Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Some Thought on the Big Picture Company

Take Ted Sizer’s idea of portfolios, throw in John Taylor Gatto’s notion of community as school, and mix with just a tad of Neill’s Summerhillian freedom. That’s a good opening recipe for the Big Picture Company.

I’m blogging on this because of Craig’s request for a little more information on this topic that I mentioned in a comment to Ken’s posting about re-envisioning the educational system. I must admit that I am very much an outsider to the Big Picture Company and have only followed it as an interested layperson who is always searching out paradigmatically alternative educational models.

What started as a single high school in Rhode Island a decade ago is now a network of 32 high schools around the country (not many in a country of 110,000 schools; but that’s not the point). Some of the distinguishing characteristics are: each school enrolls a maximum of 130 or so students; students work individually with teachers and family members to develop a personalized curriculum that includes a core set of courses; internships in the community are critical to making the curriculum real-world applicable; the schools take seriously their commitment to engaging and linking with the local community and family.

The Big Picture Company has received grants from such big players as the Gates Foundation, has been endorsed by the likes of Ted Sizer, and has received glowing press coverage from Education Week, ASCD, and others. There are no academic research studies of it that I am aware of, though a fair number of popular pieces have been written about it (which can be found here and here).

What I find genuinely striking about this movement is their deep commitment to and operationalization of the idea of “one student at a time” (as their own motto states). This is personal, genuine, and time-intensive learning. This is not about passing tests or seat time; it is showing how learning matters and is actually applicable to the student and to the student’s community. It is also striking that the schools predominantly serve urban, lower-class populations. At a time of public education’s fascination with the lock-step direct instruction curricular and pedagogical approach for such populations, The Big Picture Company is producing dynamic graduation and test score results without demeaning practices. Additionally, I find the central aspect of internships superb, as they offer a real-world linkage that all too often is an add-on and meaningless component of public schools. The by-now standard “volunteerism” required by most high schools is a pale and truly corrosive practice to genuine engagement.

I am trying to avoid waxing eloquent here, but this idea really breaks the mold of traditional educational models in a drastic way. Much like charter schools have forced traditional schooling to confront alternative operational models, the Big Picture Company (at least for me and the students I introduce it to) forces a rethinking of what we mean by “doing” school.

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