Who is ‘Most Likely to Succeed’?

Dec 28, 2015 By Mark Greenlaw

“The purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make their world better.”

Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith in “Most Likely to Succeed”

Last month, we held a screening for FIRST employees of the critically-acclaimed documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” based on a book of the same name written by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. Both the book and the film present the argument that our current education system is based on a system designed in 1893 to train millions of factory workers to “perform repetitive tasks quickly, retain modest amounts of content, and keep errors to a minimum.” Wagner and Dintersmith believe we are doing things pretty much the same way today, despite the fact that we now live in a society where content knowledge, which is so readily available on the internet, is no longer valued in the workplace. 

What is important today is “not what you know, but what you can do with what you know.” They believe our education system needs to change dramatically to encourage “learning by doing” and that our real education challenge is developing the next generation of “creative problem-solvers” verses good standardized test-takers.

In a passage that really resonated with me, the authors discuss the need to transform our education system, and how to do it:

 “The opportunity for our education system is to use content, concepts and real world phenomena to help our kids develop critical skills and inspire them to pursue challenging career paths … these [successful] approaches share core pedagogical principles:

  • Students attack meaningful, engaging challenges
  • Have open access to resources
  • Struggle, often for days, and learn how to recover from failure
  • Form their own points of view
  • Engage in frequent debate
  • Learn to ask good questions
  • Collaborate
  • Display accomplishments publicly
  • Work hard because they are intrinsically motivated.”

The film follows 9th grade students at San Diego’s High Tech High, a school that uses these pedagogical principles.  The book also describes other educational institutions using these successful approaches, including The Met in Providence, RI; Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, NJ; Riverdale Country School in New York; and Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, MA.

While students in these districts reap the benefits of this type of learning, what about those who don’t have access to one of these schools due to proximity or cost? Are parents to wait five or ten years, or perhaps longer, for their school systems to transform to become more like High Tech High?
No. Educators, parents, and students can experience these kinds of meaningful, project-based, hands-on, collaborative learning experiences today in an afterschool setting, while America wrestles with transforming our formal education system.

Afterschool programs that exemplify the principles espoused in “Most Likely to Succeed” are numerous. While each program is a little different, most expose kids to a wide range of meaningful project-based challenges, including cooking, the arts, theater, programming, and robotics. By beginning with the kind of transformation that Wagner and Dintersmith propose in an afterschool setting, we can help teachers learn new instructional practices, generate excitement and enthusiasm with students, parents, school boards, and local and state governments, and eventually bring these approaches into the school day, transforming our education system.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.


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