Reimagining Schools for the 21st Century

“… Creativity must, in the last analysis, be seen not as something happening within a person but in the relationships within a system.” 

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, Creativity

Innovation is critical to achieving sustainability, making how we learn as vital as what we know. Nearly everyone today can readily access information with a few keystrokes, so content knowledge is less critical than it once was. Now the core competencies needed to tackle local and global challenges involve creativity, critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving.

Yet these capacities, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith write in Most Likely to Succeed, “are the very skills the school years eviscerate.” Students enter preschool with an innate passion for learning and a willingness to explore. But an assembly-line model of education soon squelches that creativity, force-feeding students endless lectures and worksheets.

Parents face many awkward moments when their children, plodding through mind-numbing homework, ask, “What’s the point of this?” Adults can feel cornered into responding with false assurances that “you’ll be glad to know this someday” or “this helps build character.”

Children and teens are not taken in by this hollow pretense, nor should they be. Many respond in a perfectly rational fashion by checking out and losing interest in learning. Eighty percent of fifth-graders reported being engaged at school, one survey found, while only 40 percent remained engaged by the start of ninth grade.

The mechanistic approach to education–with its emphasis on standardization, efficiency and conformity–made perfect sense when it was first adopted in the late 1800s as a training ground for factory workers. Recent reforms and upgrades have failed to dislodge the fundamental assumptions of this obsolete model. Even technological “innovations” like iPads and online courses, Wagner and Dintersmith observe, remain “all variants of ineffective passive education.”

The push for improved standardized test scores has further skewed educational priorities, placing tremendous pressure on students and schools without producing much enduring learning. Advanced Placement tests, in many schools the apex of the high school curriculum, illustrate how much computer-graded tests have come to dominate student learning.

These classes favor breadth over depth and rote memorization over critical thinking, skating over topics at a pace that teachers acknowledge gives students little time to ask questions. “The AP classroom,” former professor John Tierney writes in The Atlantic, “is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”

Many students are proficient at playing the current system, scoring well and securing spots in prestigious schools. Yet they have shockingly little to show for their efforts, being unable to recall the basics of what they’ve ostensibly mastered.

When one leading high school had students retake their final exams from the prior semester after summer break, the average grade plummeted from 87 percent to 58 percent. The documentary “Losing Ourselves” (see sidebar), made by a high school senior, confirms this lack of content retention among students at another well-respected school.

Sadly, this pattern often continues in college. Following a carefully designed longitudinal study, researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in Academically Adrift that “the majority of college students learn little or nothing on the important dimensions of critical thinking and analysis, complex reasoning, and writing.”

Business leaders tend to agree, with only 11 percent believing that college is satisfactorily preparing students for workplace success. Being deficient in capacities like problem-solving makes a challenging economic climate especially debilitating for many recent graduates. Surveys have found that roughly half of young people aged 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s or higher degree are either unemployed or in jobs that don’t technically demand a bachelor’s degree.

Fortunately, a growing number of schools are ditching the teach-to-the-test paradigm in favor of experiential and interdisciplinary approaches that foster a school culture of creativity and intellectual curiosity. At these schools, collaborative projects require students to develop skills in communication and problem-solving that they can draw on throughout their lives.

Two recent films, “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Beyond Measure” and their companion books, highlight some of these inspiring examples. Watching students at innovative schools tackle new challenges, one can almost see the neural pathways in their heads extending.

Maine is fortunate to have some schools – like Portland’s Expeditionary Learning programs – already in this project-based mode of study, building skills that young people will need to tackle real-world challenges. The wave of new books and movies may encourage more schools to begin reinventing themselves.

For the children boarding school buses each morning, weighed down with obsolete texts and irrelevant homework, change cannot come soon enough.


While the movies Most Likely to Succeed and Beyond Measure are still only available for community showings (and charge $350 for one-time showing rights), there are companion books that offer much of the same inspiration. The Most Likely to Succeed website has resources for parents, teachers, school leaders and students.

Losing Ourselves ( is a 30-minute documentary produced by a high school senior that depicts the loss of passion and self that can occur in the course of competitive, test-driven schooling.

© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.