By Scott Carlson
For The Towson Flyer
Now that school is over for the year, it’s a good time to reflect on some questions: What is school for? And what are the classes and lessons and homework driving toward?
These questions were raised by Ted Dintersmith, a filmmaker, author, and highly successful former venture capitalist, who spoke at a recent ed-tech conference that I recently attended in Salt Lake City.
“If you go to most schools, kids are memorizing something they don’t have any interest in, they probably won’t remember it, and even if they do, they probably will never use.”
“If our schools don’t change profoundly and urgently, it’s not clear to me civil society in our country will hold together,” he says, opening his talk with this bombshell.
The school system was created 125 years ago to train people to work in manufacturing types of jobs, where showing up on time and efficiently performing routine tasks were the primary goals of that education. But those are increasingly the kinds of jobs that have been automated and will continue to be automated into the future.
“If you go to most schools,” he says, “kids are memorizing something they don’t have any interest in, they probably won’t remember it, and even if they do, they probably will never use.”
The current strategy to improve education “largely revolves around what we can do to better prepare kids for jobs that no longer exist.”
What are the roots of this problem? One that Dintersmith does not get into is the socioeconomic complexity around American schooling. Property values are tied to school quality, and school quality is assessed through test scores and the numbers of kids who go to college, which is also tied to school funding. So there are strong financial incentives to keep the system as it is.
But Dintersmith sees another problem here: In the broad sense, the K-12 system is not really about teaching kids useful things for life or career. It’s about finding ways to rank and assess those children, so the kids can be conveniently sorted and selected by college-admissions officers. And in doing so, we are making learning irrelevant and joyless for kids, who can sense the stupidity and futility of this process.
For Dintersmith, calculus is Exhibit A: College admissions officers prefer to see calculus — rather than statistics — on a student’s transcripts, because it signals achievement in mathematics. But Dintersmith has toured the country, looking for companies whose employees use calculus. He can’t find any. But companies are desperate to hire people who understand statistics, and what’s more, people can make better decisions about their civic or personal lives with training in statistics.
But we need to restructure education, he says, as we head into a world where jobs change with technology. In that future, people will truly have to be lifelong learners — when they will have to love learning.
“When you find schools that have their heads screwed on, when they are focused on things that matter, the rate at which kids learn is remarkable,” he says. “What’s so odd about school right is that kids learn really fast in the early grades when we’re not serious about school, and then as we decide what they have to learn and how they’re going to learn it, this learning slows to a crawl.”
–Scott Carlson is a Towson resident and
a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education