Students get glimpse of education’s possible future
After watching his young daughter become less and less interested in school, her grades tumbling, Greg Whiteley noticed a disconnect. He knew his daughter was intelligent, but school wasn’t inspiring her. It was clear she didn’t care about what her teachers were teaching.
That led Whiteley on a mission to discover if there is a better way of teaching than the country’s current model, which has operated much the same, more or less, for more than a century. What he found is that traditional schools simply aren’t preparing students well enough for a job market taken over by technology — one in which a degree is no guarantee of a job and in which innovation and creativity are valued far more than the ability to recite key dates in history or a mathematic equation.
That’s the premise of his Sundance Film Festival documentary, "Most Likely to Succeed." The film was screened for Utah high school students Friday — including some from Park City High School — as part of the festival’s student screening program.
Whiteley’s film largely focuses on High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego whose teaching is dramatically different than what you’d find in most classrooms in America. Rather than having, say, eight separate classes in a school day, students at High Tech High learn solely through project-based learning. Though guided by teachers, students are given autonomy to collaborate with other students on semester-long projects.
Though students do not learn all the facts they might be expected to know at a traditional school, Whiteley argues the skills they develop position them much better than other students for a place in the 21st Century job market.
Following the screening, Whiteley, who directed the film, held a question-and-answer session with the local students. He issued a challenge to them to be proactive about their education, asking them to take out their cell phones the next time a teacher gives them an assignment and decide if using the phones would be considered cheating.
"If it is, I would submit it’s a bad assignment," Whiteley told the students. "What skill is being measured there? The ability to memorize content and then spit it back to a teacher just has very limited use. It’s not going to serve you very well. I mean, I don’t know any employer who is going to say, ‘What I really need more than anything is someone who can memorize things that I tell them and then give it back to me just the way I said it.’"
If bad assignments are being given, Whiteley said, students should work with teachers to demand a change.
"I don’t know any teacher that wouldn’t be on board eventually with this," Whiteley said. "There are certain skills that are not being cultivated. And there a whole set of other skills that are being cultivated that are obsolete."
At least some students in the audience were intrigued by the learning process documented at High Tech High. Ben Beacom, a senior at Park City High School, said he would have enjoyed going to that type of school.
"I really enjoyed the movie," he said. "I liked how it took a look at something that everyone just accepts as normal. They’re trying to find a way to improve it."
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.