Filmmaker Greg Whiteley: Focusing on the Future of Education

By Elena Epstein

education - Greg Whiteley

Documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley with his wife, Erin, and kids Scout, 12, and Henry, 14. PHOTO BY TRAVIS HOENE

When filmmaker Greg Whiteley became a parent 14 years ago, he developed a “full-time preoccupation” with finding the best schools for his children. In his new documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, Whiteley examines our current education system through the eyes of students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Documenting the experiences of students at the innovative High Tech High, a San Diego public charter school focused on project-based and collaborative learning, the father of two explores why our education system has stayed stagnant since 1892 – despite rapid advances in technology and changes in the world economy.

The film begins with the camera focused on Whiteley’s daughter, who in the fourth grade finds herself disconnected in her traditional public school. The film then takes the viewer to schools and colleges around the country, with the main focus on a group of freshmen at High Tech High, where there are no bells and no tests. The question that Whiteley keeps coming back to: Are we preparing our kids for the 21st century?

What is the most serious problem facing our school system?

It’s not the shortage of highly motivated and talented teachers. The problem is a system that forces teachers to emphasize multiple-choice, standardized testing. Our current system was developed in 1892 and hasn’t changed much since. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the focus was on building efficient factories. We needed to develop the heightened ability to follow instructions and memorize content in order to staff those factories. The danger comes when we cling to that model as the rest of the world changes. We can’t afford to force kids to sit in rows and passively listen to lectures for a factory job that no longer exists. When creativity and critical thinking take a back seat to standardized tests, we aren’t preparing them properly for tomorrow’s economy.

What can parents do to bring about change?

Parents need to demand a curriculum that supports teachers who have outside-the-test thinking. We have numerous examples of students who earned a 5 on an AP test and couldn’t even pass the same test three months later. When that happens over and over again, what are we really teaching?

We’re chasing admission into the “right” college, believing that if they can just gain admittance, our child’s future will be set. With 53 percent unemployment among recent college graduates, that appears to no longer be true. Our kids need to develop resourcefulness, curiosity, confidence and grit. Those are the skills that will help them succeed in life. Our kids don’t have any free time after school to start a band in their garage, invent a new computer, write a play or otherwise collaborate on a passion project with their friends. Instead, they have SAT tutoring, violin lessons, club basketball practice and other scheduled activities to build up their college resumes.

What skills should we be teaching in schools?

Nearly any job where the instructions on how to complete that job can be written down and handed to an employee will soon be automated. To prepare kids for the kinds of jobs that will survive this wave of outsourcing and automation, we need to focus on collaboration, communication, creativity, perseverance and critical thinking. Look, if I were looking to hire someone for my company, I would want that person to not only be able to solve problems, but forecast problems, seek new opportunities, have imagination and creativity and not be afraid to fail. During the Industrial Age, we needed obedient workers. We now need so much more.

To learn more about Most Likely to Succeed and how you or your school can screen it, visit:

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