Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Simple Ed Reform Solution - Connect School Life to Real Life

"Dennis Littky provides a setting where young people and adults can explore the world together, discover their passions and apply themselves to solving their own and the world's problems!"
- Deborah Meir
Many high school students complain they don’t like school for some very good reasons. They report it is boring, irrelevant, and disconnected from real life. They have a passion for life, but not for school. But it doesn’t have to be this way and there’s a place where it isn’t. It's called The MET and it is one of dozens of schools around the world that make up the Big Picture Company.

These schools are havens for public school students who have struggled in conventional classrooms. There is a waiting list to get in and once they do, not only do they have one of the highest attendance rates, but there is also a 98% college acceptance rate. What’s more, unlike many graduates of traditional schools, Big Picture graduates say they feel prepared for college and career success.

What’s their secret?
Connect school life to real life by doing things differently.

Here’s how

  1. Instead of teachersThere are advisers who work with students making a multi-year commitment to serve as their coach, mentor, teacher, and friend who guide and supports them in managing their personalized learning plan and Learning Through Internship/Interest placement. Home visits are not only encouraged, they’re a part of the relationship.
  2. Instead of gradesThere are authentic assessments such as public exhibitions of work, check ins, reflective journals, portfolios, and feedback from their real world mentors at work.
  3. Instead of desks in rows in classrooms where the focus is the teacher… There are chairs around a table in what resembles a conference room where the focus is each other.
  4. Instead of bells and classes… There are meetings and appointments.
  5. Instead of relegating all learning to be locked inside the school building... Students spend two days a week pursuing their interests and/or passions with mentors where they are learning through internships(LTIs)  that they seek out in the real world. Additionally, all learning that happens outside of the school day and year is captured and documented for in school credit.  
  6. Instead of banning and blocking… Students are empowered to learn with the tools they own and choose. This means they can borrow or bring their own laptops, cell phones, etc.
  7. Instead of administrative school policies that are handed down… Students are encouraged to take a leadership role in the school and student voice is valued in decision making processes.
  8. Instead of starting the day in class... Students get: an early morning Pick-Me-Up. Blogger Ewan McIntosh explains it this way: Someone shares a story, what they've been doing: a student, a teacher, the Principal, an 'outsider'. They effectively give a face-to-face blog, where the comments come thick and fast and a dialogue begins.
  9. Instead of only focusing on being prepared to work for someone else… Students can participate in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program where they learn to run businesses, and the best are supported and funded. These students are provided with real offices in which to do run their real businesses.
  10. Instead of standardizing to the system… Learning is customized to each student via their individual learning plans which look like this and this that are developed based on the student’s individual interests, talents, and needs. These are created and updated with the learning team which includes, but is not limited to, the student, parent(s), advisor, and internship mentor. Students share and celebrate their work via exhibitions.
  11. Instead of grades and test scores as the primary measure of student success… The main goals of assessment are to help the student reflect on his or her work, create strategies to improve, and develop his or her own internal standards.  Evaluation processes should be learning experiences within themselves, strengthening the quality of students’ work and their understanding of themselves as learners.  The use of multiple assessment tools is vital to determine a student’s progress and finding creative solutions to help students build on strengths and address gaps.  The whole student must be addressed, looking at each project and activity in light of the student’s personal learning plan. MET students learn to reflect on their work with the question, “Is it good enough?” the work is measured against standards of the real world held by the mentor and internship worksite as well as the exhibition panel.  Everyone involved in the student’s life and learning – including their family, peers and mentors – is asked to participate in the evaluation process.  The MET’s key elements for student assessment include: exhibitions; digital portfolios; narratives; and, transcripts.
  12. Instead of test scores as the primary measure of teacher and school accountability… The schools is held accountable to the students and parents via School Accountability for Learning and Teaching Surveys, which are the culmination of intensive surveys of parents, students, and teachers. When it comes to students, of utmost importance to school leaders are things like, that students feel respected, cared about, and inspired by their teachers, they feel comfortable talking to school staff, that staff keeps them interested and will work with students until they understand the area of study. When it comes to parents, school leaders want them to know that staff cares about their children, that the child is learning to their potential, and that they are safe.  At The MET school they had high parent engagement and the school scored highest in the state in most every category.



There is a method to their magic.  Here are some of the components that drive the work at The MET. Many of these practices are incorporated at varying levels at all Big Picture Schools.



Learning goals*
There are five learning goals for students which are guided by four arenas explained below. Learning goals are a framework for looking at real-world concepts and abilities necessary to being a successful, well-rounded person. The learning goals are not content-oriented curricula, nor are they completely distinct categories. Good project work incorporates many overlapping elements of the learning goals.
  1. Empirical reasoning - How do I prove it?
    This goal is to think like a scientist: to use empirical evidence and a logical process to make decisions and to evaluate hypotheses. It does not reflect specific science content material, but instead can incorporate ideas from physics to sociology to art theory.
  2. Personal qualities - What do I bring to this process?
    This goal is to be the best you can be: to demonstrate respect, responsibility, organization, leadership, and to reflect on your abilities and strive for improvement.
  3. Quantitative reasoning - How do I measure, compare or represent it?
    This goal is to think like a mathematician: to understand numbers, to analyze uncertainty, to comprehend the properties of shapes, and to study how things change over time.
  4. Social reasoning - What are other people’s perspectives on this?
    This goal is to think like an historian or anthropologist: to see diverse perspectives, to understand social issues, to explore ethics, and to look at issues historically.
  5. Communication - How do I take in and express ideas?
    This goal is to be a great communicator: to understand your audience, to write, read, speak and listen well, to use technology and artistic expression to communicate, and to be exposed to another language.



Here is what student learning looks like in these four arenas.

1) Real World Learning*
These are the core elements that make real-world learning work at Big Picture schools.
  • Learning plans for EVERY student - There are neither formal courses nor a standard curricular sequence. Instead, with an advisor, mentor, and family, each student charts quarterly planned activities against the school’s five learning goals and a series of questions.
  • Interest exploration -
    In a school that views students’ passions as the spark to deep learning, an early task facing Met students is to uncover their own interests.
  • Learning through internships (LTI) - The primary vehicle for learning at The Met, LTIs push students to gain knowledge and skills in the context of authentic work and to develop one-on-one relationships with an adult professional—real world learning in name and practice.
  • Making academics come alive - Advisors and LTI mentors work in concert to provide students with the academic content needed to complete project-based work, with advisors and other staff typically providing whatever tutoring or assistance is necessary back at school.
  • Summer learning -
    Pursuing activities like travel, adventure programs, apprenticeships, or college classes is a requirement for every student. These summer experiences should push students into unfamiliar territory—teaching special needs kids in a camp or building a school in the Dominican Republic. Advisors help students find such opportunities as well as the financial aid or funding they may require.



2) Reflection and Accountability*
These are the key structures through which students demonstrate accountability for their learning.
  • Narrative assessment - Narrative assessments take the place of grades and report cards. They document a student’s academic and personal progress, noting specific areas of growth and areas needing attention, and suggest revisions to the subsequent Learning Plan. At the end of each year, students use their narratives to prepare, with help from their advisor, a one-page transcript, an official and public document that records the year’s work and learning.
  • Exhibitions -
    Each quarter students give a roughly 45- minute exhibition presentation of work to a panel comprising the advisor, mentor, family, peers, and other staff. Students present evidence of progress in all aspects of their Learning Plan and respond to questions and critique from panelists.
  • Senior Institute Gateways - Tenth graders apply to the senior institute (11th/12th grade). In addition to a portfolio, they present letters of recommendation (from the advisor, mentor, family, and a peer), plus a written defense that shows they are ready to take increasing responsibility for their own learning and to play an active leadership role in school.
  • Internalizing high standards - Students report that they work harder and learn more than they ever have before. The processes of giving and receiving feedback, collecting a portfolio of work, and making regular public presentations contribute greatly to a school culture that embraces high standards.



3) Voice and agency*
Students are encouraged to speak up, to find and tap their voice, to identify their strengths and pursue their passions.
  • Journals - Journals help students express ideas and concerns that are still rough or not meant to be broadly shared. Students practice putting down on paper what they think, supported by an adult committed to listening.
  • College portfolios - Students apply to college, even if they do not go—right away or ever. (Over three-quarters head straight to college.) The school embraces the college application process as a tool for helping students dream big, set high standards for their work, and hone their presentation of self.
  • Public speaking and writing - Speaking and writing for public audiences are a constant.  Morning “Pick-Me-Ups” (the school-wide gathering that starts each day) provide a ready stage, as do “town meetings” and other school events. Internships offer another forum, as students make presentations to their adult work colleagues. Students are also encouraged to raise their voices as citizens.
  • Success stories - The book-length autobiographies written in junior and senior year stand alongside the unwritten personal stories they weave, day in and out. As seniors receive their diploma, advisors deliver the “short version” of these success stories, an oral tribute to the graduate for all to hear.



4) Sustained relationships*
Relationships under gird all learning. Keeping adults and other students at bay is not an option. Students build close relationships with an advisor, community mentors, and other faculty, if they are to fulfill their personal learning plans. They must also commit to an advisory group made up of peers, plus substantial give-and-take with the larger school community and  students accept their parents as learning partners.
  • Advisors - Teachers are known as advisors and facilitate the learning of the students in their advisory group. They help students create learning plans, identify interests, find internships, develop projects, and manage their time. They also work closely with their advisees’ mentors. Advisors stay with the same students until they graduate resulting advisor-student bond runs deep.
  • Mentors - Mentors guide and coach students in their Learning Through internships (LTI) work. As part of the student’s learning team, the mentor helps students develop projects that have real consequence and value—to the student, mentor, and workplace. Mentors stand as living examples of career possibilities and as role models of contributing community members.
  • Advisories - Advisors and their students—are home base, the close-knit unit where students and faculty gather for an hour each morning to launch their day and where they return every afternoon for a half-hour before the day ends. Advisories give students a place to practice new skills and develop their identities with a safety net.
  • Parents - Families, not just students are enrolled in the school. This means parents are essential “learning partners” who sign a contract agreeing to attend quarterly learning plan meetings and exhibitions.. Parents, teachers, students, and siblings frequently gather on campus for shared activities.
  • The School as Family - Small size, intimate advisory system, and insistence on parent participation go far towards making the school feel like a family and several features extend these connections and family feel even after graduation.  



Thanks to the innovative leadership of Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, Big Picture Schools are one of the few learning models that manages to get public funding despite the fact that they are devoid of the cornerstones that make up most schools such as classes, teachers, incessant testing, or grades.  They’ve been doing this for 17 years by helping student to capture real-world/real-life learning and translate it as necessary into the buckets required by the traditional public school system or transcripts required by some colleges…though in many cases colleges find the authentic and insightful portfolios and learning plans more useful than transcripts.

Unfortunately, due to the accountability movement as of late, the school has been forced to cut important services and programs, such as social workers, to increase spending on standardized test success. Despite this setback that limits choices and freedom, Dennis Littky advises that “We must determine that for which we will fight and never compromise those values.” In the case of Big Picture Schools that means they can still remain true to the core values that lead to real, relevant, and meaningful learning.



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For you visual and auditory, learners, this video from Big Picture Program Leader, Geoff Allmand, does a great job of showing what his school is like. Big Picture Education - Interest based learning by scratchie on GoAnimate

Create Video - Powered by GoAnimate.




*Information excerpted from preceding links at the MET school site.
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