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Q&A: Dennis Littky, co-founder, Big Picture Learning

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Unorthodox teaching methods such as allowing students to take on real-world projects like lobbying for legislation have earned Big Picture Learning $25 million in Gates Foundation funding and helped it expand to more than 100 schools around the world.

Dennis Littky realized in seventh grade that school was "a game to be played." He's spent his adulthood working to change that.

Littky is co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, a collaborative of more than 50 schools -- and one college -- worldwide that espouses a strikingly different version of education than the traditional model. I spoke recently with Littky about following student interests, saving dropouts, measuring success and more. Below are excerpts from our interview.

How did Big Picture Learning get started and how has it evolved since?

Big Picture Learning started in 1995 with Elliot Washor and myself. I've been a principal my whole life. I came to Brown [University] to work and the commissioner asked us if we'd start a school. We had just set up Big Picture Learning the nonprofit because we were interested in how to spread the word on the work we'd been doing over the last 20 years around the country. Then we started the Met School in Providence.

For the philosophy of Big Picture, we closed our eyes and said: 'If we didn't know there was such a thing as school, what would it be?' It wouldn't be 45-minute classes. It wouldn't be memorization. We'd be trying to engage students. One word high school students use to describe school: boring. It's sad because adolescence is the greatest time of your life. We were going to work on what motivates the students. You start from their interest and passion.

We concentrated on getting the school right our first few years. Then the Gates Foundation came. They fell in love with our school and the model and said, 'Here's $5 million. Give me 10 schools around the country.' We did that very well and they gave us over the next seven years another $20 million to create more schools. Now we have 52 schools in this country. We have 25 in Australia and 25 in the Netherlands. It's a total of around 26,000 students.

Describe your own school experience.

In seventh grade, I understood that school was a game to be played. I didn't read a thing. We made posters for science. People just copied them out of the encyclopedia. I knew schools were not real places of learning. I wasn't bold enough to try to oppose that. I was a good student through elementary, high school and college. I did what I needed to do to get my As and Bs, but I always knew it wasn't right. I entered graduate school and got a degree in education and in psychology.

I started to become a critic of education and to think about how we change it. I just get more radicalized as I get older when I see how bad the system is, how slowly it changes and how it needs to be changed drastically and not tweaked around the edges. I ran a school in 1972 that would be considered radical today. That's sad. That was 40 years ago.

I watched a TED Talk of yours in which you spoke about the huge rate of dropouts in the U.S. Talk about the dropout issue and why it hits home for you.

For first-generation kids going to college -- meaning no one else in their family went to college -- 89 percent drop out. That's pathetic. That isn't the kid's fault. That's what got me on the college piece. The high school piece is about boredom. It doesn't mean anything to them. The only reason some kids stay in school is because that's where their buddies are. I'm not only concerned about the 40 percent who drop out of high school. I'm concerned with the other 30 percent or so who have effectively dropped out, but are still sitting in the seats.

How are Big Picture schools different from the traditional school model? And how are they different from other charter schools?

The great stuff about a charter school is they give people autonomy to develop their own program. They're smaller. They tend to have a younger staff. They're more enthusiastic. But there's nothing about the concept of charter schools that says it'll be different from the school they just came from. The majority of charter schools look just like regular schools. They might work harder and work on Saturdays. They're more personalized. But not many charter schools have done things pedagogically very different.

We know people don't learn by being lectured at. We know people learn by doing things, by constructing the knowledge and figuring stuff out. When did you learn to be a journalist? Your first two years of being a journalist. We have completely changed it around. Rather than have the curriculum come from outside to the students, the curriculum comes from the students. A student comes in and you find out their interest and passion. Most don't know because they've never been asked. We start with a unit called 'Who am I?' You talk about who you are, who your family is, who your community is, who you respect, what you like. We look at different jobs. If you're interested in animals, we visit a vet to see if that's a place for you to intern. We put our students out as ninth graders into the communities working with specialists and people in the field that the kid might be interested in. The object is using the real world to help students learn and be motivated. When someone is the only kid working with an auto mechanic, working in a hospital, they act differently when they're in a school with 200 kids. A kid does job shadows and finds the right place. If they want to work in an elementary school, they're there two days a week. Three days a week they're here without regular classes. I believe everyone should read and write and learn science and math. But I'd rather them set up experiments than memorize the sum. They might decide they hate kids and don't want to work in an elementary school. But while they're there, their projects are real and they're engaged. They love learning. They're passionate about something.

So even if the student doesn't know what they want to be in ninth grade, you say they're still getting a lot out of this process?

It's not the place they're working to be a job. It's a place to work where they can learn the core skills of a job, such as how to be on time. I had a girl get fired because she wasn't on time. I loved it because I can't fire her. She learned. Her next internship, she was great. It presents the real world out there, real people, real expertise. And they learn an area. I don't care what it is.

Can you give an example of a student project in the real world?

There was a kid whose uncle was shot and killed in a bar. The guy who shot him was never caught. This kid was a ninth grader. He worked to get legislation to have cameras on the doors of bars. He had to talk to people, check the laws. He got some camera companies to donate cameras to use as examples. More than I expected of the kids' interests and passions comes out of something they need to solve in their life. It's something like, 'My brother's got asthma. I'm going to try to cure asthma in this country.'

There was a girl who was a terror when she came to us in eighth grade. She wanted to study death. I talked to her parents and they said it was alright. She started visiting funeral homes and cemeteries. It turns out her brothers and sisters were killed coming over from Cambodia. Our students give an exhibition in front of their teachers, their peers and their professional advisors where they're working. I asked her, 'Are you going to continue studying death next semester?' She paused and said, 'Death has been on my mind 98 percent of my life. I've finally cleared it out of my mind. I'm ready to move on.' In a situation like that, you feel so proud you have a school that lets her concentrate on what she needs to work through at the moment. You capture the kids however you can capture them.

Does this make for a more expensive model than traditional education?

We do it on whatever the cost is in the state. California is like $7,000 a kid. New Jersey is around $13,000 per kid. You take the philosophy and you do what you've got to do. You look to redesign. It's easier to talk to mentors online now. You don't have to run to their place all the time. You can get some specialty courses online. Our whole idea was to do it at whatever the particular state's money per child was.

Do you think your model should be replicated everywhere or is it just for a particular type of student?

It should be for everybody. We have a lot of poor kids here, a lot of kids of color. I get a handful of middle-class white parents who don't want their kids in an all-white school and who understand learning. Basically, it's good for every kind of kid because you have an individual learning plan. If I get a math whiz, he's going to be taking a college-level math class. We can give that to him. If a kid needs a certain amount of structure, you give it to him.

I don't say that publicly because I don't feel like arguing with everybody. Basically I say we're a school of choice. If someone wants an exam school where they have courses all in a row, that's fine. I don't try to convince people. We take the kids who can't make it anywhere else. That's most of our kids. So I think it's for everybody, but I'm not trying to convince everybody.

How do you measure success?

We do have to take all the tests because we're a public school. We do a whole lot better than the other urban schools in reading and writing. We look at attendance. Our kids come to school. We have one of the highest attendance rates and one of the highest graduation rates of urban schools and one of the highest college attendance rates. We're doing a longitudinal study. What I really care about is who our kids are in 20 years. In those first years, when we were a small school, we had 98 percent attendance and 97 percent of kids graduating. Our school in Camden, New Jersey, graduates close to 100 percent of its students. We're always up there in terms of attendance. The other data they do for our school here is a survey. One of the questions is, 'Do you feel respected in the school?' Ninety-eight percent of our students said yes. That's the kind of stuff I'm very proud of. It's a healthy place to be.

What's the future of Big Picture Learning?

People are now coming to us more than ever to take pieces of what we're doing to incorporate into their school. We're great at building culture. What's happening a lot especially in some of the backlash to testing mania in our country is that people are looking to us for the culture building, the personalization and the engagement.

There's a college, Southern New Hampshire University, that has developed competencies for an associate's degree. If you do those competencies, then you can get a degree. We're going to be piloting it in the high school. Graduating from high school isn't enough anymore. I always think about getting our students one step ahead of everyone else. With this program, we can keep the same pedagogy. My dream is that kids will graduate with a high school diploma and one to two years of college behind them. Or they'll have a certificate in an area where they can get a job. That's our future.

Our college is in its fourth year. I'm working with adult learners. There are 36 million people in this country who have started school and haven't finished. We know what the barriers are. We know financial aid is all messed up. We know that classes at certain times don't work for people who have a family. Some of the online stuff helps people work at different times, but it's the same old curriculum. We're creating curriculum built around people's jobs in the same way we do with internships. We're integrating them. It's not about access to school anymore. It's about completion.

Photo: Dennis Littky

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure