BACK IN 1995, TWO RADICAL THINKERS AND EDUCATORS CAME TOGETHER because they knew it was time for a change—a change in how the world saw learning, kids, and education. They had a vision to redesign education in a way that “put students directly at the center of their own learning.” Fortuitously, one small state was getting ready to take a risk with its own education system—Rhode Island. Thus, the first Big Picture Learning school—the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“The Met”) in Providence, RI—was born.
Since then, Big Picture Learning has spread both across the country—now with 65 locations in 18 states—and across a few oceans—with schools in the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, and Canada. Big Picture Learning’s design has proven itself again and again. And, not just for one kind of kid. The Big Picture Learning design has been successful across the wide diversity of learners it serves, be they at-risk, over-age, under-credited, or gifted learners. It works for kids in all zip codes, with different life stories, possessing different interests, passions, and challenges. How does it do this?
With no classes, grades, or tests, Big Picture Learning’s competency-based environments are designed to see each learner as an individual. No two learning pathways are alike—learners, with the support of their mentors, parents, and peers, leverage Big Picture’s design components and distinguishers to create individualized learning plans. What this all comes to is that Big Picture is a place where kids learn how to learn, not where they are instructed in topics, subjects, or information. In fact, five learning goals frame how each learner approaches their work: 1) Empirical Reasoning, 2) Quantitative Reasoning, 3) Communication, 4) Social Reasoning, 5) Personal Qualities.
And, authentic assessments—“public displays of learning that track growth and progress in the learner’s area of interest”—are how they demonstrate their learning. Whether through an oral presentation, an art project, a business plan, or a story, how learners show their learning is just as personalized as how they learn.
In practice, Big Picture learners spend their time in advisories and internships. Advisories, a cohort of 15 learners and one adult advisor, stay together for four years building bonds and relationships that last a lifetime. This socially embedded practice is the “heart and soul” of the Big Picture design. A second key component is the Learning through Interests and Internships (LTIs). LTIs are learning made personalized, relevant, and contextualized. Learners step up and identify their area of interest and then find an opportunity to work with an expert out in their community. Through the LTIs, they gain open-walled experiences with “how their interests intersect with the real world”—learners are discovering if what they think they are interested in is actually what they are interested in.
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 program initiatives—like College Unbound and the Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship—they are amplifying more voices and shifting more mindsets every day.