Voices from the Field 08 September 2016 By Zakiya Reid
Big Bang: The International Conference on Student-Centered Learning is an experience not to be missed. This July, I was fully immersed in the Big Picture Learning (BPL) culture while attending my first Big Bang. The experience was a whirlwind adventure—I felt like a firsthand witness of BPL’s commitment to putting learners at the center.
A Newcomer’s Introduction
If you have ever attended a Big Bang, you know that the 10 Distinguishers are always present throughout the conference experience, and there was one in particular that struck me most fervently. Advisory Structure provides an unparalleled opportunity for conference participants to reflect, connect with others, and broaden their perspectives. A couple of weeks before the conference, I learned I was placed in an advisory group with other newcomers to learn the basics of the organization. In our first advisory session, which was virtual and occurred a week before the conference, our advisor guided us through a process of discovery to uncover our unique essential question for exploration during the conference. My chosen question was: “How does equity show up in a learner-centered environment?” (More on that below!) Each day, we met with our advisory group to reflect, share, ask questions, and simply connect—much like you would see in a BPL environment.
Learners at the Center
Learners have always been at the center of BPL’s efforts and the Big Bang 2016 was no exception. Last year, BPL set an audacious goal to have learners at every table at this year’s conference—and they did. In Big Picture’s first-ever youth conference, approximately 50 BPL learners and 500 educators from across the country were gathered in one place. Learners were not on the periphery of the conference experience either. Rather, they played an integral role in the programming—making the learning relevant for all of us. The experiment was so successful, BPL plans to expand the number of learners and roles they play in future conferences.
This work is not only about creating better learning environments, it’s about creating a community for learners to thrive.
The Big Bang 2016 Experience
The Big Bang is a two and a half day experience designed for educators and learners to explore practices that promote learner engagement. The sessions were described as “dives” into critical learning content. Between the “dives,” conference participants took part in a myriad of activities to build community, learn from one another, and simply have fun. We were taken back to the future in presentations by co-founders, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, and Co-Executive Directors, Andrew Frishman and Carlos Moreno. Below, I’ve tried to capture the essence of the daily “dive” experience.
Day 1 of the conference consisted of learners and educators working together in two, 90-minute sessions called “mini-dives.” The mini-dive topics ranged from learners leading a session on how to include their voices in creating learner-centered environments to BPL leaders guiding us through a discussion on using integrative thinking to solve complex problems. During each mini-dive, participants were encouraged to actively consider their essential question and how they might use their new learning beyond the conference.
Day 2 of the conference was reserved for learners to extend their learning beyond the walls of the conference, while educators engaged in a full-day inquiry, called “deep dives.”
“Leaving to Learn” experiences allowed learners to engage with and learn from the Orlando community. Learners were able to put their problem solving skills to the test at the local Escape Room, unleash their imaginations beyond their wildest dreams in a session with Disney Imagineers, or explore a variety of other opportunities.
Taking my place in the educator cohort, I was immediately struck by the unique opportunity to learn with a diverse group of educators, parents, BPL alumni, and advocates about what equity must look like in our learning environments—and it was exactly the inquiry I had hoped we would explore. The deep-dive broadened my definition of equity and challenged me to consider the ways that equity education, for educators and learners, has the capacity to powerfully impact our learning communities.
Day 3 was devoted to Sir Ken Robinson sharing his latest research and recommendations on how to transform learning environments. I think it is fair to say his words are best experienced by listening to them yourself—his keynote address can be found here.
The impact of having learners present at the conference was palpable. I was greatly impacted by the opportunity to learn with and from the current learners and alumni. The significance of the BPL experience shined through the powerful stories I heard and deep understanding I gained of how it has impacted these learners’ future pursuits.
I met an alum who had recently celebrated her 10-year reunion. She spoke passionately about the connection she still shares with her BPL classmates and advisor. Ultimately, her experience at BPL influenced her decision to become an educator. She is now educating young learners in her home community and hopes to become an advisor at the the BPL environment she attended. Her story, like so many I encountered at the Big Bang, illustrates the power of placing learners at the center. This work is not only about creating better learning environments, it’s about creating a community for learners to thrive.
Zakiya Reid is a consultant for Education Reimagined. Zakiya has been an educator for 16 years in both the charter and public school settings in the Washington, DC area. In 2013, she left school-based work to embark on a quest to devote her time and talent to initiatives that actively work to disrupt the status quo in education.