Case study: Big Picture Learning

Big Picture Learning: Education Built on Students’ Preferences and Relationships

Introducing Big Picture Learning

Big Picture Learning is both a relationship-centred educational model and a global network of schools following that model. It was founded in 1995, in the U.S., by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, “with the sole mission of putting students directly at the center of their own learning.” Since its first cohort in 2000 the Big Picture network has grown to 65+ schools, with the help of substantial funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2001 and 2003. Big Picture Learning also supports partner organisations to implement its approach, coaches schools and contributes to policy work.

How does Big Picture Learning work?

Given the Big Picture Learning approach is applied across diverse schools, it inevitably differs with context. But it does have clear defining features. These are captured in its ‘10 Distinguishers:

1. Personalisation
Each Big Picture student’s learning experience is personalised, both academically and in terms of holistic personal development. Based on their passions and preferences, students work with their educators to decide what and how they will learn and how they will be assessed. 
2. Advisory structure
Each Big Picture student joins an ‘advisory’: a learning community of around fifteen students. Advisories stay together for four years, turning into what students sometimes consider ‘second families. Each advisory is led by an ‘advisor’: a teacher who forms “personalised relationships with each advisee.” Each student’s learning experience is determined largely through this collaborative relationship.
3. Learning through interests and internships
Big Picture Learning believes that the best way engage students is by applying what they learn directly to their own interests. To that end, in Big Picture schools, students often spend up to two days of each week, not in school, but in internships, learning alongside real-world experts in their own communities in a field that they are passionate about.
4. Parent and family engagement
Parents and families are actively involved in each student’s learning process, collaborating on work planning and assessment.
5. School culture
Big Picture schools are founded on trust and equality between students and adults, with students assuming leadership roles and inputting into school decision-making processes.
6. School organisation
Similarly, Big Picture schools do not rely on timetables, bells and assigned buildings. They are instead organised more flexibly, in democratic collaboration with students.
7. Leadership
Students assume active leadership roles along with staff.
8. Individualised assessment
Instead of uniform tests, students are assessed according to individualised criteria. These are focused around public displays of learning in particular areas of interest, such as exhibitions or demonstrations of “habits of mind and heart.”
9. Professional development
Big Picture Learning offers regular coaching and mentoring sessions to ensure learning in its network schools is personalised and designed to help students plan for the future.
10. Post-secondary planning
Big Picture students actively develop plans that contribute to their future success – whether through academic work, wider projects, travel or other pursuits.
The Big Picture Learning philosophy clearly considers education as more than academic attainment in specific, universal exams. Littky and Washor’s founding criteria for success were notably broad: adult self-fulfillment, meaningful work, financial security and upward mobility, healthy relationships and civic engagement. 

To meet these criteria, Big Picture Learning radically reframes students’ educational relationships. Firstly, the category of ‘teacher’ is defined more ‘socially’ in that it includes teachers, mentors, peers, family members and other influential adults. In effect, everyone in a students’ community has knowledge to share that can be contributed to their larger understanding of the world. Compared with traditional education, Big Picture students possess greater agency when it comes to defining their own educational experiences. 

In one sense this increases students’ independence. But it also, paradoxically, makes relationships more essential to students’ learning experiences. Far from a license to simply go it alone, trust and agency serve as an invitation to students to engage in a mutual dialogue with those able to help them learn. This is very different from more traditional ‘teacher knows best’ approaches.

All of the relationships above are important in the Big Picture approach, but it is the student-advisor relationship that stands out. Surveyed students named this relationship as the most important factor in preparing them for life after graduation, and 85% of students remain in contact with their advisor five months after graduating. 

It is also important to note that Big Picture students come disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds. Of U.S. Big Picture students, 62-74% come from low-income families, more than ⅓ have an absent father and 80% would be the first in their family to achieve a college degree. This makes the impact of Big Picture schools all the more impressive.

What impact is Big Picture Learning having?


Boston College’s 2015 longitudinal research into outcomes for Big Picture students found:  

High graduation rates

Big Picture students achieved a 92% graduation rate across the study group, compared to a current U.S. average of 84%. This is despite the students surveyed coming mostly from low-income families, which are disproportionately affected by high dropout rates. (The first ever Big Picture class attained a 96% graduation rate, with 98% admitted to postsecondary education, receiving over $500,000 in scholarships.)

Stronger relationships

Big Picture Learning helps students build strong relationships with adults. Beyond the student-advisor relationship, advisors reported that 90% of their students had multiple supportive relationships with adults, and 87% had multiple supportive relationships with peers.

Improved educational aspirations

Big Picture Learning “dramatically increases students’ aspirations for higher education,”. Big Picture students were found to enrol and persist in college education at higher rates than non-Big Picture students from low-income families in the U.S..

Greater self knowledge

Big Picture learning helps students know themselves. Asked “what high school taught best,” students ranked “knowing my own strengths and weaknesses” and “naming my own interests and passions” as first and second. This was directly linked, in interviews, to students’ ‘interest’ internships and to feeling prepared for the wider world more generally. The benefits of self-knowledge may be difficult to quantify, but it is doubtless integral to a fulfilled life.


In addition to the social outcomes noted above, Big Picture Learning has been found to be economically beneficial too 

Cost effectiveness

Big Picture schools are no more expensive to run than other schools, given they don’t require extra staffing or resources. Big Picture Education Australia, for example, found the approach to be cost-effective.

Potential cost savings

At the government level, increasing engagement rates (so reducing dropouts) offers potentially significant public savings. In the UK, for example, the estimated annual cost of permanent exclusions among 16-18 year olds who are NEET (not in education or training) is between £12 billion and £32 billion. This is the basis for an upcoming Big Picture Learning pilot in Doncaster.

Key insights

A few things stand out for us about the way in which Big Picture Learning works: 

The most empowering, impactful relationships are personalised
‘One size fits all’ relationships are disempowering: they don’t account for individual strengths, weaknesses and preferences. This risk is especially pronounced in traditional education based on set curricula and large classes. Big Picture Learning, though, reorganises the learning experience around students’ personal interests, strengths and passions.
Relationships benefit from the input of all involved - including people traditionally deprived of agency
Personalising a relationship means trusting those involved to shape it. This is when relationships typically flourish: when co-created, not imposed. Big Picture Learning demonstrates this powerfully by showing the benefits of giving agency to a demographic – disadvantaged students – usually deprived of it. 
Relationship-centred design is about rethinking entrenched relationships as well as building new ones
Big Picture Learning does involve students building new relationships, of course. But it is distinctive more for the way it reframes the assumptions underpinning traditional understanding teacher-student relationships.
More personalised relationships don't necessarily cost more
One of the main barriers to tailored education is increased cost. But Big Picture Learning provides strong counter evidence, largely by tapping into relationships with a new educational resource: students themselves.

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What’s next for Big Picture Learning?

In the UK, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and The Innovation Unit will be piloting a Big Picture Learning cohort of up to 60 students from 2019, with the aim of helping to improve stark school-engagement rates.

In a broader sense, Big Picture Learning is not particularly interested in scaling. Just as it recognises a need for personalised education at the student-level, it also recognises that an approach that works in one community may not work in another. Big Picture’s direct work with schools and school districts, particularly in the United States, is driven by the desired needs and interests of those communities. That said, Big Picture is developing tools that help scale specific aspects of its work. For instance, to assist schools that may be interested in introducing an internship programme, perhaps as a prelude to adopting the Big Picture approach, Big Picture has developed a mobile app – ImBlaze – which allows students to search for local internship opportunities. The Initiatives tab on its website also details other steps focused on individual components of the Big Picture approach.

Further information

    • The Big Picture Learning website features lots of information on how Big Picture schools work. 
    • Big Picture Learning partnered with Boston College to conduct longitudinal research analysing post-secondary outcomes for students across six years in 23 Big Picture schools.
    • Big Picture learning has also featured in other research projects, as detailed on its website.
    • In the UK, the Innovation Unit is working with Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council to use Big Picture learning to help address poor school-engagement levels.