Joe, a high school student, was very interested in the Vietnam War. So, to learn more about it, he:
- Worked with a Vietnam veteran creating a new war memorial;
- Took a college course covering the war;
- Spent a summer in a Brown University seminar that teaches educators how to teach the Vietnam War.
This self-directed, student-centered learning was possible for Joe at The Met Center in Providence, Rhode Island, a Big Picture school. Founder Dennis Littky explains, “I asked, ‘Joe, what’s all the interest in the Vietnam War?’ He told me that since he was six years old, he would ask his dad, a veteran, about the war, and his Dad would just walk away.”
For Joe’s final project, he took his father back to Vietnam and developed a website that helped other kids talk to their veteran parents about the war.
“The point was that he got to study something important to him so deeply that it inspired him to go on to college and become a history major,” Littky continues. “Every other school, as good as they are, the projects are based around the curriculum that some old white guy set up in D.C. We, at Big Picture, really develop the curriculum out of every individual kid’s needs, interests and passions.”
Building Something Different
Littky is nationally known for building innovative schools. While he was spending some time working in higher ed at Brown University, he and Elliot Washor were approached by the Commissioner of Education to build a school in Providence. He said, boldly, “Only if I can do it exactly as I want.” Unexpectedly, the Commissioner met his demands, and The Met Center of Rhode Island was born.
“Our system is broken. It’s tremendously broken, and we can’t tweak around the edges anymore,” says Littky. “A student drops out of school every 13 seconds. That’s what drives me. One hundred thousand high schoolers were interviewed and asked to describe school with one word. It was boring. So, we said we’re going to make a school that’s not boring, that’s going to empower kids, that’s going to engage kids. Our mantra is, one student at a time.”
From Ill-Prepared to Lifelong Learners
The Met School is a state run school—not a charter school—and according to Littky, the student population is about 40% Latino, 30% African American and 75% poor. Students enter a lottery for admission, and they arrive with less-than-ideal preparation, including fourth to sixth grade level math skills and low reading levels. Most importantly, they’re not excited about school.
“By the time they come to us, they’ve had a crappy learning experience. If you ask a group of kindergarteners how many of them are dancers, they’ll all stand up. Ask them who’s an artist, everyone stands up. Ask a high schooler the same questions, and maybe one kid stands up. It’s been knocked out of them. It’s our job to get them excited, to help them realize they’re learners.”
Instead of starting with curriculum, The Met Center starts with the kid. This means helping students find their passions and then putting students out in the community two days per week to pursue them—true student-centered learning. For Joe, his passion was the Vietnam War. For another student, it was money. Littky explains:
“This kid didn’t care about anything but making money. We hooked him up with a vice president of a bank, who told him: pull your pants up, put on a white shirt, and we’ll teach you what you need to know. And this student would change into his nice shirt and tuck it into his pants and head to the bank to learn. He loved it.”
Littky says that when students find their passions and use them to direct their studies, learning becomes easy, and students are motivated from within. He gives the following examples of comments he’s heard from his students:
- Man, I was up until 2:00 am last night doing this work, and no one even told me to do it!
- I’m doing a presentation at the zoo tomorrow for my research project, I better get my act together!
- I have a bracelet business, I’m working with this community in Nicaragua, and they haven’t sent me the rocks. I need to figure it out.
“One girl was working at an elementary school in Woonsocket, and they had no playground. So she decided to raise $60,000 to get them a playground,” Littky recalls. “That’s a 17 year old. That’s empowerment, that’s agency, and it comes from letting her explore her passion.”
A Personalized Learning Plan for All Students
Every student at The Met Center and other Big Picture schools has his or her own learning plan, based on the topics they’re passionate about, created in collaboration between advisers, parents and the students themselves. These individualized learning plans are reviewed every 12 weeks for the entire four years. Of course, students are required to learn core concepts of math, reading, etc., but this learning is integrated into their real world projects, which they present to the rest of the school, as well as their parents.
There are hardly any classes.
“At first people laughed at us, laughed at this approach. But then kids started getting ready to graduate and we looked at the stats. Turns out we had a 98% attendance rate, and the city of Providence only had 76%. We had a 97% graduation rate; the city had a 46% graduation rate. That’s when people started paying attention.”
Including Bill Gates, who gave Littky $20 million to develop more schools like his around the country.
The Role of Community in Learning
Community also plays a key role in The Met Center’s success. The school is capped at 150 students—known as the Dunbar Number and backed by research as the maximum amount of social connections the human brain can effectively manage.
Each day starts by getting the entire school together for some sort of student presentation or bonding activity.
Littky explains, “Everyone knows everyone. Everyone knows each other’s families. I was watching as people arrived one day. Every kid was hugged by someone–not a teacher. We didn’t teach this. It’s a product of the community we’ve created.”
After starting the day together, students break off into advisory groups consisting of 15 students and one adviser that they’re with for the remainder of the day, except during their internships. These advisers follow the advisory groups for all four years—and beyond. Littky explains that these adviser-student relationships are powerful:
“They stay advisees-advisers forever. A 28-year-old kid recently called his prior adviser for help. A 17-year-old was calling his adviser at 2 am when he was drunk and needed a ride.”
And spending time with with their core advisory group is equally as valuable:
“If you live in the cities in Rhode Island, 80% of people are of color. If you’re in the suburbs, it’s 95% white. This is the first time kids of all colors and cultures are sitting next to each other and becoming best friends. Because it doesn’t matter. You’ll see a 6’3” kid with green hair walking down the hall with 5’2” computer geek arms around each other. That’s something happening there.”
There is also an impressive parent community at The Met:
“Parents are very involved—one of the most beautiful things to me. On a Monday evening in the winter, we sent a note home with kids to announce a Wednesday meeting to discuss the state’s new standardized testing policy. By Wednesday, 600 parents showed up. That’s because we’ve developed the relationships.”
How Do We Get There? It’s a Matter of Starting.
The Met School and Big Picture are doing beautiful things to help students that need it the most. But is this model scalable? And how can other schools and teachers get started working toward this ideal? Littky has a few pointers.
- Start simply in the classroom by asking students about their interests in the specific subject area. Turn those interests into science or history projects, for example.
- Team up with another teacher or two, giving you two periods and more flexibility to allow students to spend some time outside of the classroom.
- If a teacher wants to make a change but the school is not on board, teachers can attend a Big Picture conference, read Littky’s book, The Big Picture, or cofounder Elliot Washor’s book, Leaving to Learn. According to Littky, many teachers have started this way and gone on to convince their schools of the need to change—or even start their own school.
If your school wants to make big changes, school leaders can contract with Big Picture to help bring these changes to life. Schools can enter agreements at a very small level or on a very intense level—whatever makes sense for their particular needs and budgets. Once involved, your school becomes part of a supportive network with trainings, materials, conferences, visitations and coaches.
It may seem like a daunting undertaking, but don’t be scared off.
Littky explains, “It’s just a matter of starting. If we care about kids more than we care about schools, schools must change.”
Hear more about Littky’s vision for education in his TED Talk.