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An urgent need to change the education landscape

Advocate speaks on what’s working — and isn’t — in U.S. schools

Multiple districts — During an “epic adventure across the U.S.” in 2016, education change advocate Ted Dintersmith looked for innovation in teaching and learning at 200 different schools.

“Let’s find the bright spots. I want to find the stuff that is working and take it one step beyond: I want to understand how that happened,” he said.

One stop was at Forest Hills Public Schools’ Gone Boarding class, where  students design and build snowboards, skateboards and other recreational boards. In his book, “What School Could Be,” Dintersmith describes students learning math, physics, chemistry and computer-aided design, along with the history of boarding. They complete related reading and writing, problem solve and work in teams.

Students have gone on to get jobs in the boarding industry. They learn the business and science of the sport and gain “hirable proficiency” not measurable on a standardized test. Plus, they were engaged in learning and wanted to be at school, said Dintersmith.

He used that class as an example of the kind schools need during a presentation at school furniture company VS America, 616 W. Fulton St., in Grand Rapids. He spoke to an audience of educators, business professionals and K-12 policy professionals about the need to move away from an educational system designed more than a century ago based on rote learning and memorization and structured for a workforce on the brink of the Industrial Revolution. 

‘What School Could Be,’ by Ted Dintersmith was written as a followup to the film ‘Most Likely to Succeed’

Not much has changed since then in many classrooms, said Dintersmith, of Virginia, who co-produced the 2015 film, “Most Likely to Succeed.” The film and his book focuses on reimagining education to prepare students for demands of an increasingly innovative world.

‘We have these dated accountability metrics where we somehow think we can make an obsolete model better with more data, more worksheets and more drilling.’

— education reform advocate Ted Dintersmith

As Dintersmith traveled, he discovered some of the most innovative practices in schools were because staff and administrators were open to try new things without prioritizing test scores or teacher evaluation over engagement. He met teachers who were choosing to do things differently — even if it broke the rules.

“It tells the story of U.S. education. We’ve beaten the heck out of our teachers. We’ve told them to do what they know they shouldn’t be doing. They have to ask themselves, ‘Do I do what the state tells me, or do I do what’s best for the kids?’ We have legislators who shove it down our throats, who can’t answer the (test) questions they are making kids (get correct) to pass.”

From left, Rockford High School seniors Gabby Shirley and Presleigh Workman film Ted Dintersmith’s talk for their school TV station

Education in an Innovative World

Schools need to embrace and align instruction with the fact that students are learning in a world that has seen skyrocketed advances in technology, he said. Since 1965, when the first semiconductor was invented, the process and capability of microchips has doubled 1,064 times. “With exponential growth, the amount of change in the next decade will be more than all the change in the previous five decades,” Dintersmith pointed out.

Artificial intelligence can do many of the skills humans are using in school, but schools are still focused on those things. 

“We have these dated accountability metrics where we somehow think we can make an obsolete model better with more data, more worksheets and more drilling …. In the process, kids lose their creativity and their curiosity and their joy of learning.”

VS America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, opened its Grand Rapids location this spring. The 129-year-old company designs furniture for Montessori education worldwide and for the innovative teaching and learning spaces Dintersmith describes, said Christine DeBrot, VS America national sales manager.

“The kinds of things we are asking students to do to work collaboratively and in project-based learning can’t be done in a rigid environment. You need to have spaces that move and absorb their natural movement, where they can move quickly and on the fly,” she said.

Rockford High School seniors Gabby Shirley and Presleigh Workman experienced the kind of learning Dintersmith wants for students by filming his talk for their school TV station, “Beyond the Rock.”  

“I think it’s really cool that he is trying to change the landscape of education, because I feel like the current school system is really tough, especially being a senior in high school,” Presleigh said.

More on innovative learning:
Education space, the third teacher
Intentional spaces inspire and connect students

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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