Book Review: Most Likely to Succeed



Many educators and parents will ask how they can best prepare our children for the future. Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith’s book “Most Likely to Succeed” is a great place to begin to answer this question.

Having just read Creating Innovators, and The End of Average, this book was the perfect end to a trilogy. Sure, there was some repetitiveness in it, but I read it with the perspective of it as a reinforcement, and in many cases, an update of the current and close future of education.

You would read this book because it…

  • Provides an updated articulation of the call to action that I’ve written about before (include link)
  • Effectively explains how the traditional pipeline of education is being disrupted in K-12 and post-secondary, and even in employment
  • Articulates a new vision for what education can (and in some cases already) looks like, sounds like and feels like




Core Competencies Reimagined:
Throughout the book, the authors offer up strong rationale for the slow pace of change in education. However, unlike many books, they offer up new approaches to how to address the Core Competencies. They look at Math, English, Science and Social Studies through the lens of the 4C’s of 21st century skills.

“There is an inherent conflict between what’s best for our kids and what’s best for the organizations selling tests, textbooks, and test prep materials.” (96)

Wagner and Dintersmith imagine an answer to this question, “What would a reimagined high school math experience look like?” They lay out a 4 year plan and offer some examples. “High school math class would inspire kids who dream of being scientists and engineers, instead of weeding them out based on extraneous criteria…In this curriculum, computer programming wouldn’t be a stand alone course, but would be integrated…” (100)

They do the same with the other core competencies; however, they espouse approaches, not plans. They address pedagogy on the meta level, and don’t delve into the microplanning. Largely, this is because they don’t advocate for micro-planning at all. Rather, they advocate for an inquiry-based, student driven approach, where teachers have methods and strategies for supporting students in their learning. They cite a compelling piece of research where students performed BETTER when supported by a teacher with no content expertise, and even more so, when these facilitators were social workers. This is because, they posit, the students social-emotional needs were being met and strengthened, which resulted in fertile ground for curiousity, risk-taking, and learning. In this way, this is added fodder for the call to action for all educators.

The Education Pipeline is Broken:
Wagner and Dintersmith cite the Republican Party in the state of Texas and their platform on education, which included, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills, and other similar programs…[that] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” (125) In many ways, curriculum around the world does this unwittingly by cramming in too many expectations so that History (for example) reads like a laundry list. Broken.

The authors quote John Tierney, former Governor of Boston College, on the proliferation of AP exams, and their meaning to parents and students in this educational pipeline.

“The courses offer too much material and do so too quickly and superficially…The AP classroom is where intellectual curiousity goes to die.” (217)

Yet, almost any student will tell you that taking AP is vital to their post-secondary success, and many teachers wear the badge of AP instructor proudly. Broken.

The final piece of this pipeline suffers the most damage: the admissions process. The authors spend a fair bit of time addressing the present woes, both in utility and in cost, of post-secondary education. For more, see Wagner’s Creating Innovators, where he does an excellent job extolling the vices and pitfalls of this end of the pipeline. Broken.

Though I didn’t learn any new groundbreaking insights into how this pipleline came to be broken, or in how it is broken, it was still meaningful to reinforce and have updated information since Wagner’s last book. The in-depth look at SAT scoring harmonized incredibly well with Todd Rose’s book ‘The End of Average‘, and they used this as a springboard to reimagine what testing could be, were it required at all.




A Possible Future – a bit hazy, but exciting nonetheless:
The most riveting piece of reading is in the last 100 pages, where the authors chart a new vision, albeit vague at best, with steps to make it a reality. They offer pedagogical direction: They encourage teachers to take the following steps:

  • Find and team up with a trusted colleague for support and objectivity in feedback
  • Examine your assessments for how ‘memorization-heavy’ they are, and ask yourself, do these assignments require critical thinking, or could the answers be googled?
  • Center your class around students being able to question, collaborate, communicate/present, and even digitally record your class to see it from a different point of view.
  • Assess student questions as well as answers
  • Give students the opportunity to create their own demonstration of learning through self-defined projects

To support teachers in this shift, they offer a tripod model: Content knowledge, Skill and Will.

“Of the three, we believe that will, or motivation, is the most important, and the one damaged most by our schools today.” (223)

Indeed, what can we do in our classrooms that motivate students to learn, to want to be there? This is a question that we must ask…or to phrase it another way “Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”

Wagner and Dintersmith also talk about allowing our students to develop into “Jury-Ready” citizens. This is the idea that, if you were faced with your fate (you’re innocent in this example), hanging on a jury, “Would your jurors know how to analyze an argument, weigh evidence, recognize bias (their own and others’), distinguish fact from opinion, and be able to balance the sometimes competing principles of justice and mercy?” (72) The cite Deborah Meier and her essay “Democracy at Risk” (2009) – which I am going to pick up for sure!

They also emphasize, and provide compelling ideas around the importance of “learning how to learn”. They cite schools, and programs, as well as students, that are NOT covering all the details of the American Revolution, are NOT memorizing all the facts and process of the theory of Evolution, are NOT taking all AP courses in their final year of high school; rather, these students ARE retaining what they cover, they ARE preparing for meaningful work, citizenship and life. (48) This is truly an inspirational theme throughout the book: cover less, think deeply more.

They offer great advice for assessment as well. “…students would demonstrate their work in front of audiences of peers, teachers, parents and community members…[they would] have a digital portfolio that follows them through school…that would be evidence of mastery of the skills that matter most…we are strong believers in open-book/open-Internet exams.” (230)

Further, the authors offer up a new vision for teacher professional development. “…we should educate, assess, and reward our teachers on the basis of demonstrated mastery of new competencies, leveraging online resources and peer-driven forums…And they’d be exposed to a different learning model – a model they could in turn use in their classes.” (232) Their vision of education for teachers resonates so strongly with that of Cohort 21.

In Sum…
This is a great book that I would put beside Sir Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools, Yong Zhoa’ Global Learners, and Wagner’s Creating Innovators. It is full of inspiring examples of schools trying new things, or as the authors say “Educational R & D”. It does not deliver of specifics, so don’t come here looking for a toolkit on how to make educational change happen. For that, I would turn back to Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney, and Liz Arney’s Go Blended.

While I haven’t seen the documentary, and the book is mostly aimed at a US audience, many of the problems and challenges are felt n
orth of the border. I am still waiting to hear back about possibly hosting a viewing of the documentary. Now wouldn’t that be exciting?!

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