#MLTSfilm and the Power of Obliquity

October 23, 2015

Last Sunday, my wife and I attended a screening of Most Likely to Succeed — a must-see film for anyone interested in or connected to education in this country. Hosted by ShiftMich, the event included the film and a panel discussion with local educators, one student, and the Founding Producer of the film, Ted Dintersmith.

The film follows the experiences of students, parents, and educators at High Tech High, a dynamic, project-based high school in San Diego. It examines the ways in which traditional education environments are failing to meet the needs of students and society. And it includes several prominent education superstars, such as Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Sal Khan. If you get the chance to catch a screening, do so. If you want to bring a screening to you, you can do that too. All told, the film got me thinking.

High Tech High relies on project-based work as the primary vehicle for learning. Through engagement in projects, students develop the attitudes, behaviors, and skills that both enable them to find success with their projects and, in all likelihood, in subsequent academic and life pursuits.

The usage of project-based work as the primary vehicle for learning is capitalizing on the power of obliquity. Obliquity, as the economist John Kay describes, is the solving of complex problems indirectly. That is, it is through the pursuit of some objectives that other objectives are achieved. Kay notes that, in many cases, “the direct [approach] is less effective than the oblique [approach], even in achieving direct aims.”

We see obliquity in action throughout education. For example, at the college level, attempts at teaching critical thinking directly have been less effective than efforts without that explicit goal. Similarly, rather than trying to prevent students from dropping out, educators would achieve lower dropout by engaging students in their education, enabling students to feel safer and derive greater relevance from school offerings; in other words, rather than discouraging a negative outcome, better to encourage a positive outcome.

For us at ELI, our entrepreneurial mindset curricula and training immerse students and faculty in the entrepreneurial process. By tackling the challenges that arise through this process, participants necessarily begin to develop and enhance their attitudes, behaviors, and skills. Students aren’t consciously trying to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Instead, they focus on the challenges at hand, and an entrepreneurial mindset is developed obliquely.

High Tech High does this. The Bureau (who I wrote about in a previous post) does this. Anyone employing project-based learning does this. And, as a result, they all are able to reap the benefits of obliquity as well.

My favorite quote in the film is this, from a teacher, about students: “How will they ever learn to make a decision if they never have chances to make a decision?” This is my favorite quote because it seems to have both logical and neuroscientific truths to it.

Logic: why would we expect anyone to be able to swim, if they’ve never been in water? Why would we expect someone to be financially literate, if they’ve never managed money? Why would we expect someone to be fluent in a second language, if they’ve never tried to speak it?

So, if adolescents never had chances to make consequential decisions, to determine what they were passionate about, to experience working with diverse peers, etc., why do we expect them to be able to as adults? It doesn’t make sense. And yet this is what we expect to happen when youth transition into adulthood.

Neuroscience: research indicates that the usage of neuronal pathways strengthens them, which both makes such pathways more likely to be used in the future and makes such pathways more efficient, in terms of speed and energy usage. Additional research shows that neurons begin to form connections in anticipation of future usage, enhancing their likelihood and efficiency, when called upon in the future.

So, if students don’t get chances to make decisions, their decision-making neuronal pathways don’t form and strengthen and, consequently, don’t become efficient and likely to be used. Then, in the future, when decisions need to be made, students will not have strong decision-making neuronal pathways to rely on, likely resulting in poorer decision-making.

How will students ever learn to become adults if they don’t have opportunities to act and think like adults? How will students ever develop the attitudes, behaviors, and skills needed to tackle complex challenges if the educational environments in which they spend most of their time don’t resemble (or aren’t) such environments?

We shouldn’t expect students to be able to just flip a switch and become someone they’ve never been. The educators at High Tech High don’t expect that; the film showed us how they’ve built an educational experience that requires students to start constructing their future selves, albeit obliquely. For the rest of us, then, it’s on us to create environments and challenges that enable students to begin becoming who they are capable of being.

By Michael Crawford