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The Daring Dozen 2006: Twelve Who Are Reshaping the Future of Education

The Daring Dozen 2006
Twelve Who Are Reshaping the Future of Education
By GLEF Staff



The high schools Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor have created are wildly different from what teens in America have come to expect. They need no chalkboards, lectures, or textbooks. But the two educators say there’s nothing wild about it; children learn best by doing meaningful work that engages them, so the model is far less strange, according to Littky, than the notion that lecturing at twenty-five students makes for good education.

The pair launched the nonprofit Big Picture Company in 1995 with the goal of promoting radical change in American education. They based their flagship school, the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, or the Met, in Providence, Rhode Island, on the guiding question, “What’s best for kids?” The answer: small, personalized learning environments where students perform real work in the community and design their own curricula according to their interests.

At the Met — the model for dozens of similar schools opened since 1996 — groups of no more than fifteen students work with the same adviser for all four years. Two days a week, the teens work as interns with professionals in a field of interest to them. The other three days, schoolwork consists almost entirely of projects designed by the individual students, in collaboration with advisers and parents. Typically, students integrate their internships and projects, such as one who, while interning at a hospital, researched fibromyalgia and created a pamphlet in Spanish for Hispanic patients. Instead of taking tests, teens build portfolios and give quarterly presentations of their work, which they must defend like a dissertation before advisers, parents, and peers.

This concept sounds unstructured compared to a conventional classroom, but it’s working. Littky and Washor’s Big Picture Company now manages a network of thirty-six schools in underserved areas of sixteen cities, with plans to open nearly twenty more through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The schools boast an average dropout rate of 2 percent, and 96 percent attendance; 98 percent of graduates have been accepted to college, and many students take college courses before they matriculate.

Ten thousand times, Littky says, he has answered the question, “Won’t kids be disadvantaged if they don’t learn basic content, such as math and science?” He counters that hardly anyone remembers the specifics of what he or she learned in high school chemistry; the more valuable lesson is to think like a scientist and to love learning. Teens tune out and drop out because school is boring, Littky contends. The question he and his Big Picture colleagues want every educator to tackle is, “How do we take a kid’s interest and passion, use the real world, and get the kid engaged?” –G.R.

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