"Most Likely to Succeed" is screening in Bellevue on Thursday and at SIFF next week.

Share story

In “Most Likely to Succeed,” Bellevue-bred filmmaker Greg Whiteley asks you to question just about everything you know about education.

What if there were no school bells? No set class periods, no single-subject courses and no mandate to prepare kids for standardized tests?

It might look like High Tech High — the San Diego charter school featured in the film, which will screen at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 1 and 2. And that approach might better prepare kids for what they will actually be asked to do in their rapidly changing futures, Whiteley says.

While making the film, Whiteley followed two groups of ninth graders as they researched, constructed and presented a year-long project that involved learning things traditionally taught in separate classrooms, by different teachers. The result is a documentary that charts a history of the American education system and offers a deep look into one new approach to learning.

But the film, Whiteley said, is about more than that one approach — also known as project-based learning. Whiteley and executive producer Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist, said the film will show that classrooms as we know them are outdated, and make the case for why they believe education needs to change.

“We are having kids spend almost all their school days on things they don’t care about, things they’ll never use and things that they memorize just to forget two weeks later,” Dintersmith said. The age of education being about acquiring knowledge is gone, they say. Knowledge is everywhere, and nearly free. It’s attached to any Internet-connected device.

Instead, they say, kids need some softer skills: independent thinking, working with others, decision-making.

One common retort might be that teaching kids in these intense, sometimes year-long projects based on one topic will not prepare them for wide-ranging standardized tests. Dintersmith agrees.

But for him, asking what should be taught so kids do best on mandated exams or college-placement tests is not the most important question.

The more pressing issue, he said, is: “What’s right for life?”

The idea of a new way of teaching seems to be gaining some traction in Washington.

Anoo Padte, who runs a local education consulting group called The Art of Education, said the hands-on learning shown in the film could go a long way toward reaching disinterested kids who otherwise would drop out of school.

“They’re exploring complex questions,” Padte said of the type of learning the film portrays. “They’re creating things. They’re expressing themselves, rather than passively absorbing materials.”

Her group is hosting a screening of the film Thursday in Bellevue, followed by a Q&A with a small panel that will include a student from Highline’s Big Picture school, which uses the project-based approach.

Tickets are still available, Padte said.

Another education-related documentary showing at SIFF, “Paper Tigers,” follows troubled kids at an alternative Walla Walla high school.

Looking for other, education-related films? Try “The Dark Horse,” “Excuse My French, ” or “The Teacher’s Diary.”

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.