We – that is the newly formed charity Big Picture Learning (BPL) UK, supported by Innovation Unit – are opening the UK’s first Big Picture Learning school in January 2019, commissioned by Doncaster Council.
There is lots to share about BPL and not much space. It is an astonishingly successful new school design. It is also radically different from the paradigm of ‘school’ that has become institutionalised in the UK. It was founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor about 20 years ago as a contribution to the impetus in the US to explore new school models. They started by asking: “If we didn’t know that there was such a thing as ‘school’, what set of experiences would we design, starting with a blank sheet?” There are now 150+ BPL schools around the world and the results are extraordinary – they have been endorsed by multiple research reports and findings, by the Gates Foundation, by President Obama and by the recent XQ nation-wide school design competition.
For example, BPL schools overall have 98% graduation levels, even though they often work with students who have dropped out of mainstream education.
However, despite their astonishing success, even more astonishing is the fact that until now there are no BPL schools in the UK. All this concern about school improvement; about transforming outcomes for students; about school exclusions; about disengagement; about stress and mental health concerns – and no-one has thought to try what is quite possibly the most radically different and evidentially successful new school model. If you want to know more, this recent article from Australia (which only introduced BPL about five years ago) will give some indication of its potential: “There is a better way of teaching bored Australian students”.
Our visit to The Met
That is a bit of context. This post is about our visit to The Met. One of the things that BPL insists upon is that those involved in starting up a BPL school undertake an immersion experience, often in their original (and now iconically successful) school, The Met. It is in fact a suite of six small schools, each of about 300 students, mainly on one campus – and recently incorporating also College Unbound, a provision for adults who were failed by the education system, many recruited from the criminal justice system.
So, for a week in late October 2018 the principal designate and Practice Lead of BP Doncaster, the CEO of BPL UK and two Board trustees (both steeped in education),one senior Doncaster LA official and I (an Innovation Unit Senior Associate supporting implementation) headed off to Providence near Boston for our week’s facilitated immersion experience. Elliot Washor hosted us, Dennis Littky engaged with us, all their staff opened up their practice to us, every classroom was open to us and, above all, to be truthful, each and every student we engaged with articulated their individual narratives, their personal learning plans, their exhibitions and their aspirations for the future.
Enough preamble. You can find out more about BPL here: https://www.bigpicture.org/. This post is about what we learned.
10 things I think we learned
1. Engagement precedes content learning – it doesn’t happen the other way around
Who might ever imagine it being other than this? The deferred gratification model of engagement – “You will need good results to get a good job in the real world” – has never worked for most of those from socio-economically challenging backgrounds, or those without strong support systems, or those without a successful family educational history, or those without a sense of who they might become. Why might we think that it would? Schools consistently say that a key problem is low aspirations – from students and/or parents. Well, let’s guess whose role it might be to help every student to have meaningful personal goals and aspirations! Might it be the school? That is exactly where BPL starts.
2. Relationships, relationships, relationships
Truth: in UK secondary schools, young people are not well known. They have perhaps 12 or more teachers a week, none of whom have more than three hours contact in a class of 25+ (and these are teachers who will teach 200+ students a week). Students are not well known. At The Met there are two key relationships: the Teacher Advisor (up to 21 hours a week) and the Internship mentor (up to 15 hours). There may be a number of mentors over time, but only one Teacher Advisor for the time in school. What was profoundly evident at The Met is that these deep and responsible relationships really, really matter.
3. The conventional paradigm of schooling constrains student engagement, initiative and learning. Not so The Met.
Most people working in the school system instinctively know this. All the research on student engagement says that it declines significantly as young people travel through the system. Engagement in learning at secondary level is low and even amongst those who appear engaged, passive disengagement is endemic. Ask young people to name one word that characterises their experience of school and most will say ‘boring’. Not, though, at The Met. None would say that. Why? Because their whole study programme derives from their passions. Their entire personal learning plan is shaped by and generates purposeful engagement.
4. Schools don’t have to be configured around subjects and lessons and timetables
It sometimes seems that we know no other way (although not in primary schools). In fact, the historical classification of knowledge into ‘subjects’ is an anachronism. It is perpetuated by the UK exam structure and by the university tradition of preparing subject specialists. And the ubiquitous ‘one hour lesson’ is a design to fit in all the 10 or more subjects and teachers that a young person will see each week. In primary school this pattern doesn’t exist to the same extent and it doesn’t need to in secondary. At The Met students have whole day ‘learning designs’ – advisory sessions designed by their Teacher Adviser and shaped by their personal learning plan.
5. There are better ways to assess students’ learning and skills than tests and exams
This is such a truism that we hardly needed to travel to Providence to learn it. However, seeing the combination of exhibition, portfolio, presentation and artefact generation to represent and demonstrate learning and skills was like entering a world of tranquil sanity. In a PBL phrase, exhibition rocks.
6. Culture – and students owning the school’s culture – really, really matters
Every school has a culture. In BPL it is explicit, pervasive, articulated in multiple words and deeds and is self-consciously owned and espoused by the students. A trivial but potent example is that in September, when litter starts appearing on The Met site from the new freshmen they just get the juniors and seniors together and ask them to sort it out – and it happens. Any tough question from us that had a cultural dimension, they just let the students answer for them.
7. It’s a religion, and belief matters. It’s a cult
BPL schools tend to be populated by staff who profoundly believe in the humanity of the approach and its power to transform. It is a form of collective belief system. Faced with scepticism they will say: “Everyone thinks it won’t work. You have to believe that it will – and it does.” That belief includes students, too. It is so pervasive that The Met (like High Tech High when we visited) comes across on day one of the visit as cultish – it can feel esoteric, everyone using the same vocabulary. They talk it up together and you feel on the outside, critiquing. By day three you understand that the cultishness is just a verbal and behavioural manifestation of everyone’s shared belief in the approach – the symbols and rituals of a tight-loose environment.
8. Parents are embraced as primary educators and significant partners
Every school I know would talk up its commitment to parents. For most schools that I know it is an arms’ length, occasional, patronising relationship held on the school’s terms. In BPL schools parents are active, co-creating, engaged and involved partners. The belief is that BPL doesn’t recruit students to the school, it recruits families.
9. Growing the number of meaningful adult relationships creates opportunity, engagement and learning pathways
One of the abiding successes of the UK’s public (i.e. private, privileged) schooling system has been the strength of its old boys’ network (gender, unfortunately, apt). Put more generically, people frequently succeed because of their social capital – the number of people that they know who can help them. BPL recognises this and builds relational capital into the design. One of the intentional features of the internship mentor element is “to increase the number of significant adult relationships in each young person’s life”. That level of purposefulness is built into the explicit social contract with mentors. In turn they get to be meaningfully involved in the work of the school and they get to contribute to real world success in the lives of students. They change lives.
10. Peer-to-peer support is a massive multiplier
Advisory is family. Students spend most of their three days in school together in advisory. Teacher advisers stay with their crew year on year. It is 15 students and 1 adviser. It is 16 learners and 16 teachers; 16 people who look out for one another and support each other to success. What’s not to like?
There are great and not-so-good BPL schools. There is a danger of over-hyping, over-glorifying The Met and other BPL schools. Dennis Littky is the first to say that there are exemplar BPL schools and there are those just not so good. There is a spectrum, just as with all schools. But the best are very, very good and the those less good are still doing a fine job and striving to do it better. The same is true within any BPL school. There are astonishing teachers and there are those still struggling to acquire the craft knowledge. Of course there are; they are human systems.
That having been said, it is hard to spend a week at The Met and not to come back to the UK changed. It offers a paradigm shift in how to do school, which is transformative enough. It also, though, demonstrates a visible and tangible and inspiring step change in what students are able to achieve within such a context when supported with rigour.