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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Schools of the future

We hosted an interesting evening this week with the Innovation Unit to show a film – ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ - that documents the work of High Tech High in San Diego. The film is fascinating on many levels.

At it’s best it focuses on the human side of learning. It shows the film director’s young daughter in tears, bored by her classes and given a remarkably dumb pep talk by her teacher (who tells her to put up with classes because in the end they’ll get her a degree and a good job), and ends with pupils transformed by the school from shy nervousness to exuberant confidence.

But running through the film is also a very powerful diagnosis and prescription. The diagnosis is a familiar argument about how technological change is rendering the industrial model of education redundant, and why in the future the priorities will include creativity, problem solving and teamwork, and an array of non-cognitive skills to match more familiar cognitive skills in maths, science or history.

Its prescription is the project-based model of High Tech High, and the film carefully shows how the teenagers grow as people, gaining confidence and skill.

I generally find both the diagnosis and prescription pretty convincing (which is why I’ve been involved in the Studio School movement over many years, which takes a very similar approach, though now on a significantly larger scale).  There are also many other similar schools around the world, pioneering practical learning.

In principle, it’s possible to disagree with the diagnosis but not the prescription and vice versa. On the diagnosis, we’ll be sharing the results of our joint study with Pearson on future skills needs in a few months' time. This is set to show the scale of changes likely in labour markets over the next 20 years, and if nothing else will show the scale of the challenge facing education ministries and schools in helping young people to be ready for the future.

Neither the film, nor the school it portrays, are perfect. The diagnosis was missing some crucial elements – like the rising importance of care in both life and work. It also understated the extent to which the future has already arrived: employers in the US and UK already say that they want much better non-cognitive skills, and problem-solving abilities, from school-leavers.

The HTH model is also a mix of strengths and weaknesses. For example, it relies too heavily on a big performance each term instead of any other assessment measures. There’s a lot to said for having to put on a big show, as a team; few things accelerate learning as much. But it’s even better to combine that with other devices, like the many assessment tools used in Studio Schools. 

Teachers are given a lot of autonomy at HTH – but there was little sign of the kind of study circles that are prominent in countries like Finland and Singapore and ensure that teachers learn from each other. HTH is also surprisingly lacking in high technology. Yet digital technologies are ideal for the kind of team-based, practical projects, as can be seen in the many UK schools now experimenting with Internet of Things projects. I was also surprised that HTH didn’t base more projects on work with outside partners – in studio schools it’s the work with local businesses and charities that is often most motivating for young people, because there’s more at stake.

But these are minor quibbles. HTH is a fine example of where education needs to head, and the film is a great prompt for discussion and critical thinking. Why is so much education policy going in the opposite direction? Why does so much cling to traditional models of knowledge transfer, which are likely to become less relevant in the future? Why has so much philanthropic spending on education, here and in the US, reinforced very traditional models of education rather than preparing for the future? And crucially, how can these alternative models be taken to scale rather than confined to small experiments, like HTH and Studio Schools? 

If you can, try to see the film. And in the spirit of HTH itself, use the film as a prompt for critical thinking so that we can achieve better answers to the questions posed above.

Image credit: Innovation Unit - The Gary and Jeri Ann High Tech High


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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