What School Could Be

What School Could Be

By Ted Dintersmith


“What School Could Be” presents a vision and encouraging ideas of what schools can accomplish if teachers, students and parents work together innovatively to help students develop the skills and ways of thinking needed to flourish in today’s world of fast-paced technological change.

According to the author, actual learning happens when we give kids real-world challenges, have them work in groups with other kids and provide them with resources and adult support. If we give students credit for real-world projects and internships they have the opportunity to go deeply into a discipline to seek out potentially fulfilling career paths. Such projects also provide non-academically oriented students with opportunities to shine and thus broaden everyone’s perception of ‘intelligence’ beyond the traditional knowledge-based definition. Dintersmith states: “the purpose of education should be to develop potential, not to rank it.”


P. XVI “Students thrive in environments where they develop:

  • Purpose—Students attack challenges they know to be important, that make their world better.
  • Essentials—Students acquire the skill sets and mind-sets needed in an increasingly innovative world.
  • Agency—Students own their learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.
  • Knowledge—What students learn is deep and retained, enabling them to create, to make, to teach others.”

P. XVII “We need to observe and create learning conditions that prepare students to capitalize on, rather than be victimized by, machine intelligence.”

P. XVIII “We need to have the courage to revolutionize paths forward and attack the many problems we’re dumping on student’s laps.

P. XVIII “We can’t keep feeding children into an education machine that churns out young adults lacking meaningful skills and purpose, primed to throw hand grenades into the ballot box, or worse.”

P. XIX “Our children should study what’s important to learn, not what’s easy for us to test. Schools should develop each child’s unique potential, not rank it with high-stakes standardized tests of low-level skills.”

P. XXI “Do better things,” not “do obsolete things better.”

1. Conventional Schools and Their Contexts

P. 12 “Children need to learn to leverage machine intelligence, not replicate its capacity to perform low-level tasks.”

P. 18 “Project-based learning is how people work in the real world.”

2. Real Gold Amid Fool’s Gold

P. 24 “When we let go and engage students, discipline issues disappear and real learning happens.”

P. 37 “Our world desperately needs young people who know how to think deeply, communicate clearly, resolve conflict, and lead with empathy.”

P. 38 “Once you jump outside of the box, there’s endless running room.”

3. Prepare for What?

P. 47 “Education should prepare our children for life, but we have it backward—we prepare children’s lives for education.”

P. 59 “If a goal of education is to get students excited about literature’s great works, an essential question is how to spark such passion.”

P. 60 “In today’s world everyone needs to be entrepreneurial. Not entrepreneurial in the sense of starting a for-profit business but in the sense of fighting tirelessly to improve your world through your skills, passions, perseverance, audacity and community support.”

P. 68 “School transcripts are designed so that the admission officer can review it in ten minutes or so.”

*P. 68 “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

P. 70 “Kids are rewarded more for memorizing than thinking—a balance that would shift dramatically if students were assessed on the basis of authentic and creative work.”

4. The Ivory Tower

P. 74 “Colleges should be valued for developing excellence in the students they admit, not for admitting students with excellent test scores.”

P. 82 “The issue with the liberal arts isn’t the failure to prepare students for careers. It’s the failure to convince adults—parents and employers—that liberal arts majors develop relevant competencies.”

P. 85 “Any college committed to educating kids from challenging circumstances is making an unequivocally positive contribution to our society.”

P. 89 “Education is no longer sitting in a classroom and telling students what’s going on; they have to relate what they’re learning in a classroom out to their life.”

5 & 6 Letting Go/ Social Equity 

P. 98 “In today’s world, we have to balance trade-offs—what colleges want, what twenty-first-century organizations want, and what leads to a fulfilling life.”

P. 121 “If young adults need to be bold and creative in a world brimming with innovation, we can’t tolerate education policies that destroy these characteristics.”

P. 124 “Education has become the modern American caste system. We fuzz up the issue in a sea of statistics about test-score gaps, suggesting that social inequality is a classroom issue.”

P. 125 “Achievement should be based on challenging real-world problems, not standardizing tests that amount to little more than timed performance on crossword puzzles and Sudoku.”

*P. 125 “If the cow is starving, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.”

7 & 8. Human Potential / Doing (Obsolete) Things Better

P. 133 “Science is so much fun, but we make it boring. We make it about rote memorization.”

P. 145 “We need to help students achieve self-sufficiency.”

P. 147 “Many people are quite capable of learning, just not in school. The right job can be their salvation. Internship, apprenticeships, and entry-level jobs can make or break a young adult’s future.”

P. 150 “Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubbles.”

P. 152 “We need to empower our teachers, engage our students, and deliver learning experiences that recognize, and capitalize on, the reality that our students will have digital devices at their fingertips for the rest of their lives.”

P. 156 “Doing obsolete things better will hardly ‘carry us across the water’.”

*P. 160 “Give teachers more respect, training and professional development. Have kids learn more by doing instead of memorizing.”

P. 162 “A lot of people can step up and do great work if they get training and support.”

*P. 166 “We’ll never fix our schools until we get rid of teachers’ unions and tenure.”

9. Doing Better Things

P. 170 “Education’s job today is less in purveying information than in helping people to use it—that is, to exercise their minds.”

P. 172 “Look what we do to our kids. If you’re a low performing student, we pull you out of the classes you enjoy and make you do more rote math—Our kids don’t know why they’re being educated other than to go to college. The role of intrinsic motivation has been completely lost in our school.”

P. 173 “Our education system spends billions of dollars collecting data precisely measuring student progress on material they’ll probably never use.”

P. 180 “When kids feel like a school is a great place to be, they learn—Making things is what we’re about.”

P. 184 “Education shouldn’t be about acquiring narrow content or specific skills, but helping students reach their full potential, and directing this potential to greater good.”

P. 188 “We just need to embrace the right kinds of assessments and ensure our kids are doing things that are valuable to them.”

10. It Takes a Village

P. 192 “Change is nigh impossible when people dump on anything new.”

P. 192 “Innovation has its inevitable hiccups, which can draw out critics.”

P. 192 “Everything changes in environments that celebrate creativity, welcome innovation, and accept setbacks as part of progress.”

P. 192 “It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well, a community can come together to transform its schools.”

P. 210 “Grades reflect factors unrelated to work quality—factors like effort, positive attitude, persistence, attendance, class participation, and meeting deadlines.”

Priyanka Uprety