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Most Likely to Succeed: Ted Dintersmith on Powerful Learning

By Tom Vander Ark — February 21, 2018 5 min read

A film about what school could be, Most Likely to Succeed, debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. After the launch, venture investor and executive producer Ted Dintersmith launched a 50 state tour to promote readiness for the innovation economy. His new book, What School Could Be outlines what he learned. We asked Ted about his journey to advocating for next-generation education.

Where did you go to high school?

I attended James Madison High School in Vienna Virginia and had a typical experience. The shaping experiences were not courses or classes, they were serving as a newspaper editor and organizing friends for a campaign.

Why Physics and English at William and Mary?

I started at Rice University in Houston but ran out of money as tuition increased. Neither of my parents went to college so I wasn’t getting good advice. I returned to a public university close to home. A mentor advised taking “hard and different” courses so I chose physics and English. My Honors Thesis combined the two topics. The combination served me well.

Why do you support undergrad research at William and Mary?

I’m a fan of independent research, students scrambling to solve a problem. Student research at William and Mary is the focal point of my philanthropy. This is the ninth year of support. About

60 to 70 students every year get the expenses for their junior summer project covered.

How did you get to Stanford? What was your doctoral focus?

I had no idea what to do. I applied to several graduate schools in English and Physics and got into Stanford in Physics. About a month into it, I realized it won’t work for me. On paper, I had done things well, I was good at taking tests, but at Stanford, I was surrounded by great physicists that were creative and conceptual thinker. I got into math modeling of real problems and built decision-making algorithms.

I remember at the time (circa 1980), smart Stanford faculty members said computers can’t beat humans in chess (and that was a regular occurrence by the end of the decade).

Your 20 years at Charles River Ventures spanned much of the information age. Do you have the sense that it was a rather opportune period in history to be an investor?

I feel fortunate beyond words. In high school, I had time to invent and play around. College was cheap and there were lots of jobs for graduates. My first job was at Analog Devices in Boston,

Are we in a new era? Does the rise of artificial intelligence and the automation economy signal something new about success criteria both for companies and individuals?

AI is the most important issue shaping society (or at least one of the top five).

In meetings, I try to explain exponential growth-- the fact that price performance doubles every two years (Moore’s Law). I ask, what will it be in 10 years? The answer that no one gets is 32 times what it is today. We can’t fathom exponential growth.

The Alpha Go documentary [of when an AI program beat the world champion Go player in 2016] illustrates exponential change. Every job that is based on pattern recognition will be automated.

I’ve been in hotel rooms 80% of the time over the last three years because the level of change will be profound. I wasn’t surprised by election [of 2016] because I went to all 50 states.

The jobs reports are misleading. People are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

It all comes back to school. Why wouldn’t we want kids to benefit from capability [the smart phones] in their pocket? It’s clear that augmented chess players can beat the best computer in the world.

If we don’t address the problem, we’ll have a lot of angry, alienated people on our hands. It’s all related, the pattern of innovation, school, and democracy.

How did you learn about High Tech High?

Through Tony Wagner, who will go down in history as a bold thought leader.

We’re not talking about a point of improvement on the NAEP test. Millions are trusting education to prepare them for life.

My interest started in 2011 when my son’s middle school sent out a note about a new program on life skills. None was related to important life skills. It was often antithetical to real life skills.

Film was my first instinct. I saw and hated Waiting for Superman--it’s easy to create a negative documentary.

An inefficient six-month process led to Director Greg Whiteley. I described the movie with a dozen experts. He told me I was wrong about interviewing experts. I sent him to 12 places. He filmed for two years, especially at High Tech High. Visually it’s a great place and it has so many visitors that students don’t notice cameras in the classroom. We found a story about what education should be. Greg added 10 minutes of history of education, and it is brilliant.

After the movie, book, and 50 state tour, how do you think about the purpose of school?

School should be about finding out what you’re good at, preparing for lives of purpose, lives of contribution. But most schools revolve around ranking not developing.

Distinctive schools get it right. They play for bigger game--lives that matter.

Just look at SAT questions, they are ridiculous. We’ve placed outsized importance on these tests. SAT content is largely irrelevant to what scientist and engineers do

Take the historical path to calculus. Who has taken a derivative by hand in the last 20 years? Calculus makes zero sense.

You have a new book coming out this spring, will it include pictures of powerful learning?

I saw so many remarkable things. What School Could Be (available April 17, 2018) includes one “blow you away” story from each state. The book is getting great reviews and endorsements.

Where can people learn more?

The move Most Likely to Success is available at mltsfilm.org and on Tugg for $95. We didn’t put it on Netflix because nothing would change. We want to bring people together.

Our innovation playlist identifies next steps for schools, beginning with a community conversation about Profile of Graduate and shadowing a student.

Approaches that start with “Everything has to be completely different” won’t work. We have to invite teachers to try things.

I want to triple underscore that change is relentless no matter what schools do. Other countries get this. A group in China screened the film and over 25,000 people watched film and sold out their copies of the book.

For more, see:


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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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