Charlottesville High School science teacher Matt Shields with two of the school's 3D printers.

In the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” — showing Friday as part of the Virginia Film Festival — native Virginian and Earlysville resident Ted Dintersmith examines the current state of public education in the United States and asks if the status quo is equipping students with the skills they will need to find success in a rapidly changing economy.

As greater numbers of jobs become automated tasks completed by computers, Dintersmith argues that students might be better served by a project-based instructional model that emphasizes critical thinking, creativity and organization, rather than learning by rote memorization for measurement on standardized tests.

Ultimately, Dintersmith describes our national approach to public education as a mismatch between the priorities we set for our schools and the characteristics we want to develop in our children.

“We’re headed for a profound collision between a world of innovation and an education system that is largely tied to preparing kids for assembly line jobs that don’t exist anymore,” Dintersmith said.

While many teachers and school boards around the United States decry the use of standardized test scores as the major measurement of a student or a school’s academic achievement, the number of teachers using project-based learning in the region is on the rise.

Matt Shields teaches project-based science courses at Charlottesville High School. Many of the “tests” in his classroom are projects that require the execution of a task — often making something — and students are graded on a range of factors, from whether the product works, to planning and professionalism.

When students are mostly undertaking projects, Shields said, he sees them learning in a different way.

“There’s a certain amount of ownership and engagement when you can come up with your own solution, so I’ve seen kids be way more engaged and excited about what they’re doing,” Shields said. “You see that ownership when they ask if they can add complexity to their projects.”

When students aren’t given the opportunity to take ownership of their learning, Shields argued, they have no buy-in.

“There’s an inertia around the idea that standardized test scores measure everything you need to know.”

Ted Dintersmith

“When I ask kids to memorize something for a test, it’s not theirs yet,” Shields added. “They’re doing my bidding, they’re memorizing my facts and they’re taking my test.”

Additionally, Shields said he often sees the rate of learning increase when students undertake projects.

“I’ve watched kids work on projects where they are skimming graduate school level texts just to get this little bit of information, which is the thing they needed to pull off the project,” Shields said.

And his students agree.

Jonah Weissman, a sophomore engineering student at Charlottesville High School, said project-based classes are just more fun.

“I look forward to this class much more than others because instead of having to know this list of facts or this chapter, I have a tangible goal that I want,” Jonah said. “I want to build this cool thing.”

Stephen Newman, also a sophomore engineering student at Charlottesville High School, echoed that sentiment.

“You learn to do the things that you need to do, rather than just memorize the things that you can Google,” Stephen said.

But parents, both Shields and the documentary point out, are often skeptical of the model and wonder if students are learning the content necessary to prepare them for college.

Admittedly, Shields said he was nervous when he started teaching this way, but said with proper planning, a teacher can design projects that will require students to learn the content Virginia’s Standards of Learning require.

“The SOLs are a pain, but that doesn’t lock you into bad teaching,” Shields said. “You can take a set of standards and wrap that into an exciting curriculum.”

And it’s an innovative curriculum that allows students to create, think critically and solve problems that Dintersmith’s film highlights. Set at High Tech High — a charter school in San Diego — “Most Likely to Succeed” gives viewers a glimpse into a school that focuses on student growth and learning, rather than preparing for state-mandated tests.

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“There’s an inertia around the idea that standardized test scores measure everything you need to know,” Dintersmith said, “but the math scores aren’t even that great a predictor if someone is going to be good at math.”

As for predicting the future, Shields said it’s too early to tell if project-based learning is the answer, but noted that not trying it because student learning can be difficult to measure isn’t a sufficient reason.

Moving forward, Dintersmith and his team plan to show “Most Likely to Succeed” often in an attempt to spur conversation.

“We’re trying to bring communities together in thoughtful debates, and to encourage them to go through the process of thinking about the precious years we have with our kids, and to ask what we want to do with those years, and to ask what we are doing with those years,” Dintersmith said.

Parents, teachers and school leaders can learn more about the film and locate resources at

“Most Likely to Succeed” will show as part of a series supported by Charlottesville Tomorrow in the Virginia Film Festival at 6 p.m. Friday in the Dickinson Fine and Performing Arts Center at Piedmont Virginia Community College.