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Provided by Sundance Institute
"Most Likely to Succeed" is being screened during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

The opening scenes of filmmaker Greg Whiteley’s latest documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this month, “Most Likely to Succeed,” find his daughter Scout crying in frustration while her mother and fourth-grade teacher discuss Scout's performance.

“I’m just not interested,” Scout says when asked about how she feels during class.

Whiteley and his wife sit Scout down and say what a lot of parents say when their child struggles: They explain that while school might seem pointless, when she applies to college, it will pay off. But, Whiteley wonders aloud in the film, is that assumption still true?

“After spending two years working on this film, I now worry these things I’ve told my daughter and my son are a lie,” Whiteley says. “The idea [that] enduring the drudgery of standardized tests, traditional homework, [and] lectures will build the kind of character in them that will one day lead to a happier life may no longer be true.”

Whiteley saw a problem of whether or not U.S. schools are doing everything possible to prepare kids for life and work in the 21st century — a time when half of college graduates are underemployed or unemployed.

A good education doesn’t guarantee as secure an income as it once did, says Harvard education graduate studies professor Elizabeth City, partially because of changes in the U.S. economy.

“You might be better off, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be fine,” City said. “The approach we’ve had, that college is some kind of guarantee, gets in the way of thinking creatively about how to prepare kids for earning a decent living.”

Whiteley asserts in his film that the U.S. education system was built on skills needed to succeed in a manufacturing economy, an outgrowth of the industrial revolution. The education system hasn't kept pace with the rapid changes in the workforce due to technological advances, City says, and as a result, students are no longer as prepared, making job prospects dimmer than in previous generations.

“It’s not that our schools aren’t as good as they used to be,” City said. “The fact is that the world has changed and our bar is higher.”

Industrialization to innovation

There’s one word at the heart of Whiteley’s film and the debate over how education should change to fit the economy of the 21st century: innovation.

The problem, City says, is that schools don't do enough to teach students how to solve problems or find new ways of doing their jobs. Students these days, City contests, are taught the opposite: to follow directions.

School has never been about producing innovators,” City said. “A lot of what we value in school is kids doing exactly what they’re told.”

That kind of education is necessary in, say, a factory where workers assemble cars — a once-reliable profession, but useless in an economy where those robots now occupy those positions.

Most of the companies we talked to said that even the students who graduated at the top of their class from good schools couldn’t do the work,” Whiteley said. “In the current system, that freedom and creativity they need gets drilled out of them.”

One example of how creativity and critical thinking leads to innovation, computer scientist and author Jonathan Mugan said, is James Dyson, the man who invented Dyson vacuums. Dyson, Mugan said, didn’t reinvent the vacuum by acing a standardized test or knowing everything there was to know about vacuums. He did it by identifying a problem and figuring out a better design.

“When kids learn something, it creates more questions, and those questions keep them invested,” Mugan said. “The best way to learn is to be taught about something while dealing with a problem.”

Or, say you’re a car mechanic, City paraphrased Harvard economist Richard Murnane.

It used to be that to be a car mechanic, you needed to know some basic things about diagnostics and engines. Now, computers do that for you,” City said. “What you need the mechanic to be able to do is to figure out what the solution is — to do what computers can't do.”

Updating the system

Just as education changed 120 years ago to fit an industrialized economy, Whiteley contends it’s time to change again.

“This is an opportunity. Our forefathers shifted the educational model, and we were all the better for it. They produced a labor force second to none in the entire world,” Whiteley said. “We’re faced with the exact same thing here.”

How dramatically the system changes is a sensitive issue. Whiteley’s film devotes a lot of time to parents of students of High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego where students learn everything from history and art to math and science through a collaborative project.

Raising hands to answer questions or weekly quizzes on facts quickly forgotten later are out, as are textbooks and traditional homework — trade-offs that make many parents nervous.

Yet Mugan says an educational model like the one at High Tech High is closer to the way humans learn naturally. It’s a process Mugan studied while writing artificial intelligence programs that allow robots to learn on their own.

Learning through curiosity, Mugan says, helps to answer the age-old question: Why do I need to know this?

“Students shouldn’t just be taught some algebra formula, they should have a project where they have to find x. That way it gets encoded in the brain not as dry rules, but as integrated tools to help them solve a problem,” Mugan said. “You’re not solving for x just to solve for x.”

Whiteley says that this model of learning affects not just students, but also teachers.

“Teachers should be allowed to teach in the way they’ve always dreamed. There’s too much that our government is asking them to do that they know in their hearts is discouraging,” Whiteley said. “I saw example after example of teachers succeeding in spite of our system, not because of it. That’s what’s got to change.”

Until the system changes on a more national scale, City says it’s up to parents to be advocates for their own children’s educations — a credo Whiteley and his wife have taken to heart since enrolling their kids in the charter school system.

“We had to sit down and imagine what kinds of people we wanted our kids to be. We wanted our kids to be able to think critically and have the motor that allows them to learn for the rest of their lives,” Whiteley said of his family’s decision. “Once you come to those conclusions, you have to ask yourself: In what way is this (system) teaching my kid to think critically?”

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson