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The Present

Our schools are built differently. That’s how we’re weathering this pandemic.

‘Know thy students’ is the principle that can change the form of education, worldwide.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • During the coronavirus pandemic, students in close to 200 Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools worldwide have continued their education, thanks to BPL’s unique school design.
  • At BPL, each student is part of a small learning community of 15-20 students called an Advisory, led by a teacher called an Advisor. Students have community mentors, do off-campus internships, and even tackle college courses.
  • Each Advisor truly knows the students in their Advisory. These close ties have allowed learning at BPL to respond and adapt to the challenges presented by coronavirus.

As Big Picture Learning (BPL) approaches its 25th year, we always ask the perennial questions: How are we positioned to grasp emerging opportunities that transform education systems and awaken the possibilities of an engaged population of learners? How might our vision and practice reflect the current, turbulent conditions? With the rules of engagement always being rewritten and old assumptions no longer viable, how do we “up our game” as an organization? We do this by constantly responding with our ‘one student at a time, within a community of fellow learners’ approach.

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During the current coronavirus crisis, our students in close to 200 schools worldwide have continued to engage in their learning because their BPL schools know them—they are supported right now, wherever they are, to use their skills, interests and creativity.

As one of our students stated early on to an Advisor, “We don’t care what you know until we know that you care. Know us.”

Here’s how BPL is different. We are a lively non-profit that proves all young people, including (and especially) our under-served urban and rural students, can succeed in high school, college, or any other post-secondary learning path, trade, service, business or professional career. We make it happen by sticking to three basic principles.

  1. Learning must be based on each student’s interests and needs.
  2. Curriculum must be relevant to the student and allow them to do real work in the real world that also includes real work online.
  3. Students’ growth and abilities must be measured by the quality of their work and how it changes them.

Every day, we strive to form deep ties that connect students, teachers and advisors, parents, mentors, and their entire community.

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How Big Picture Learning Schools

At BPL, each student is part of a small learning community of 15-20 students called an Advisory, led by a teacher called an Advisor. The Advisor helps each student create their own curriculum, a personal one that reflects and expands their own interests and aspirations. School days include off-campus internships generated from and guided by each student’s interest—real-life training in real-world work. It could be in a design studio, research lab, recording studio, law office, bank, airport hangar, hospital—it could be anywhere, including online. BPL students also take college courses. Every quarter they exhibit their work to their Advisor, peers, parents, mentors and the community.

Each student also has an adult mentor outside of school. The parent or adult advocate of each student is also actively enlisted as still another resource for student learning and for the school community.

Big Picture Learning clicks because the student is the curriculum and the community is the school, where everyone is engaged in the learning journey of each and every student.

During the coronavirus pandemic, our students have continued their education, fully supported. We have many students who have continued their community-based internships remotely because they have close ties with their mentors and Advisors. Four of our students who have had an internship with a newspaper recently published their coronavirus experiences in their city newspaper. A student with a Harbor Freight Fellowship in the skilled trades is continuing to build a Tiny House with online mentor and advisor support.

Our Advisors are not only in contact with each other and their students, but they are connecting across schools, districts, states and internationally. Advisors in California and Washington are arranging for their students to connect with BPL students in Europe to build relationships, collaborate on projects and to attend each other’s online exhibitions.

Twelve years ago, Clayton Christensen spent time with BPL and here’s what he said, “Big Picture Learning is a perfect example of a heavyweight team that has redefined—indeed, revolutionized—schooling. By bringing students and their interests to the forefront, Big Picture Learning is a model of student-centered learning, which is key to intrinsically motivating students to provide them with the education they deserve.”

Clay makes great points about BPL. He captures our essence. We strive to make the shift from an intervention model of education to a prevention design where learning is interest-driven, productive and self-directed, where teachers are with students on their learning journeys and not constantly doing something to students. This is how students get engaged. As one of our students stated early on to an Advisor, “We don’t care what you know until we know that you care. Know us.”

Reflecting on BPL’s work, David Gersten, one of our board members, told me today, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” In these times and always, this is BPL. This is how we tick and why we click.


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