Case study: Big Picture Learning
Big Picture Learning: Education Built on Students’ Preferences and Relationships
Introducing Big Picture Learning
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’:
2. Advisory structure
3. Learning through interests and internships
4. Parent and family engagement
5. School culture
6. School organisation
8. Individualised assessment
9. Professional development
10. Post-secondary planning
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.)
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
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.
A few things stand out for us about the way in which Big Picture Learning works:
The most empowering, impactful relationships are personalised
Relationships benefit from the input of all involved - including people traditionally deprived of agency
Relationship-centred design is about rethinking entrenched relationships as well as building new ones
More personalised relationships don't necessarily cost more
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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.
- 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.