When Students Create their own Curriculum: The Big Picture Learning Model

bpl-logoDozens of schools around the U.S. are opting to ditch the traditional school structure altogether to motivate teens in new ways–and it seems to be working. They are using the Big Picture Learning model. Big Picture’s model is now used in more than 60 schools across the U.S. In Vermont, it’s also a precursor to a new statewide mandate meant to take effect over the next three years: Public-school students in grades seven through 12 will soon be required to create their own personalized learning plans.

Big Picture bucks the traditional model of high-school learning. There are no tests, no grades, and, for some students, no traditional classes to sit through. The program is centered around the concept and execution of self-directed learning. With input from advisors, working professionals, parents, and peers, each teen participant creates his or her own curriculum, tailored to fit personal interests.

Here is how it works:

Each Big Picture student comes up with a big idea, or hypothesis, for their year-long independent project, such as 17-year-old Joey Mount’s plan to design a clothing line and launch an accompanying website. Teens tap into their pre-existing interests, then come up with creative ways for the topic to be re-imagined to gain proficiency in subject areas like science and math.

The goal is for students to stay motivated and learn while gaining real-world experiences—and honing the tricky art of time management. Four staff members help guide, coach, and hold students accountable: two advisors, one AmeriCorps Vista volunteer, and one program director. Over the course of each semester, projects are carefully vetted and executed according to reporting standards, which are also predetermined by students.

Jim Shields, a program advisor, sums up the benefits of this model succinctly:

Most students who find us, find us for a reason: School isn’t working for them. If you think of high school as having a ceiling and a floor, there’s the students who are struggling because they’re falling through the cracks in the floor. Then there’s the students who just wanna take the roof off, who are held back by high school.

To earn their proficiency-based diploma, which results in a non-traditional transcript, the program requires that students achieve “a minimum level of proficiency and competence when it comes to mastering the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, work, and life.” At South Burlington, those lofty concepts are measured with the help of a rubric.


To read more about this non-traditional school model, see http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/11/no-tests-grades-classes/415509/


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