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The Long Overdue Death of 19th-Century Education

By October 22, 2015April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — If all the information is becoming accessible on-line, let’s shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills.


The recent Greg Whiteley film Most Likely to Succeed looks deeply into the workings of a school that has turned its back on traditional education.  Gone are the rows of desks, the “cells and bells” (the prison of the 6, 7-period day), “drill and kill” test prep, and the glazed look in the eyes of passive learners.  Instead we see high school students in groups wrestling with design problems, and individuals riveted to the product they’re producing on the rich array of machinery the school makes accessible to them.  Kids are busy, engaged.  The school didn’t tinker around the edges, but built with a new strategy from the ground up.

It’s a refreshing welcome departure from education that seems more interested in teaching compliance and obedience than a love of learning.

The film focuses on High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, California.  The filmmakers concede that it’s not the only radical school experiment that’s now in full flower.  But they shot footage there for a year because it shows a clear image of what else education might be.  Ed revolutionaries like Sal Khan of Khan Academy and Sir Ken Robinson, a guru of creativity, talk about how the current education system came about in the 19th century and how badly outmoded it’s become.  For example, if a job can be automated, it will be, and soon.  So the ability to be compliant to repetitive-task jobs that depend on an unchanging knowledge base is a fast-fading reality.  Far more important are creativity, collaboration and self-starting, characteristics highly valued by HTH.

Theoretically, education maintains a balance between content and skills.

Contrary to its name, High Tech High (HTH) is not a vocational school steeped in computer and software technology – like the excellent Advanced Math and Science Academy in Massachusetts.  Instead, HTH’s idea of “tech” is that young people now grow up in a world where all information is accessible through the internet.  The key, then, is to shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills, including knowing how to dig content out of cyberspace and make good sense of it.

So HTH is entirely “project-based.”  Student groups design the project and then divvy up the work among leaders of sub-teams responsible for, say, the costumes, set, or lighting.  On “Project Night” at the end of each semester, they present their work to friends, family and community.  One grade immersed itself in 5th century Greece and a group of them took on the task of interpreting Euripides’ Trojan Women in the contemporary setting of modern Pakistan.

The HTH teachers’ role is to inform, suggest, set broad expectations, and keep the projects from going off the rails.  Content-area teachers seem to pair off in odd couplings, like history and engineering (Physics).  One teacher pair charged their group with digesting certain documents, politics, arts, and social history into a theory of the rise and fall of civilizations — an intellectual reach to say the least.  Having created their theory, backed by historical research, each group then worked with the engineering teacher to build a device that will represent their theory.  I didn’t understand the connection, but the finished device in motion was gorgeous.

Larry Rosen, the school’s CEO (principal) says, there’s just nothing like “making something that wasn’t there before.”

Does High Tech High school “work?”

Despite the film’s competitive title, that question runs through the minds of everyone committed to the experiment.  But what does “work” mean?

HTH’s teachers and especially the parents worry that the school might fail at getting kids into college.  They might stumble on career paths that still depend on credentialing.   A HTH math teacher concedes that his students learn perhaps 40% of the content taught in a conventional math course.  Will that be okay?  The film’s experts argue that higher education needs an overhaul at least as badly as K-12 to accommodate the values of the new workplace.  Probably so, but good luck with that.

If “work” means that the school beats the expectations the education industry currently obsesses over, HTH students test about 10% higher and graduate 10% more seniors than state average.  This is not a soaring achievement, but it does show that engagement gets more content into the kids’ heads than the California average.  And is that important?  National test-score evidence shows that traditional schools aren’t making much headway on basic skills either, so do those schools “work?”  Those metrics might only measure the percent of kids with supportive families or a high tolerance to sitting.

The time has come to rethink what we want from education and to recalibrate the metrics when we know.  In the meantime it’s horrible to watch schooling dim the curiosity and engagement every baby is born with.  The people in the film do not claim to have the answer.  New school experiments haven’t been around long enough to produce long-term outcomes.  Likely we’re only at the very beginning of the journey out of the 19th century legacy of teaching and learning.

But it’s about time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.