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“Most Likely to Succeed” Documentary

Two weeks ago, my school screened the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” again. It was for new staff. I have heard the hype this documentary generated many times – after all, our school’s setup was inspired by this documentary.

I prayed for an alert mind that would critically analyse the content of the film, and God graciously answered my prayer.

A pen and post-it notes were my best friends as I watched the film unroll.

Disclaimer: I was busy writing notes throughout the whole film, thus I might have missed some parts of the arguments. As a result, I don’t claim complete accuracy in my understanding of the film (I would like to watch the documentary again but only one-off screening sessions are available). Also, some of the thoughts I have are more around my school rather than the documentary itself.

First off – an upset little girl, with her mum, in a teacher-parent interview. Mum had concerns her daughter had “switched off” in her schooling. Mum talked about the recent maths test where her daughter got pretty much everything wrong (always seems to be maths!) – and her daughter had no idea why they were wrong. The teacher then went on to say how these experiences of failure would develop perseverance and resilience. The commentator goes “Do you see what the face (referring to the little girl) says – ‘bullsh*t'”. 

Pretty effective hook – who can’t think of someone that feels disheartened by their schooling? We all know at least one person like this – though this certainly is not the majority. Are our current school failing our students? Maybe some, but definitely not most.

The next argument – our current school set-up is failing because technology has changed the world. The film had anecdotes showing that Technology has surpassed human ability in many areas. Then came the main point – many areas of our life have moved on as a result of technical development, yet schooling looks exactly the same since 120 years ago. In the film, Sal Kahn (from Kahn Academy) called it “factory model of education” (Kahn talked about school set up in an interview here ). The model of students being put in class based on their age and ability, and are taught subjects separately was determined by one man after seeing the Prussian’s model. 

The argument that came across was – teaching subjects separately was an ancient idea, therefore, we should abandon it? This is bad reasoning. Old ideas =/= bad ideas. Teaching SOME subjects (such as maths and languages) isolated have its merits – different subjects teach different ways of thinking and looking at the world – teaching them separately is less overwhelming for students; it might just be most efficient and effective. Just to clarify, I am not saying that integration is not effective or efficient or inferior in any way, but there is a place for both.

Another thought, the film briefly mentioned the Socrates model of education – the main merits of this model of education, I believe, is it centres around teaching its students to THINK. And this, is what I believe the most important goal in education.

Abandoning the “factory model” of schooling completely seemed to be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” to me. It invalidates existing good teaching practice and the importance of it. I have no doubt that many teachers still do an excellent job in teaching students to think critically in this setup. I have observed lessons in Physics, English, Social Studies where students are invited to critically think through an issue, or make sense of ideas. After all, I don’t believe how a school is set up is the problem, but individual teacher’s practice. If teachers from this new school set up do not teach students to think, it will be shown just as equally ineffective as the “factory model”. However, saying this, I do see great benefits in breaking out of a cycle that limits teachers’ ability to teach students to think. A new system pushes educators to examine their practice; it enables new freedom – such as the freedom for teachers to pull away from the much-too-prevalent assessment-driven teaching and learning. I have quickly reached the conclusion that the assessment-driven approach in teaching is often counter-productive to teach thinking. Teaching focuses around preparing students to be familiar with a set of procedures and rules that would pass a test with particular types of questions.

New scene – first lesson of the school year. A class of seemly pretty compliant and behaved students. Students’ first task was to set up the classroom in a “Socrates” style. The teacher then left the room and went to his office. Students had trouble getting started – well, they might not be used to this types of tasks (inferring a thinking and group task) and they were all strangers to one another. The main point – students were pushed to think and problem solve.

I loved the activity because it made students think. However, we should note that the activity is not one that require specific skills or knowledge. So no new teaching is required in order to complete this task. This approach worked for this particular activity but wouldn’t in general, if students were to progress in their knowledge and skills in the different subject areas.

Next scene – We see how “high tech high” functions – no bells, no industrial method of structuring the school day (I wonder what this looks like exactly – students go wherever they want whenever they want?). The subjects are combined and integrated (I am also unclear how it is implemented exactly. Is the project involve integration or do they teach subjects together on a daily basis?). Only teachers who are passionate and talented, who prefers intellectual freedom are hired by the school, and they can teach whatever they like. They are not required to meet any national standards. Then was an example of student activity. Students were busy working on a project in small groups. Some very passionate, intelligent and committed students featured in this scene (my question, how representative were these students?)

I appreciate the opportunities for students to apply and deepen their understanding through projects and the emphasis on developing soft skills through the projects. What type of people students are, are far more important than how well they can achieve academically.

Another question – I wonder whether students are still required to be exposed to all subject areas. If not, would they be lacking in certain subjects?

A parent brought up a valid question – if a school is not preparing the students for standardised tests, which are currently the only pathway to gain university entrance, how can students even go to university?

This question was never answered in the film. It made me wonder whether not preparing students to gain qualifications (as noble as the reason might be) is actually doing the students a disservice. What good is it if a high school is so forward thinking when the rest of the world stand behind its time? After all, reality sets limitations to ideologies.

The film also presented a false dichotomy between learning to pass test or learning to be educated for life. As challenging as it may be, it is still possible for students to do both. Two more false dichotomies: one between achieving high test scores vs producing high-quality work; the other between project based learning vs memorising facts and getting a high score. The two things that are set as opposites are not mutually exclusive.

On a side note, I find it concerning when only tangible work is valued and celebrated. Take a subject such as Mathematics, the benefits of learning is often in the intangible, the intellectual. Before students have learnt more advanced concepts and skills, they simply cannot produce anything of great complexity, but this should not undermine the value in learning the subject. 

The film did show many excellent practices that can be easily implemented in high schools – such as interviewing students on their work (universities have been implementing this technique) and valuing each individual student for who they are.

One remaining question – the documentary mentioned that 98% of their students did gain university entrance. What qualifications did the students get to enable this?

I appreciated that the filmmaker was up-front saying that this model of schooling might not suit every student, and the successfulness of this model needs to be tested by time and larger sample size.

A bold and un-backed-up claim the film made – content retention from “traditional schools” is low. The problem is not in the claim itself – we know that our brains do not retain unused facts and knowledge very well. But I doubt whether this new school set up would produce much better results if what they are comparing is also facts and knowledge retention. No matter what the school set up is, how individual teachers took the students through a new piece of learning plays a bigger role in determining retention.

To summarise my main thoughts:

  1. I believe that the main goal of education is to teach students how to think, through the contexts of different subject content. School set up alone does not determine the successfulness of this.
  2. However, a new set-up encourages people to think critically about education and it creates freedom for teachers to do what’s truly the best for the students.
  3. There is a place for integration and project-based learning. However, a preoccupation with them can be dangerous and counter-productive in achieving the goal of training students to think. Plus, a good project does wonders in many ways; but a bad one is a waste of everyone’s time.
  4. I don’t believe that a completely new set up of schooling is the only vessel to ensure that the next generation is well educated. There are things that teachers can do to allow this in their classrooms right now – with support from policy makers and school leadership. I understand this might not be easy. So maybe introducing something new is the way to go.














Sinner saved by Christ, wife to the most amazing husband, middle - high school maths teacher, learning to love God and others.

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