Big Picture: Student-Centered & Competency-Based Learning

After winning a big grant, Ted Sizer, the founding director of Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, asked Dennis Littky to join him.  As the principal of Thayer High School in New Hampshire, Littky had been recognized as the 1993 National Principal of the Year.  Thayer was an early member of Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, a movement based on a model for American high schools outlined in his 1984 book “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.”

Littky lasted about a year at the think tank while plotting his next high school.  He and Elliot Washor established Big Picture Learning in 1995. “After garnering considerable community support, the state legislature approved the concept for the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, informally referred to as ‘the Met’,” according to their site. The first of the six Providence area schools opened in 1996 with a freshman class of 50 students–mostly ‘at-risk’ students who ‘did not fit’ in conventional schools.

The Met opened in the Shepard Building, the office of the Rhode Island Department of Education. (Innovate Manhattan Charter School in the basement of Tweed Courthouse is the only other such arrangement to my knowledge.) Farsighted Rhode Island commissioner Peter McWalters appreciated what Littky and Washor were trying to accomplish. I spoke to the first graduating class in 2000 (see feature photo).

As Littky describes in The Big Picture, a 2004 ASCD book, the innovative interest-based school model is focused on educating one student at a time. Students are “assessed on their performance, on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, heart, and behavior that they display – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.”

The Learning through Interest internship program is at the heart of real world learning pedagogy at Big Picture schools. Advisors identify areas of student interest and help construct an internship–usually work-based learning –that becomes central to student experience. In addition to work-based learning, “all kids take a college class,” said Littky. To learn more, purchase the Learning Through Interest Coordinator Guide.

In 2001, the Met expanded to the Peace Street campus and Littky and Washor built plans to become a national network.  While visiting the Pease Street, Cece Cunningham and I hatched plans for the Early College High School network.

Big Picture became the lead convener of the Alternative High School Initiative in 2003 and won grants to develop more new schools. The Met opened an innovative four academy campus on Public Street.  Principal Nancy Diaz has worked at the Met since graduating from college in 1998.

Now in its 17th year, the Met serves nearly 900 students and anchors the Big Picture network of more than 100 schools. The network is gaining popularity in the Netherlands and Australia.

While Washor helps schools implement Big Picture practices, Littky spends most of his time these days on higher education. College Unbound concentrates on adult learners, helping them both work and attend school full time. Working with Charter Oak St College, Littky is committed to getting adults a degree in a flexible high tech-high touch delivery system. College Unbound uses Course Networking, a Facebook-like interface that coordinates the blend of online and work-based learning.

Working with Southern New Hampshire University, Littky is looking for ways to offer competency-based associates degrees to high school students. The Met will be testing the program with 3 advisors and 50 students this fall.

Radical personalization is the core innovation of the Big Picture school model–it was flex before we knew what to call it.  Their approach to internships remains a best practice. Twenty years after Littky’s groundbreaking work at Thayer, the rest of us are finally talking about student-centered competency-based learning.
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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