2013 VentureLab students. Photo courtesy o fCentrue Lab.
2013 VentureLab students. Photo courtesy of Centrue Lab.

Perhaps the most interesting conversation happening on Tuesday night, Nov. 3 was in a small gallery of the Southwest School of Art (SSA) where a mere 11 community members, two staff, and three panelists gathered to view “Most Likely To Succeed” a documentary following the freshmen of High Tech High in San Diego.

The film was followed by a panel discussion about the need for innovation in education. Mary Elizabeth Cantu, founder and director Spare Parts; Nicole Amri, community program director of SAY Sí; and Hetali Lodaya of VentureLab each offered their perspective on skills that modern education should be building.

SAY SÍ students developing a broad range of technical and "soft" skills. Photo courtesy of SAY Sí.
SAY SÍ students developing a broad range of technical and “soft” skills. Photo courtesy of SAY Sí.

“Most Likely To Succeed” was directed by Greg Whiteley, known for his documentary “Mitt,” chronicling the Romney family through both of the former Massachusetts governor’s presidential campaigns. The film proposes that the moment IBM’s computer Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, the American middle class was in danger. When Watson defeated Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, there could be little doubt that assembly line jobs and shipping were not the only jobs on the line. As the level of complexity and sophistication in technology rises, the human capital it replaces becomes too expensive to maintain.

Interviewing innovators like Sergey Brin and Salman Kahn, the film made the case that our education system is woefully outdated. When Horace Mann visited Prussia in the 19th century, he witnessed the public school model most familiar to us today. The titans of the industrial revolution took up the cause, eager for access to an educated workforce. Public schools of today with their orderly rows of desks, isolated subjects, and emphasis on standardization reflect the values of an industrial workplace.

Over 100 years later, our school system looks eerily similar. Yet our workplaces look drastically different. Collaboration is crucial. Science and the humanities are forever linked as technology becomes essential to our everyday lives. Everything is personalized, customized, and rapidly changing.

Mary E Cantu Spare Parts awesome sa finalist
Mary Elizabeth Cantu

Workplaces that do still look like 1900 are full of computerized machines that are getting smarter every day.

Whiteley’s film stresses the need for a workforce with a 21st century skill set, including what the educators in the film call “soft skills.” The panelists gathered at the SSA event agreed.

“It’s of the utmost urgency and importance,” Amri said.

Further, while the film focused on high school aged children, the panelists stressed the importance of early intervention.

“At VentureLab we believe you have to start early, because we are socialized into a box,” Lodaya said.

That box, created by tracking, single subject learning, and early testing, Lodaya explained, makes certain kids believe that they are “smart” or “not a math person” or other classifications that get in the way of their innovative spark.

Computers will be able to do a lot of things in the future, but they cannot be creative and personal in the way that a human can. They will never, by nature, be able to think outside the box. They are the box.

High Tech High is a prime example of the innovative charter school movement. Teachers work on one-year contracts, and they are free to teach however they want. Students’ final assessment is in the form of an exhibition to their parents and the general public.

VentureLab has a similar final assessment. Whether in a summer camp or classroom curriculum, every program ends with a pitch.

“That’s by far the most powerful thing we do,” Lodaya said.

Conceived by tech and industry leaders, High Tech High looks and acts very much like the modern creative workplace. In many ways, charter schools are to the tech revolution what public schools were to the industrial revolution: a place to train workers.

If this sounds crass and utilitarian, consider the cynical view of students in current high school classes. The scene I

Hetali Lodaya of VentureLabs. courtesy photo
Hetali Lodaya of VentureLabs. courtesy photo

found most disheartening, if not downright chilling will be sickeningly familiar to educators and parents. When a group of top performing high schoolers were asked by their teacher if he would rather teach them to “ace the test” or how to think and problem solve in a way that was relevant to their lives, the students opted for acing tests. They had to ace tests to get into college. College, they thought, was where they could pursue subjects of their passions. Things get relevant once you choose a major, and ostensibly, a life path.

Of course we know this isn’t true. Millennials know that degrees (even advanced degrees) don’t always translate to jobs, especially not the jobs you want. But most students know that not having a degree makes it even harder. So college has become the new high school. It’s the piece of paper you need so that you can get the internship that will lead to the job you want.

I totally get it. I’m the 31-year-old with a Master’s degree who is finally getting a writing career off the ground. When I graduated from the London School of Economics at age 23 I would have two completely unconnected career paths ahead of me before finally using my degrees.

As I was watching the movie, I realized one disconcerting thing. The gatekeepers of education reform are the elite universities. As long as their degrees are premium, branded entry tickets into desirable fields, students will do what it takes to get in. As long as they require high test scores and good grades in addition to a good essay and interview, those quantitative measurements will have priority. As long as those standardized measurements hold the key to getting into the choice schools and therefore the choice careers, students are going to opt to “ace the test.” Because you have to get in the door if you want to demonstrate that you have those valuable soft skills.

What’s even funnier though is that schools like Harvard and Stanford are the ones calling for education reform. They are calling for it while they are standing in its way.

2013 VentureLab students. Photo courtesy o fCentrue Lab.
2013 VentureLab students. Photo courtesy of VentureLab.

If the elite schools change their admissions criteria, not looking for more, but looking for something different, other schools will be able to follow suit. If kids could get into college without a series of requisite numbers, or if those numbers were somehow derived in a way that reflected the student’s likelihood to succeed, not just the ability to memorize in the short-term, then governments would have less use for the standardized tests, and the series of tests that lead up to them, and the series of tests that lead up to those.

With more freedom, teachers could teach. Education reform would be infinitely easier, because it wouldn’t be happening under the gun of a yearly testing cycle.

“Kids want to be learning ‘hands-on’ and teachers want to be teaching that way,” Cantu said.

In our current system it’s clear that community programs are students’ primary resource for non-standardized learning. Often they are heralded as the savior of the “different thinkers.” Indeed that is one of the great tragedies the film highlighted. Not all children learn the same, and so the standardized system is bound to be a poor fit for some. In an industrial age, conforming might have been a survival skill, but that’s not necessarily so in an economy where jobs require creativity and problem solving.

In fact, if the documentary is correct, then programs like SAY Sí, Spare Parts, and VentureLab are not just for the “different thinkers.” They aren’t the solutions for the exceptional. On the contrary, these are programs teaching the skills that every student needs.

*Top image: 2013 VentureLab students. Photo courtesy of Centrue Lab.

Related Stories:

VentureLab Seeks Summer Volunteers for Youth Entrepreneurs

VentureLab: An Arsenal of STEM Education

SAY Sí’s Look into the Taboo Seeks Comfort with Discomfort

SAY Sí: A National Model After-School Arts Program

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.