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This Former Venture Capitalist Is Trying To Change Education One Town At A Time

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Rebecca Klein

Ted Dintersmith is on a whirlwind tour of trying to change education in America, one community at a time. 

Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist, is executive producer of "Most Likely To Succeed," a self-financed documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The documentary argues that modern American schooling is outdated, promoting rigid coursework and rote memorization of facts at the expense of creativity and natural curiosity. 

Since the film's premiere, Dintersmith has been on a 50-state tour to screen the film and promote its ideas. He has been appearing in front of crowds of students, teachers and education leaders, encouraging them to form local committees that would reimagine public education in their communities. 

Below is the trailer for Most Likely To Succeed:

The Huffington Post spoke recently with Dintersmith about his film, his motivations for transforming education, and what he has learned so far on his tour.

Tell me a little bit about your background and what got you interested in investing so much time and energy in education.

I started my career squarely in the world of innovation. I was with a startup business and then I was with venture capital for 20+ years. From that, two things emerged. I had a clear understanding of how fast technology is moving ahead and how quickly it is going to erase huge numbers of jobs in the economy, and also what skills and characteristics kids need to have coming out of school to take advantage of innovation instead of being crushed by it.

It continued with my own kids. I saw these experiences my kids were having and I said, "My gosh, it's almost as if school was designed to crush innovation and creativity." When I started researching, I thought, wait a minute, there’s no "almost" in that statement. Our school system was carefully and thoughtfully designed 125 years ago and had the explicit goal of eliminating creativity in kids going through school. And what have we done in the last 125 years? For the most part we said, "Let's take a model we know isn’t working and up the intensity of it."

What happened with your own kids that made you want to take action?

There were a few signature moments. In third grade with my son, there was a week or two when they were studying simple machines. We went to the hardware store, we bought for 20 bucks everything you need to study simple machines. We spent a few nights at home playing around with things and having fun. At one point we asked, "What would it take my son to lift a cinderblock with the little finger on his left hand?" We came up with the design. I made this comment in passing, kind of as a throwaway joke, but I said, "With that design, you could lift Coach Meyers." Coach Meyers was a big, easily 250-pound basketball coach at the school.

Two days later my son comes home from school and clearly something hasn’t gone right. He shows me this test, and the test said, "What simple machine would you use to lift a grown man?" He had an answer. He said "a six pulley system" and he sketched out the man and how it would all work. But there's this big red X on it with a minus 17, and it said “lever” with three underscores. I went and met with the teacher and I said, "Why did you ask the question this way, why didn’t you say, 'Show one or more designs using simple machines that would let you lift a grown man' or use a question that's open-ended and expansive and creative?" The answer floored me. She said, "We have found giving kids open-ended, ambiguous questions is bad for standardized tests."

Who is the documentarian that you worked with on the film?

Greg Whiteley. There is an irony -- I was on the first national campaign finance committee for President Barack Obama. He worked on a film about Mitt Romney. So we were the ultimate bipartisan pair. It has been great; the film appeals equally to Democrats, Republicans, rich, poor, urban, rural. 

When people see the film, they say it's this aha moment of, "Why aren’t our schools engaging kids and inspiring them?" It’s a really hard proposition to argue against. But if you visit classrooms, you find most schools in this country don’t do what I just said. Kids are mostly memorizing things that they won't remember.

What has your life been like since the movie came out?

Every day is a new place. But people are so receptive. In a typical week I take at least four 6 or 7 a.m. flights. I am up most days when the alarm clock still says 4 a.m. on it. You would think, "Gosh what a horrible life." It's actually not, it's actually incredible. You hear these people and what they have to say and you realize this is a fight worth fighting. 

In Michigan we did this event, and this guy stands up, and he's one of these people you instantly relate to. He's a fifth-grade science teacher, and he's almost tearing up. He's been to the White House as one of the outstanding teachers across America, he's been in something called the National Teachers Hall of Fame. But the key thing is, you can tell this guy gets fifth-graders incredibly interested in science. He said to the room, "Every day I get up and I have to make the choice: Do I go to school today and do what's best for my kids, or do I go to school today and do what the state tells me I’ve got to do?"

People are blown away when they realize that’s the dilemma we’re putting our teachers in.

What impact do you hope this film has on schools?

The thing we really hope for is behind our whole distribution model. The reason why you can't see the film at home on your laptop is because we organize screenings. We want to bring people together because it enables schools to innovate and change. It is very hard for a teacher or principal or superintendent or education commissioner to announce anything bold and different, because the antibodies just come out and attack. People will whine and complain and say, "Why are we doing anything different?This isn’t how I went to school." We bring people together to see the film and then people are sort of fired up and say, "We are changing things, we are going to make a difference."

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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