tech High, the focus is on cross-curriculum projects developed by students working in teams.

Teachers are employed on a year long contract and are free to outline their own, student-centred curriculum. Funding per student is below the state average.

As viewers we observe students over a year as they struggle with a more Socratic and less authoritarian approach to teaching, and start to take responsibility for their learning and finally present their team projects to the community. This is how they are ultimately held accountable for the quality of their work – not through standardised tests but through presenting their work to a public audience.

As the film progresses it becomes clear that success in the career marketplace is no longer about what people know, but what they can do. It’s about skills.

A major sticking point then, concerns course content. We know that the pressure to cover a tightly packed curriculum weighs heavily on both student and teacher. An innovative project at High Tech High might cover one historical period in fantastic depth, while skipping over other periods. This can make parents uncomfortable. Yet a rethink of content is necessary if what we are teaching or fostering is a set of skills that will enable a student to ‘do’ good history – to discover, evaluate, integrate and communicate historical information.

The students at High Tech High have had to work hard, and have invested a lot of themselves in their projects. There are tensions around the contributions of team members, around leadership and quality control. These are tensions we are likely to find in a workplace.

Above all there is clearly some anxiety, pride and relief as the students demonstrate what they have achieved. Watching the teachers is interesting – they also have more invested than in your average classroom. Not only have they guided students through the unpredictable and often intense terrain of project work, but this was the curriculum they negotiated with the students. And now they have their own annual employment contract to consider.

Ted Dintersmith and Greg Whiteley have created a timely and thought provoking film that deserves our consideration as educators, students and parents.

They have identified some of the new skills that a post-industrial economy is demanding, and the need for schools to rethink how they prepare workers for this economy.

But watching the film left me with plenty of questions too. If business requires fewer workers, and for those workers to have well developed high order skills, what will everyone else do?

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