Education for Content—or Wisdom?

High Tech High, a charter high school in California, is not an ordinary high school. After the documentary Most Likely To Succeed takes you on a journey with their 9th grade students, you’ll never look at school the same way again.

High Tech High is not about lectures and textbooks. It is about project-based learning centered around driving questions. It is about developing “soft skills” like problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, perseverance, motivation, and navigating tough obstacles. Teachers are coaches. Sometimes they don’t even coach. They just ask questions. They let the students struggle to find the answers themselves.

The film shows students growing from shy, hesitant individuals to students demonstrating grit and self-confidence. Even when a child fails, he continues to work the problem “after the deadline” to find the answer.

At High Tech High, student groups dive into a project together. One group tackled the question of what makes a civilization rise and fall, demonstrating their theories with a giant circular wooden model posted on the wall complete with moving gears and gadgets. Another group of young women chose to create a play about women and girls in modern day Pakistan, with Malala as their inspiration.

These students don’t take tests. They prepare projects for “Exhibition Day” where parents, community leaders, and subject matter experts view their work. In the end students are graded on them, in part by feedback received by others.

Talk about pressure. You think studying for a test is tense? These students work late into the night as they prepare for Exhibition Day.

The documentary is about building relationships, not content. It is about personal growth and developing “soft” skills that will help students succeed in a world where by 2020, 40-50% of all income-producing work will be short-term contracts, freelance work, and so-called Super Temps.

Yes, some parents were skeptical about this journey. What about all the basic content their students were missing? How can you skip over certain periods of history, iconic literature, or memorizing the Periodic Table of the Elements? To that the producers reply: How much of that content does anyone ever remember? And why can’t people access information on the web if they need it?

The jury is still out on this kind of project-based learning. Today, High Tech High has expanded to over a dozen campuses. It will take time to see if this is working, and how this might compare to the traditional system. But for many students at High Tech High, their lives will never be the same.

And for viewers of the documentary, we’ll never look at school the same way again. The film inspires purpose and possibility. Let’s reimagine together what students and teachers are capable of doing.