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Taking School into the Real World with Big Picture Learning

TeachHUB Interview

Taking School into the Real World with Big Picture LearningFor the past 15 years, Big Picture Learning have taken a revolutionary approach to education that individualizes study for each student and sends them out into the real world for work experience.


Their efforts have gained them the respect and funding of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, being named Bill's favorite school in America.


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Big Picture Learning co-founder Elliot Washor and Kari Thierer, Director of School & Network Support, give us the inside scoop on how their innovative approach to education.

What does the schedule for a typical day at a Big Picture school look like?


Each of our schools is a little different in how they structure their day and week. However, all schools have an advisory period of some kind that sets the tone for the day and week. Students meet as a group to plan their day/week, discuss any relevant issues that have come up (personal or community), plan as a group, some of their interest-exploration is also done in this time period, Learning Through Interests work (looking for an LTI, etc.).


The rest of the day is customized based on the needs of the student. It will include some independent work time where the student focuses on their project work and individual learning plan, it may also include small or large group instruction based on what students need. At our high schools, students are usually out on internship experiences two days a week, as well as taking dual-enrollment classess at local colleges and universities. Each students schedule is customized based on their needs and their individual learning plan.


What are some specific examples of community internships and mentor projects Big Picture students engage in?

There is a huge variety around the network because students interests are so varied. We've had students intern at veterinary offices, hospitals, small shops (entreprenuer), mechanics, radio stations, unviersities, social service agencies, etc.


The projects students do serve two purposes. It must be an authentic project that serves the internship site, and then will also be embedded with some academic learning that students need to demonstrate. For example, a student was working with a pediatric cardiologist - she had the opportunity to observe surgery, and work with the patients and the family. A gap was that so many parents had questions about a specific procedure that was a common practice. The student researched the procedure and created an informational brochure for patients. Now, the doctor gives the patient the brochure first and then answers additional questions as needed.


Academically, the student had to learn a ton about the anatomy involved with the procedure, practice technical writing skills combined with ensuring her audience received the information needed, and had to learn the technical aspects of creating a brochure. That is just one example - every project is individualized because it is based on the needs of the mentor and the student.


Now 15 years into this project, how has the response from mainstream education, policy-makers, colleges and parents changed (or has it)?

I wouldn't classify this as a project. This is a mission to change public education to better serve students.


The reponse has been overwhelmingly positive. People continue to question us and how we can get such impressive data, but our design serves students and families at an individual level and that is the only way to truly serve students. Mainstream education is our partner - we want to influence they way they are working with kids and to learn from our best practices.

Our way of personalizing education for students makes sense to everyone, sometimes the practice is hard for people to grasp. What we do is so different than traditional education, and so different than most people's personal experiences in education, that they find it hard to understand until they see it. Once people visit a school and talk with kids, they get a better understanding, but even then, putting it into practice requires a lot of dedication and challenging the status quo of the way the education system has been developed.


You note that Big Picture Schools have impressive 92% graduation rates. Do you have any attrition problems before students hit senior year? Are there any entrance requirements to attend?

Our attrition rates are much lower than traditional schools. We work with families over a long period of time, so when a student is trying to leave, we can intervene more effectively than a traditional system, and encourage them to stay.


We do not have any entrance requirements to attend - all schools have an application process, mostly to ensure that students and families understand the commitment they are making. This is such a different way of learning, and students must take on more responsibility for their own education - so we want them to make an informed decision about where they choose to attend school.


How do you foster parental involvement? How big a role does that play in student success?

Parents are huge partners in our education of students. From the very beginning, parent involvement has been one of our 10 distinugishers. Advisors know the parents and work with them as partners in their students education.

  • Parents are a member of the learning plan team - helping to create the individual learning plan for their student.
  • They attend the quarterly exhibition of learning where students demonstrate their work.
  • They help out at school when possible.
  • They chaperone events.
  • They help during recruiting to talk with other parents.

Parents are an active part of our community and we encourage them to be on-campus when possible, but even if they can't be on-campus, the advisors are in touch regularly to talk about good things their students are doing, but also to talk about challenges and work together to support students.


How has the support of the Gates Foundation help to develop and expand Big Picture Schools?

The Gates Foundation was instrumental in providing financial support so we could focus on developing a system for scale-up. They helped by providing professional development funds for us and our schools so we could do the training and support in the right way. They pushed us to be specific in our documentation of what was working and what challenges we had, and they pushed us to clarify our work and data to help us continue to improve. They've been huge partners in our success and allowed us the financial independence to do the work correctly without having to spend time and resources on funding.


What is a Big Picture School budget compare to the average public school budget?

All of our schools operate within the same school budget as their peer schools.


The 15:1 student teacher ratio and 140 student cap on school size is impressive, but do those numbers make large-scale expansion across public schools impossible? Why or why not?

The purpose of the 15:1 is that we know relationships matter. There have been a number of stories that talk about students getting missed - making it to high school without being able to read or write. That only happens when teachers are seeing too many students to be able to know them well.

The numbers do not inhibit large-scale expansion, but they do force the system to re-evaluate the way schools are set-up and run. Schools are run the same way they've been run for the past 100 years, but kids have changed, society has changed. Schools need to look at structures and space in a different way so they are better serving students. It's time consuming, and forces conversations, but it is possible.


How do Big Picture Schools address deficiencies in basic skills (like reading, writing and consumer math)?

Almost all students have gaps in their education somewhere. Because teachers teach in different ways and students learn in different ways, all students have a gap. Big Picture Schools are individualized, so students gaps are assessed and a plan to address them is put into place.

We don't assume that a student should be following a specific curriculum based on their age, we look at the individual student, where the gaps are, where the strengths are, what they want to do post-high school and create a plan. That plan may include one-on-one instruction, small group instruction, on-line support, etc. It is a plan that is put in place one student at a time based on their own needs.


How has the involvement of students in the community helped to shape the community for the better? Any specific examples?

When we work in a school, we know we are also serving that community. We've had mentors tell us that the internship program has saved their business - having an extra set of hands during an economic downturn has been helpful, but also because it allows the business to grow and focus on innovations because there is someone else helping with that.

We've also seen our schools become community centers - serving parents and the general community. Providing job placement support, technology training, social service connections, etc. Because parents are a welcome part of the school community, that means we help them when they need it as well. All of our schools do community engagment activities including community service. These range from volunteering in community run activites, to planning and implementing community resource fairs. There a lots of different ways our schools impact the community - some in small ways and some in huge ways.


Some general thoughts on Personalized Learning by Elliot Washor


At Big Picture Learning we make a distinction between complicated and complex. Brenda Zimmerman author of Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform Medicare Look Like? states:


"It’s complicated to send a rocket to the moon -- it requires blueprints, math, and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware, and expertly written software. Raising a child, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, but math and blueprints won't help… To run a system that is complex, it's not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system."


Big Picture Learning schools have a simple set of principles and structures that are innovative and different, allowing us to carry out a design for highly personalized schools. Our 'one student at a time' approach starts with each and every student’s interests and needs followed by the creation of a learning plan that is reviewed on a quarterly basis and developed by the students, teachers, and parents. Every student is in an advisory built on a human scale. Each student is known well by teachers/advisors and their mentors. Our students are surrounded by adults. This is where a school culture is created with supportive adult relationships for every student in and outside of school.


Our BPL system has developed an aesthetics of relationships that leads to rigorous learning. Here are a few of the simple observations you can make at our schools to understand that a high degree of personalization is being carried out.


• There is sophisticated and nuanced language used between student to student and student to adult.
• There are objects that both find interesting and that both are trying to understand more about themselves through the objects.
• There is a sense of trust and respect. There is give and take.
• Parents, advisors/teachers, mentors all know one another through the students work.


Big Picture Learning schools have created a personalized school culture for the next generation of learning.

What do you think of BPL's approach to school? Share in the comments section!

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