A global network of schools using a relational and real-world model of learning to support one student at a time.
Elliot Washor, Co-founder of Big Picture Learning.
From the US to global.
Elliot Washor is the co-founder of Big Picture Learning and has been involved in school reform for over forty-five years.
He co-founded the Met Center in Rhode Island – a school recognised as one of the most innovative models in education. Elliot’s interests centre on how schools can connect with communities to understand how learning takes place both in and outside of school.
“To get really good at something you can’t just do book learning. Most of us are living out in the world beyond school and are not academic, you have to have experiences with other people as well. School has to be a combination, it can’t just be a textbook in a classroom. Students have to get out to people to understand who they want to learn from and what they want to get better at.”
The Big Change
Today, there are over 72 Big Picture network schools in the United States and many more around the world; with schools in Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, Kenya, India and Canada utilising the Big Picture Learning design.
Big Picture Learning is an innovative school model that has achieved astounding outcomes for young people who are disengaged from mainstream education in the US and around the world.
Each student has an individual learning plan that is tailored to their needs, interests and passions. After the age of 14, every young person spends two days a week in an ‘interest-led internship’ which places them alongside a mentor to learn in a real world setting which has meaning to them as individuals. All young people are encouraged and supported to experience success in learning, and re-establish the connection between the real world and the world of school.
The ambition for change
The big vision for Big Picture Learning is: all students live happy and successful lives of their own design –
in their education, careers, and civic experiences – supported by learner-centered communities, caring mentors, strong interpersonal relationships, and equitable opportunities to achieve their greatest potential.
This is being achieved through a model in which learning focuses on a student’s passions and interests, and involves significant internships in the ‘real-world’.
A shift in direction
In 1995 radical thinkers Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky drew on their thirty years of experience as teachers and principals to launch an innovation in education in Rhode Island – the first Big Picture Learning school – the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“The Met”) in Providence.
Learners at Big Picture schools spend their time in advisories and internships. Advisories, a cohort of 15-20 learners and one adult advisor, stay together for four years and build bonds and relationships that last a lifetime. Students also spend two days a week learning through Interests and Internships (LTIs). The internships tap into the student’s interests, take place in the local community so they have ‘real-world’ value, and are supported by mentors.
“Dennis and I figured out that schools certify on ‘what’ [which is] the content. They don’t pay attention to ‘who’. Students get more wisdom and knowledge from ‘who’ knows what they know, and for that to happen they have to learn outside of school as well as inside of school. Access is an equity issue.”
Making change happen
1: The start point
Build out from a student’s interests
Before designing their first school Washor and Littky asked students and families what learning is, what young people are interested in learning, and how it should take place. “Most of the time nobody was asking students what they were interested in or what their choices were and families were not listened to or taken seriously. Schools were about and still are for the most part, about a turn the page curriculum, not taking taking into account who students are. This was a big deal for myself and for my colleagues.” The Big Picture Learning model listens to students’ interest and passions. Rather than ‘match’ students to internships, advisors, mentors, families and students, design each learning experience, including internships, within the local community, around them. The way students are assessed reflects how we are judged as adults in our everyday lives, i.e. through practical demonstrations of what we know and can do, rather than through one-off examinations.
2: Taking off
When Big Picture set out to create their first school around students’ interests, they knew they would need completely different structures (the individual learning plan, an advisory system and real-world internships). Elliot is committed to Big Picture Learning as a ‘do-think-do’ organisation that pushes to continually develop its design. Unlike most educational change which starts from a theoretical basis, Big Picture moves intentionally from practice to theory. “Yogi Berra once said something like ‘in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they’re very different’. We start with practice, learn through our practice and then put language around the practice, rather than the other way around. Out of that experience comes actual structures and language that develop and innovate the system.”
Define your big ideas
When designing the Met School in Rhode Island, Washor and Littky focused on some big, underpinning ideas. They drew on insights from research that advocated for smaller schools with more parent involvement and more personalised curricula, and that people learn and make sense of information by connecting things and by learning in real contexts. They understood that children need to be nurtured by adults, and feel part of a community, something larger than themselves, in order to thrive. The Met incorporated all of these big ideas when opening its doors.
3: Keeping going
Focus on the family
Big Picture actively involve parents, families and the wider community, e.g. businesses, in the learning process. They play an important part in helping to shape the student’s learning plan and become enrolled as resources into the school’s learning community. For example, families and relationships are at the heart of the Big Picture philosophy, and scaffolds everything about the learning design. At some schools, advisors pay a visit to each student’s home early in the school year, and carry out home visits throughout the student’s tenure at the school. These visits not only allow the advisor to get a better sense of their students’ home environment, they further connect the student’s family with what is happening in school. Along with the student, the advisor, and the mentor, families are integral members of the learning team.
“Never quite grasp that vision. Always try and get better at what you’re doing. Since the beginning of Big Picture, we’ve never been satisfied that we’ve got there. Instead we’re constantly evolving, getting better, learning from other people, in other fields than education – and bringing those pieces into Big Picture.”
“I think that engagement with the wider world is very important. The world is only going to get more and more connected, especially with the advances in technology. We’ve tried to be an institution that doesn’t have walls, internally between ourselves or externally between us and others. We have embraced a very broad set of people to work with us on this mission.”
“Students know how to move into the world through their learning journey, and they know who they are. Our students leave school with a ‘what’ and a ‘who’, they build social capital and relationships with the people who can help them get better at the things they want to do. Every individual is able to name the people who helped them along the way – ‘who’ you know matters, and who knows you know what you know, matters as well.”
Taking change wider
One off schools are difficult to sustain and maintain: join or form a network
“Being in networks, organic and relational, is very important. I would encourage everyone to be in a network where they feel some affinities and affiliations that support them because they’re going to struggle through many issues such as regulations, bureaucracies, financial issues, etc. Relationships need to be developed.”
“Your own school group and community are critical too. These include students, families, community members, organisations, businesses, higher education and the State education system. Develop partnerships and relationships that you need to move forward.”
Strong and courageous leaders
“A strong and courageous leader must demonstrate grace under pressure and needs to go to and through obstacles you face. Any decisions you and your team make should be based on the community, the time and the situation, you cannot make blanket, over generalised decisions. Something that worked in the past, may not work now.”
The impact of change
- Twenty years after the Met opened its doors, Big Picture is increasingly devoting energy to “influencing the national debate about public education.” And, from their annual Big Bang Conference to their expanded programme initiatives – like College Unbound, ImBlaze, The Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative, and the Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship – they are amplifying more voices and shifting more mindsets every day.
- Big Picture has over 200 schools throughout the world, including 72 US schools.
- Supported Vermont to introduce Big Picture concepts into their schools and classrooms across the state. This is part of new legislature that requires all students in the state to be provided with both a personalised-learning plan as well as opportunities to graduate by illustrating proficiency, rather than collecting course credit.
- 9,000+ learners served in the US and 7,000+ learners served internationally.
- 95% graduation rates, compared to 86% national average.
- 95-100% college acceptance upon graduation*.
*High fidelity schools based on the US.