Dintersmith: Trust Teachers—They’re the Experts


The best-selling author of What School Could Be shares his thoughts on what needs to come next in American education.

March 1, 2019
Ted Dintersmith Q&A

Among people who publish comprehensive, deeply considered books about American education, Ted Dintersmith is not your typical figure.

After earning a PhD in engineering from Stanford and working in venture capital for 25 years, Dintersmith decided to make an abrupt late-career switch. Increasingly alarmed at what he saw happening in schools across the United States, he turned his focus to education, embarking on “an ambitious trip” to observe innovative practices at schools in all 50 states.

His subsequent book, What School Could Be (published in April 2018), describes the best of what he saw—and highlights his fervent belief in the value of teacher expertise, student agency, and locally derived solutions. Taken as a whole, the book is a rallying cry for an overhaul of the American educational system.

Dintersmith now spends his time speaking about the need for innovative approaches to education and promoting the Innovation Playlist, a resource for educators interested in implementing innovative practices in their own classrooms.

I recently spoke with Dintersmith about his book—and his ideas about what teachers can do to prepare students for what he calls “a world of innovation.”

EDUTOPIA: You spent decades in venture capital before shifting your focus to education. What gave you the idea to start working on what you’re doing now?

TED DINTERSMITH: I had breakfast with a friend one day who was really excited about a new investment they had made in a company called Harvest Automation. He said—not in a vicious way, but in passing—that this company was going to put every minimum-wage worker in landscape nurseries across the country out of work.

On my drive home, I was thinking of so many of the companies he had backed, companies I had backed. So much of that innovation—which, on the surface, seems like an unambiguous good—is actually marginalizing, and, in many cases, is eliminating not a few jobs here and there, but lots and lots of jobs.

Q&A with Ted Dintersmith

Courtesy of Ted Dintersmith

Ted Dintersmith, 2018

The second thing was this general sense, in my venture career, that the academic superstars generally didn’t do that well in a world of innovation. Isn’t that interesting? That the very best in our education system weren’t necessarily going to be the very best in a world of innovation?

In my talks, I frame it this way. I say, “If I visit your school, I’d be willing to bet that if a kid there is excellent at memorizing material, replicating low-level procedures, and following instructions, that kid will be on your honor roll.”

Those low-level, narrow skills are exactly what machine intelligence does instantly and cheaply. If what we want kids to get good at is right in the crosshairs of machine intelligence, and machine intelligence is accelerating its capability, how does this play out?

EDUTOPIA: So how does that relate to your vision for the future of education?

DINTERSMITH: This sounds immodest, but I think what makes me unusual is that I don’t have a “vision.”

What I try to bring to light are distinctive, powerful visions that we can find all over the place—in every district, in every municipality, in every state. You find these great examples, but they’re not identical. When something works, it’s because it’s a vision that the students find engaging and challenging, and have a voice in; the teacher deeply believes in it; and the principal and superintendent support it.

When I’m at events, I really insist that no one introduce me as an education expert. I don’t view myself that way. I view myself as someone who works really hard to listen to, and learn from, the people doing the hard work in the field. I appreciate the vision that classroom teachers and administrators are bringing to their kids all across the country. They are the education experts. We need to listen to them, as opposed to imposing business principles that really don’t apply to schools.

EDUTOPIA: You seem to respect the fact that a lot of teachers balk at people outside of education telling them what to do. But, at the same time, it seems—and correct me if I’m wrong—that you do advocate for some models (and not others).

DINTERSMITH: The informed people will say: Well, isn’t this what John Dewey said? Isn’t this what we’ve seen for thousands of years in terms of the way people learn, the way they display what they’re good at, the way they benefit from experts, from apprenticeship models, from mentorship models? Of course.

But there are certain models that I know prepare kids to fail. I’m not the expert in how to shape successful models in the classroom, but if I visit a school and I see kids being rewarded for memorizing material, replicating procedures, and following instructions, I know that that is clearly going to disadvantage those kids.

On the other hand, you know something’s working in a school when the kids have that spring in their step and they’re really anxious to get to their classes. When you visit a class and poke your head in the door, and you can’t even immediately see where the teacher is. There is just hum and buzz.

Then you interview those kids and say, “Tell me what you’re learning and why it’s important to you.” In those schools, the students aren’t working just to get a good grade, or because the teacher told them to do it or because it’ll be on a state test. It is because the students want to learn it, and they can explain why it’s important to them—and to their surrounding community and the world. When you see kids engaged, it’s just a qualitative sense that you have, and that’s very different from how society likes to measure the success of our schools, which is quantitative. But it’s hard to convince people that a qualitative assessment is something that should be the standard by which success is judged.

EDUTOPIA: Let’s say you were able to design a school or school district. How would you go about doing that? What would you want to keep in mind?

DINTERSMITH: I think it’s way more important to think about what we can do to put in place a change model that lets lots of schools advance in their own way. It’s the antithesis of somebody coming along and saying, “Everybody has to do X.” Put in place a condition so that every school can do what they know is critical.

If we can set those conditions for entrepreneurs and view them as important contributors to society, then why wouldn’t we have the same mindset when it comes to our teaching force? How many of my startups would love it if somebody came along and said, “Your board of directors is going to entirely consist of local teachers”? I think they’d say, “Well, wait a minute. What do they know about a technology startup?” And I’d say, “Well, why do you think that you should be telling all the teachers what to do?”

So three and a half years ago, I had this idea of going on an ambitious trip. I committed to going to all 50 states in a single school year, just absorbing and learning a ton about schools.

Ted Dintersmith What School Could Be

Courtesy of Ted Dintersmith

I saw an amazing mosaic of powerful learning experiences. But at least on the surface, they had little in common: What does designing robots as a kindergarten kid in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for example, have to do with doing documentaries on historic buildings for eighth graders in Fargo, North Dakota? I started thinking really hard about the common principles that were evident in schools I saw that were successful.

I concluded that in the outstanding schools, there was real agency for the students: They had a lot of discretion over what they chose to study, instead of being told what they had to study. Successful schools were clear about the essential competencies, skill sets, and mindsets their kids needed. The students were busy with meaningful projects: They were making things, creating things, and they were given the space and support to ask great questions about what they were learning. When they mastered a topic or, skill, it was true mastery—something they’d retain well beyond the scope of the class. And then there was the presence of this missing piece, which was a sense of purpose in their school work.

I ended up calling those PEAK conditions—purpose, essentials, agency, knowledge. The most successful schools had those underlying conditions in common.

EDUTOPIA: Just a point of clarification: Do you agree that there should be some nonnegotiables? A business can thrive or fail, but if a child doesn’t learn to read well, for instance, that’s a whole different kind of problem.

DINTERSMITH: Of course. The remarkable school experiences I describe in What School Could Be weren’t, in any way, the equivalent of saying to an 8-year-old, “Do whatever you want. If you decide you want to do nothing but play video games all day long, as long as you’re excited, great.” That is not the message here. It’s about extending trust to the teacher, subject to thoughtful checks and balances, and empowering them to create learning environments where their students thrive.

In my book, I talk about New Hampshire, where they trusted teachers to take a lead role in a next-generation accountability framework. It wasn’t just, “Do whatever the heck you want to do,” but the teachers were empowered to play a lead role. They collected examples of student work, by grade level, with teachers’ assessments of what would be considered adequate, proficient, and excellent. They turned those into a framework for deciding where students’ work would fall on that scale.

And guess what? When you trust experts, they don’t get it wrong. What these teachers shared with me was that out of 500 student portfolios assessed against the new framework, they only had meaningful differences on five. The teachers said, “Hey, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.” I don’t find lazy teachers. I find teachers that, if they think it’s important, they will go to great lengths to make it happen.

EDUTOPIA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DINTERSMITH: We’ve got an opportunity for our country to have a Sputnik or Marshall Plan opportunity in our commitment to education. It’s high time for us to reimagine what school could be, and have adults across the nation support our teachers in the aspirational goal of giving every single kid in America a fighting chance in life.

What Does Innovation in Schools Look Like?

Leadership and Design

Second Time is the Charm
Carla Silver, Head L+Doer
Living in the Silicon Valley, I am theoretically surrounded by “innovation” and “innovators” but sometimes even I l can lose touch with what innovation really means. Is innovation about being original and creating new ideas that have never been imagined before or is it about being the first to do something? Are innovators born or can they be developed? Is innovation linked to technology? Last week I was on a call with Tim Fish and the Strategic Innovation Team at NAIS and I asked him, “What do YOU and your team mean by innovation.” I was happy to hear him talk about innovation as a mindset and a habit and a posture – one in which invention and experimentation are embedded in the culture or spirit of a organization or individual. Fundamental to an innovation or innovator is the understanding that very rarely is something going to work out perfectly the first time around and that “failures” large or small can be reframed as learning opportunities. Second chances (and even third, fourth, and fifth chances) are not just tolerated, but expected and welcomed.
If there is anyone who knows about second chances, it’s Cat Hoke , the mastermind behind Defy Ventures, a program that brings entrepreneurship to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated and supports them to become successful, legal entrepreneurs and employees.  She likes to say she “transforms the hustle”.  The recidivism rate for the participants in Defy is less than 5% and many of these individuals leave the prison system not just employable but as employers and business owners.  Cat Hoke is no stranger to second chances. She is a woman who has reinvented herself numerous times, and she has made some mistakes and rebounded. She continues to innovate in her work because she has no choice but to be a learner, experimenter and trailblazer. This month we asked our writers to respond to the following prompt. If ______________ was a guest innovator/employee at my school, we would be doing ______________ differently. So for all the reasons above Cat Hoke is my pick for guest innovator.
So what would we be doing differently at school with Cat Hoke as innovator in residence?
  1. We would be deeply empathetic and human.  When you read Cat Hoke’s book A Second Chance, you understand what real empathy is. Hoke has the ability to see herself in everyone around her and to see others in herself.  She knows that we are all connected by our ability to mess up; she says it’s not a matter of if but when.” She works with the most marginalized of all people – prisoners who have done the worst crimes and the hardest time – and helps them to get a second chance in the world.  She connects them with entrepreneurs outside of prison who also have to develop a shared sense of empathy and to recognize that had they had the same backgrounds and childhoods as these prisoners, the roles could very likely be reversed. If Cat were at our school we would understand that we are no better than anyone else and that our actions always have a backstory and some of us just have had an easier road to travel than others.
  2. We would reframe our narratives – both our institutional and personal narratives.  The stories we tell ourselves about our schools, our students and ourselves are often distorted and limiting.  They often come from a specific and memorable moment (either positive or negative) which has been mythologized in some way – either an epic failure we can’t seem to recover from or a moment of glory that we we can seem to live up to.  Cat Hoke is the master of reframing the narrative and of transforming the “illegal hustle” into the “generous hustle.” She doesn’t let the narrative run the show. She knows that it takes hard work to reinvent oneself or an organization – especially back from a moment of challenge.  “It takes courage, humility, commitment, effort, and time. It takes admitting that we didn’t have it figured out the last time around. It involves finding the time to recover and embracing the process. It involves asking for help. It involves being vulnerable. It involves a decent possibility of failing all over again.”  But by exploring and examining the stories we tell, we can begin to tell different stories those that allow us to identify our “gifts, passions and generous hustle.” Hoke suggest that we “stop the trash talking [to ourselves], we might escape our own prisons.”
  3. We would be relentlessly optimistic – and never give up on anyone – our students, our peers or ourselves.  Cat Hoke says that at Defy Ventures, “We unlock potential everywhere we find it.”  Imagine if that was the mindset of everyone at your school. What would that look like to believe in the potential of every student – even the ones that are a little messier and maybe little less easy to love and the ones that aren’t so compliant or the ones who struggle at school and who don’t always make the best decisions?  Maybe even the student who has lied or who consistently says hurtful things to other kids deserve to be valued and respected. What about your colleague who might be hard to work with or who approaches every new suggestion with the phrase “We tried that in 1985.” We would know that there is possibility and potential in even the hardest people for us to accept.  Most of all ourselves. We would be free from our own cultures of judgment and perfectionism, and we would accept our own flaws and failures, and in that acceptance of ourselves see the gifts in others.
What if we all saw the power of second chances?


Carla Silver
Executive Director

Student-Centered Learning in Spotlight at World’s Largest Ed-Tech Show

Associate Editor


What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?

“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.

“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.

They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.

Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.

Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:

The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:

And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:

But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.

The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”

Jobs of the Future

Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)

McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.

The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.

Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.

Personalized Learning: Part of the Solution

Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)

“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.

“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.

But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.

Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.

The Future of Coding in Schools


Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, on why he thinks coding should be taught in all schools—it’s not the reason you’d expect.

For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.

His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?

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We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.

EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?

MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.

EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?

RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.

EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?

RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.

Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.

EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?

RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.

We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.

EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?

RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”

They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.

EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?

RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.

That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.

EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?

RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.

I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.

Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.

Teenage Inventor Alexis Lewis Thinks That Kids Have the Solutions to the World’s Problems

Watch This Great Video on Alexis

With a patent to her name and more likely on the way, the 15-year-old has made it her mission to inspire young innovators



Benjamin Franklin invented swim flippers when he was 12 years old. Frank Epperson, age 11, conceived of the popsicle, and 16-year-old George Nissen thought up a trampoline.

Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.

Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.

The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.

Why should more people invent?

I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.

What motivates you to invent?

My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.


Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?

My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.

Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?

I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.

What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?

It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.

I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.

How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?

The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.

Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.

People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.

The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students

 December 20, 2017

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.

This post explains what Google learned about its employees, and what that means for students across the country.  It was written by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the new book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.” She also serves on the Mozilla Foundation board of directors,  and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities.

By Cathy N. Davidson

All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready.  But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?  After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.