You can’t mandate what matters and I think a lot of people are finding meaning in their lives through community, family, and work.
Co-founder, Big Picture Learning
Elliot Washer is the co-founder of Big Picture Learning. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Elliot grew up exploring parks and other public spaces which largely impacted how he views education and real-world learning. For 52 years, he has been working tirelessly to change schools to become student-driven, adult-supported healthy places of learning. The Big Picture Learning design and programs can be seen in hundreds of schools internationally, including The Met in Providence, RI, which Elliot also co-founded. In the following interview, we explore Elliot’s latest book, Learning to Leave—How Real-World Learning Transforms Education, which he co-authored along with Scott Boldt.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
Elliot: That’s kind of a funny story because I really had no intention of writing a book right now. But Andrew Frishman, who is co-executive director of Big Picture Learning, was on a call with a funder, and he suggested a tenth-anniversary edition of my first book, Leaving to Learn. Inspired by that notion of a ten-year anniversary, Dr. Scott Boldt, who does research and evaluations on Big Picture Learning initiatives, and I ended up writing Learning to Leave to talk about all of the work that has transpired at Big Picture over the past ten years.
We wrote the book in about eleven weeks. The pandemic was a time of a lot of stress and struggle for everybody, but a lot of creativity emerges from that, whether it’s a war, a pandemic, or any other hardship where your time and the pace of your day changes. During the COVID years, we refined or developed new ways, new forms, and new measures within Big Picture Learning. And so, we wrote this book looking back at what we learned over the past ten years and looking ahead at those new ways, forms, and measures we developed. We are working in a space of “new forms,” not “reforms.”
Q: Can you share a little about the book’s title and why this practice matters?
Elliot: All of our work at Big Picture comes out of experiencing and doing, and then knowing, learning, and teaching. By contrast, most conventional schools are teaching in the abstract through a textbook, online, or lecture. If you can’t get the content off the page or screen in a way that’s relevant to young people, it’s not going to stick with them. Young people need to play with it, experience trial and error, and learn from experiences.
The other way to approach this is to experience how things are done in the real world. First, you do, and then you put language around it. Then you’re able to talk about it with the belief and experience that you actually know what you learned. It’s not “know and be able to do.” It’s “do and be able to know.” It’s about being with people you want to learn from. That happens all the time in the real world.
This book talks about new ways of doing, and we show examples of these new forms of learning at various Big Picture sites and programs. For example, B-Unbound is a platform that is youth-driven and adult supported. B-U is essentially Big Picture Learning without the boundaries of a school—youth development organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs—these kinds of organizations give young people access to adults based around their interests so they can actually learn in the real world. Whether it’s for credit or not, it’s about bringing meaning into their lives around the things that they like to do and with people they want to be with.
New ways lead to new forms, and that leads to new measures. For us, that came in the form of the International Big Picture Learning Credential (IBPLC), which our colleagues in Australia developed in a partnership with the University of Melbourne—we can talk more about that a little later.
Q: What are some of the most inspirational impacts the Big Picture design has had on communities?
Elliot: I’m always inspired by the sheer reach of Big Picture and the ways in which community-wide transformations are being realized globally. The first thing that comes to mind are the Aboriginal communities in Australia. There are 55 Big Picture schools in Australia, and we have an influence on policy discussions around these new ways, new forms, and new measures. But that said, we have schools in some of the most remote places on Earth, for example, in the Northwest territories. You might wonder how Big Picture Learning got all the way to the other side of the world and Aboriginal people saying, “Yes, we want this.”
The Big Picture design starts with a practice of gaining experience and then building language around the practice. It works for a lot of people, which is why the design has spread internationally. I couldn’t really understand how it was spreading until I saw it in action in schools across Africa, Italy, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. With the creation of the IBPLC, Aboriginal people wishing to access opportunities in higher education can do so without standardized testing and with an accreditation that values learning that is meaningful to them.
Another example is in Newark, New Jersey. I got together with Joe Youcha who is the Director of Building to Teach and has a close relationship with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Joe and I had been wanting to meet for many years, and when we finally did I said, “Isn’t it a little crazy that you have to wait until you’re 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED in order to be in a pre-apprenticeship program?”
Why wait so long? You’re going to lose the kids. You miss out on young people who may not traditionally go into the field—people of color, women, LGBTQ+ folks. Social capital will help these young people get into and stick with the trade. Joe shared that the Building to Teach curriculum is written at a fifth-grade level, so I asked why can’t young people start an apprenticeship earlier than post-high school so they have access to these opportunities and mentors.
We started the 3-1-1 program. For three days, learners are at a building site. For one day, they’re focused on instruction to build literacy and numeracy skills in the context of their practical work. They’re reading to learn things that hold meaning to them and they are applying their numeracy skills as they work in the field. And for the fifth day, they are with a mentor carpenter who is either a journeyman or retired to start showing them the ropes and some tricks of the trade.
For Big Picture learners, the students are also in the Harbor Freight Fellows (HFF) initiative, a program that is a partnership between Big Picture Learning and the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. HFF elevates the respect and resources accorded youth (and their teachers). It supports youth for whom the trades are the appropriate and chosen post-secondary path to a fulfilling life as a professional and community member–especially those who have been historically marginalized in the trades through race, ethnicity, or gender bias.
So from an early age, these young people are gaining social capital and mentorship. And it’s been a huge piece of workforce development in Newark. We couldn’t have done this as Big Picture alone; it took Joe working with workforce development, politicians, the school district, the mayor’s office, and the community through the Carpenter’s Union to really make it happen.
We see examples of the community coming together like that time and time again. That’s inspirational transformation to me—when the community gets involved, then everybody’s all in to make it happen.
Whether you call it learner-centered or student-driven, adult-supported education, as we do at Big Picture, it’s about finding your edge and declaring it your center, having adults to support you, and having learners in the driver’s seat.
Co-founder, Big Picture Learning
Q: What makes you optimistic about the future and spread of learner-centered education?
Elliot: Whether you call it learner-centered or “student-driven, adult-supported” education, as we do at Big Picture, it’s about finding your edge and declaring it your center, having adults to support you, and having learners in the driver’s seat. It’s your learning and your choice, with adult support.
I feel optimistic but I’m also worried. I’m realistic that there are countervailing forces all over the place. The bureaucracy and overregulation of the conventional system are very strong. We can’t overlook that. That’s the pull back to the center in a different sort of way.
That being said, there are more and more parents saying “no” to standardized testing, and seeing the anxiety, depression, and harm that kids are experiencing by not learning in a way that works for them. COVID helped shine a new light on this because parents were seeing how their kids were really learning in schools. You can’t mandate what matters, and I think a lot of people are finding meaning in their lives through community, family, and work. I think parents want the same thing for their kids and that we’ll see an even larger groundswell of parents looking for something new. That’s where B-Unbound comes in.
Q: How do you see the International Big Picture Learning Credential (IBPLC) as a tool that could shape the future of learning?
Elliot: The IBPLC does something nobody else has done, and I give all the credit in the world to Viv White and her colleagues in Big Picture Learning in Australia and at the University of Melbourne. The purpose of it is to credential real-world learning in a meaningful, authentic, and valid way.
The first thing Viv did is form a partnership with the University of Melbourne to develop algorithms around things that we already know about learning. We would always say, “If our instruments were only as good as our eyes—but nobody in the world trusts our eyes anymore.”
Big Picture Australia took our learning goals and the personal qualities to develop a framework around them. They then assessed teacher judgment, student self-assessment, and mentor judgment. The University of Melbourne developed algorithms for those things that said, “Yes! What you’re seeing in each and every student and how people are moderating those conversations across staff with students, mentors, and families is real.”
It eliminates the need for standardized tests to get into university because it has been validated and warranted by the University of Melbourne’s psychometricians. The IBPLC shows how you are smart, not how smart you are compared to a test. You’re not comparing against anybody but yourself. It also accredited learning that happens either in or outside of school. Learning can happen anywhere at any time, and this helps to make that learning count! It helps to validate the learning of many types of learners, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful.
I use this example in the book, but it’s like what happened with the James Beard Awards for the culinary arts. They were seeing the same people or types of restaurants winning awards. So, they assessed and changed the criteria to make it more reflective of the different types of restaurants and chefs out there. Instead of keeping standards the same and hoping for different results, they changed the standards around what they were measuring, and I applaud them for that.
The IBPLC is changing the standards for education in a meaningful way. We brought it to the United States with funding from the LEGO Foundation, and it’s currently in California, New York, and Washington State. We’re looking for a partner to work with the University of Melbourne to warrant the credential in the States, and we’re currently in talks with Arizona State University. It’s exciting and gets us one big step closer to truly giving young people access to learning that works for and is meaningful to them.
Learning to Leave—How Real-World Learning Transforms Education is available now!