As many students in Manitoba have begun a new semester, and Grade 12 students have begun their last semester, stress levels over final exams have temporarily curtailed. Such is the ritual that we have subscribed to over the past 100 years, at least according to a new film entitled Most Likely to Succeed.

The Sundance award-winning film documents what happens at High Tech High, a project-based learning school in San Diego, and asks if the age-old system of teaching to the test really equates to learning.

Most Likely to Succeed has been screened throughout Winnipeg. Various groups of educators at the University of Winnipeg, SJR, and MBCI have come together to see how the film argues that since we no longer live in an industrial age, we need to move away from an industrial form of education.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

At High Tech High, project-based learning is the basis for all designed experiences. Teachers work in teams, students go out and work in internships, there are no bells, and the final exam for each term is an exhibition night where the public judges the work of learners and teachers. Teachers are allowed to teach to their passions, meaning that two different Grade 9 classes might be focused on different questions and subject matter. (The horror, the horror!)

Ironically, educators have been designing educative experiences for decades. John Dewey, arguably the loudest and longest voice on the topic of experiential education, began speaking about a learner's experience in the 19th century. What Dewey (and Freire, Piaget, and Kolb) do is argue that what is central to learning is the experience of the learner and that the learner needs to go through a process of growth which involves questioning, dialogue, experimentation, and reflection.

This process, according to the film, has been driven out of our learning communities and overtaken by an industrial model designed to produce a workforce focused on manual labour.

The film has generated a great deal of discussion around the world and in Winnipeg and has many of us thinking and re-thinking exactly what it is we do.

We know experiences to be effective when they lead to greater educative experiences. (See Jay Roberts's book Beyond Learning by Doing for a great survey on theoretical understandings of experience.) An experience moves beyond the one-off field trip, but is specifically designed using the pre-existing understanding of the world of the learner. The learner is transformed through an educative experience because it is relevant to their lives and challenges their understanding of the world.

The jury's still out

Researchers in brain-based education argue the theory of experience through neuroscience. Science tells that the most important factor in determining successful learning is the pre-existing neural network of the learner. Similarly, neuroscience tells us that when the learner learns, that there is a physiological transformation within the brain.

Most Likely to Succeed is quite honest and suggests that the jury is still out, concretely, on the success of schools like High Tech High. But what the documentary does do is point out that the transactional model, that is the transmitting of content, does not equate to learning. Studies certainly demonstrate that when learners receive high marks in June and then are re-tested in September, they perform poorly. Learners simply memorized for the test. And as neuroscience and social science tells us (see the curve of forgetting), if we don't use it, we lose it.

So what is learning then? If it's not high test scores, in a traditional sense (factual recall, etc.) then how can we describe it? How do we know when learning occurs and how do we know what excellence in teaching is? Why should we bother teaching students in a manner that does not equate to deep learning?

If neuroscience is telling us that learning occurs when either new neural networks are created or enhanced, then as educators (whether we are teachers, parents, or leaders in our workplaces), how do we cultivate environments where the learner's pre-existing neural network are exploited, so to speak, so that experiences can be designed which will challenge their understanding of the world and allow them the space to become curious and offer meaningful solutions?

For me, we need to move away from the traditional transactional methodologies. The industrial or scientific model was designed for an industrial age when resource exploitation and consumerism were official government policy. We are arguably in need of a citizenry that will have to be far more creative, resilient, and thoughtful as we approach some interesting times for our species.

For now, if students are not remembering long-term what we are teaching them, then perhaps we need to rethink the purpose and method for learning and teaching.


Matt Henderson is a humanities teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School. To arrange a screening of Most Likely to Succeed for your school, learning community, or workplace, visit www.mlts.org.