Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era

An urgent call for the radical reimagining of American education so we can equip students for modern realities.

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. Written by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith.

In this title, the two leading experts sound an urgent call for the radical reimagining of the American education system so we can equip students for the realities of the twenty-first-century economy.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, what do the authors say is broken about the American education system?

Vincent: Tony Wagner is an educational specialist who has taught every grade level from high school through graduate school, working at schools like Harvard. Together with the documentary maker, Ted Dintersmith, they say that our style of education was built for the industrial age. In the past, most workers needed to learn how to complete a single task that they repeated over and over again.

That’s why many schools merely have students go to class, memorize concepts and facts, and take tests where they just regurgitate that information. They say though that with today’s age of innovation, we need to reimagine how education works.

Karsen: It makes sense that we should update our education system to meet today’s economy. What do the authors say that should look like?

Vincent: They say we shouldn’t be focusing on teaching students what to learn, but rather how to learn. This would provide our future generations with the ability to tackle the challenges of the future with creativity and adaptability.

You’ve likely noticed that the US education system isn’t focused on preparing students for career success. A recent Gallup study found that only 11 percent of American business leaders feel that college prepares students to be successful in the workplace.

And to add insult to injury, over half of recent college graduates are unemployed or in a job that did not require a college degree.

Karsen: That’s really unfortunate how many college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Does this impact students in other ways too?

Vincent: Wagner and Dintersmith also point out that it creates uninformed citizens. In one poll of American voters, researchers found that people who vote the most often know very little about the basic facts in major election issues.

The average respondent could only answer 20% of questions correctly on topics like government spending and climate change.

And lastly, they argue that the education system actually makes people unhappy. Since 1950, the rate of suicide amongst high schoolers has tripled.

Karsen: Even with all of this data, most American adults still think college is important, right?

Vincent: Overwhelmingly, yes. That same Gallup poll found that 94% of American adults think college is essential to their children’s career potential.

Karsen: How did the system become like this?

Vincent: Well, in the past, there was an apprenticeship model for the trades. So assistants could learn from masters by doing work in that field. However, when society evolved, the apprenticeship system changed too.

Education and credentials became coupled together. So this expanded to include tradespeople, craftsmen, farmers, and blacksmiths.

So let’s say there’s a blacksmith who has a good reputation as a blacksmith. If they trained an apprentice, then there’s an incentive to do a good job because their reputation is also tied to the apprentices who work under them.

Over time, religion became more influential in society, and many students skipped apprenticeships and started attending grammar schools instead. As more people started reading the Bible, Latin grammar schools popped up where monks and priests would transcribe the Bible.

Karsen: Mmm… so the way that people learned fundamentally shifted towards scale.

Vincent: Yes, in these grammar schools, standardization became the focus. Students were taught to minimize mistakes, work efficiently, and it removed a lot of the creativity or deviation from the teaching style.

Karsen: It seems like the industrial revolution has had an impact on how we still learn today.

Vincent: Yea, the industrial revolution really showed the need to educate people on new manufacturing jobs. Shortly after, some countries started implementing a strict 8-year education system focusing on subjects like reading, math, and obedience.

In the nineteenth century, this model spread to the United States, where educators were preparing workers to participate in the industrial economy. Students were treated like workers on an assembly line, where the goal was to streamline production by narrowing the expertise required by assigning workers to a single task.

Karsen: So the goal was to produce workers that could perform repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently.

Vincent: Precisely. Many educators saw the purpose of education to simply teach students to execute repetitive tasks quickly and without mistakes. There wasn’t much creativity or innovation to the methods.

And since then, there haven’t been very many changes to how the US education system generally works.

Karsen: And the demographics of students have really changed, right? There has been a growing middle class of white-collar workers in the past few decades.

Vincent: That’s a good point. Yes, in 1959, a professor named Peter Drucker actually coined the term knowledge worker, which refers to employees who use their heads instead of their hands. With this new demand, the federal government also raised the number of years a person had to spend in school. So the number of high school graduates increased, which resulted in more college students as well.

Karsen: How do American students compare to their international counterparts?

Vincent: American students have fallen behind many other countries, as measured by standardized test scores. The world is rapidly changing, yet the government really just reinforced the same system by doubling down on standardized test preparation.

Karsen: And that leads to schools focusing on memorization of content where you memorize facts and concepts.

Vincent: The authors say that this approach of memorizing content has been proven largely ineffective. Math and English have been taught the same way for decades, but the problem is that students largely don’t retain this information.

One school tested its methods by having students retake their final exams after a three-month-long summer break. The first time the students took it, the average was a B+, but after the summer vacation, the average score dropped to an F.

Karsen: That’s not really the way that life after college works though. When I need to recall that type of information, I’ll often do a search on Wikipedia.

Vincent: Exactly, so instead of teaching students facts that they can find with a Google search, the authors say that we should be showing them how to solve problems with creativity and innovation. Or really, education should be focused on helping students find their passion and purpose in life while giving them the skills to follow these dreams.

We all end up in different careers, yet, everyone receives the same standardized curriculum.

Karsen: So how has this educational system impacted our economy?

Vincent: In the past, major companies like AT&T and General Motors created thousands of entry-level jobs. These were the jobs for the masses, however, towards the end of the century, there was a big change in the American economy.

This came with the new digital economy, where information and resources were readily available to millions of people through the internet. It replaced many jobs with automation or outsourcing jobs to other countries.

So workers today face a different economic reality, and the authors say memorizing concepts and repeating tasks isn’t enough anymore. If we stay on the same path, we’ll be preparing students for work that doesn’t exist anymore.

Since wealthy families can afford better education, the gap between the rich and poor will continue to grow.

Karsen: So the way that high school and college teachers teach needs to evolve to keep up with the digital economy.

Vincent: Yea, the authors say that lectures don’t work anymore, especially with online resources and content so readily available to students around the clock. It may have made sense in the past when professors had specialized knowledge, but that’s just not the case anymore.

In one study by the MIT Media Lab, researchers asked a student to monitor her brain activity for a week. They found that the student’s brain was least active during lecture classes… even less active than when they were asleep.

Karsen: That’s pretty crazy, but I’m not surprised. What does a better model look like?

Vincent: One technique called the ConcepTest was created by Eric Mazur, a Dean at Harvard University. He would ask students a question like, “does the size of a hole in a rectangular metal plate increase, decrease or remain the same when the plate is uniformly heated?”

Then, the students would form small groups where they’d discuss their ideas and different answers. Once they reached a consensus as a group, they’d present them to the rest of the class.

By teaching this way, the professor never answered a single question or gave a hint. Even if the students did not reach the correct answer, they would learn how to think critically, form an opinion, and communicate it.

Karsen: And that’s also much closer to the way that knowledge workers collaborate in the workplace. So what would it take to reform our education system today?

Vincent: The authors say that reforming isn’t even the right approach. They say that this hasn’t been enough, and instead, the US education system should move away from talking about reform, and instead, it should rebuilt the vision from the ground up.

Parents have been waiting for politicians, educators, and business leaders to step up, but many are unaware that our educational system is even inadequate. They say that parents should speak up.

Karsen: In a stalled environment, our federal policymakers have tried to reform a broken system, but this hasn’t been enough.

Vincent: Right, that’s why the authors say that local and state officials need to take the initiative by holding education summits where people come together and talk about the new vision for the innovation era.

Some local school boards have collected innovation funds that allow teachers to develop new courses. And these local efforts seem to be very important to making progress towards this new vision.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that our education system is stuck in the nineteenth century while society around us has dramatically changed. To give children the opportunity to thrive, we must rebuild our education system from the ground up for the new innovation era. Parents can help by speaking up and working with local and state policymakers to drive this change.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


Two leading experts sound an urgent call for the radical reimagining of American education so we can equip students for the realities of the twenty-first-century economy.

Today more than ever, we prize academic achievement, pressuring our children to get into the “right” colleges, have the highest GPAs, and pursue advanced degrees. But while students may graduate with credentials, by and large they lack the competencies needed to be thoughtful, engaged citizens and to get good jobs in our rapidly evolving economy. Our school system was engineered a century ago to produce a workforce for a world that no longer exists. Alarmingly, our methods of schooling crush the creativity and initiative young people really need to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Now bestselling author and education expert Tony Wagner and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith call for a complete overhaul of the function and focus of American schools, sharing insights and stories from the front lines, including profiles of successful students, teachers, parents, and business leaders. Their powerful, urgent message identifies the growing gap between credentials and competence—and offers a framework for change.

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