Michael George, director of Centennial School, introduces Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary film that challenges traditional approaches to education.
Centennial School of Lehigh University sponsored a screening of the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed on the evening of March 30 at Broughal Middle School. The film, a call to action for American communities to transform their schools for the 21st century, was released in 2015 and has been an official selection of many top film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, and the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest.
Most Likely to Succeed follows the school year of two freshman classes at High Tech High, a high school in San Diego funded by Qualcomm CEO Irwin Jacobs. The school challenges traditional approaches to education, allowing teachers to choose what they teach and how they teach it, free from state standards and standardized testing requirements. High Tech High focuses primarily on project-based learning and the development of what teachers call “soft skills”: self-confidence, time management, the ability to collaborate with others. The film explores how a nontraditional approach to education might better prepare students for future success.
“[Most Likely to Succeed is] a provocative film that will likely compel you to question what we teach in our public schools and how we teach it,” said Michael George, director of Centennial School, in his introduction to the film. “And, at the same time, the film offers you suggestions for helping students enrich their lives by learning to think creatively and critically.”
“The present form of education that we have today was formed in the late 1800s, early 1900s ... and we’ve stayed by the same overall framework. There’s this frustration that even after all these years, [even with] special education, accommodations, tweaking the system, so to speak, we still have unacceptably high dropout rates,” said George in an interview before the screening.
Centennial School serves children and youth with educational disabilities and prepares high quality teachers to enter the workforce of special education. The lab school, governed by Lehigh’s College of Education and funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, is licensed to provide educational services to students ages 6 through 21 with an educational classification of emotional disturbance or children ages 6 through 12 classified as having autism. Centennial has been recognized nationally for its work with challenging students without the routine use of seclusion and physical restraint.
Prior to the event, Sara Heinzelman, lead teacher at Centennial School and the event’s organizer, said the motivation behind sponsoring the film screening was to “really start a conversation about how learning can be different, how we can meet the needs of students and engage them in ways that make learning exciting for them. ... We’d like to have a group of educators come together and say, ‘What can we do to help our students?’ This is one way, it isn’t the way, necessarily, for every single classroom, for every single school, [but] it’s a way to get educators to start thinking differently about how we can meet the needs of our students.”
A showcase of student work drew a crowd of family, friends, educators and community members to the lobby of Broughal Middle School’s auditorium before the screening. Students from Farmersville Elementary School, East Hills Middle School, Northeast Middle School, Liberty High School, Broughal Middle School, Freedom High School and Centennial School displayed projects ranging from illustrated children’s books and shoebox book reports to 3-D printing and videos.
Through project-based learning, George explained, “students become the center of critical thinking and creativity rather than a teacher lecturing to the group. This gives children who can’t sometimes succeed in a typical or traditional format an opportunity to engage and become excited about school.”
Event attendees included representatives from numerous schools and school districts across the Lehigh Valley as well as several area colleges.
Kate Eighmy moderated a brief panel discussion after the screening. Panelists Rick Amato, principal of Broughal Middle School; Taylor Feld, a 12th grader at Lower Merion High School; Scott Garrigan, professor of practice in teaching, learning and technology at Lehigh; and Rachel Sherman, teacher in the Bethlehem Area School District, shared their reactions to the film and responded to audience questions.
“Our schools today really are better than they have ever been, by traditional measures,” said Garrigan.
“But the real issue is, are we preparing kids as best as we can for their future? Their future will be very, very different from our past.”
When asked how to change the way people think about education, Amato said, “It happens by doing. A lot of what we see in the movie is that once the people felt that a different type of education was seeing a measure of success in their children, then they were comfortable with letting go of that model. ... I wish we could get more people to say as quickly as possible, ‘This is the way we need to move.’.... I’ve seen positive trends and things coming in to education. I think we are aware that it needs to change much faster than we are doing.”
“It’s about the exhibition, the kids showcasing what they’ve learned. It’s the kids reflecting on their growth. It’s the teacher taking a backseat. It’s about the student-centered classroom. And it is a shift in understanding for parents and communities, but when we open the door to our classrooms and our schools and we invite parents in and truly show them what’s going on and give them the power, too, to generate knowledge, then that will help more people understand that this is what’s really helping us prepare for the future,” said Sherman.
“Our school system operates like a carefully designed machine,” said Garrigan. “I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I mean, all the pieces work together, fit together in a way that in historic terms works extraordinarily well. But that’s still looking at students as a member of the machine, as a member of the system, as opposed to looking at students as individuals. That doesn’t mean no one knows how to design a good system that addresses students as individuals—Centennial School does a fantastic job at that. But it’s a smaller number of students and a fairly large number of staff. Can you scale that up? So one way that this film shares is that by giving the students a bit more agency, by expecting more of them, you get more out of the whole system.”
Photos courtesy of Sara Heintzelman and Jessica Barberry