Guest Post: Imagine a school where all students have individual lesson plans

October 22, 2010 •

Editor’s note: Each Friday we feature guest bloggers that are involved in rethinking what is possible with schooling and the education system.

In this guest post Kari Thierer, National Director of School and Network Support for Big Picture Learning, describes how students in Big Picture students have the opportunity to learn through apprenticeship, and mentorship.

About one third of schools in the Big Picture network are created by charter, and the others as district schools. Thierer describes the central importance of autonomy for the school to succeed with its non-traditional model, including authority over setting their schedule and determining how students will demonstrate achievement.

Thierer believes it is important to look at performance assessment based on applied work, because many graduation requirements lack the breadth to show what students are capable of doing.

Big Picture Learning focuses on individual students to develop strong relationships, and utilize these relationships to develop relevant and rigorous learning opportunities for students. We recognize that each student is unique and that they require a customized learning program that fits both their strengths and their gaps.

Systematizing education doesn’t work because students don’t come standardized! We work to provide real-world learning opportunities where students engage in work outside of school, following their interests in hands-on ways with mentors in the community helping guide the learning. We help students learn core content through their passions.

For instance, a student interested in skateboarding (how many of teachers have a student like that?!), might have an internship opportunity with a skateboard manufacturer, or a city engineer working on designing a new skate park, or a skateboard shop owner. Through each of these experiences students delve deep into academic content in a real way—they help design the skate park, and thereby learn some new software, look at angles and how those work in construction, have to consider liability issues and experience levels, etc. At a skateboard shop, they have to see how to run a business—how do you attract customers, how do you take inventory, how do you pay taxes and your employees. Because they are with mentors who share their interests, they are much more engaged, and they have the opportunity to apply what they learn in school in a real-world setting, in a way that benefits the mentor as well.

Many graduation requirements are very outdated and not a true accounting of what a student knows and is able to do—so looking at performance based assessment and proficiency options for graduation requirements allows flexibility for students to demonstrate understanding.

In our schools, students present exhibitions of their learning each quarter. They are held accountable by having to demonstrate the work they’ve been required to do, not just pass a single test. They are also performing real tasks at their internships, where a real-life work place mentor is making sure they are doing their tasks correctly, in addition to being held accountable for the responsibilities of being in the workplace (showing up on time, being professional, appropriate dress and language, etc.).

Each student has an individual learning plan that is established at the beginning of a quarter, and represents the work they are held accountable for. The students then must provide evidence that learning has occurred. This has shown to be a much higher standard than sitting in class and just taking a test. What does a ‘C’ in a class really tell you about what a student knows and is able to do? Not as much as having them demonstrate that they’ve acquired knowledge and to show a portfolio of evidence to their teacher, parent, mentor and peers. It raises the stakes for students and teachers—and makes the learning real.

About one third of our existing network are created as charter schools, and the rest are district schools. Our mission is to change public education. This is done by helping schools and districts convert or open new, innovative schools.

All of our schools are accountable to an outside agency whether it is the district or state. Working within bureaucracy is a talent that should be learned by all students as a way to be successful in life beyond high school! However, flexibility is absolutely key. Allowing schools to create flexible schedules for kids is a key component, as well as allowing flexibility in the ways that students demonstrate mastery.

Image: Kari Thierer