Teaching vs. Healing

I remember the first time I heard about Big Picture Learning. I thought, like many folks I’ve met over the years, I wish there had been a Big Picture Learning program when I was in school. Truth be told, I graduated from high school the same year that BPL was founded. But the things that appealed to me as an educator are the same things that would have appealed to me as a student. I found that the one-size-fits-all approach I encountered in high school was too loose (not challenging) in some parts, too tight (restrictive, throttling creative expression) in others. It fit me poorly.

When I describe Big Picture Learning to folks that are not as familiar with our work, I find myself talking about our students, of course. I talk about the students I served as an advisor, the ones I served as a coach and a leader, and the ones I serve now in all the schools I am privileged to work with. I focus on the elements of our approach that resonate so much for me: choice, relationships, passion-driven work, a place where individuality is celebrated… and the question that I’m often met with is “are these therapeutic schools?” Often, this question is presented in opposition to the idea that Big Picture schools could be innovative or academically rigorous. The implication seems to be that you can heal students or you can help them learn, but that perhaps you cannot do both. If we are focusing on students knowing themselves we must not be prioritizing learning.

Which could not be further from the truth.

First, let me be clear: yes, we do focus on healing. In examining our work, Dr. Karen Arnold wrote: “[Big Picture Learning] schools are safe, interpersonally warm, and healing places for students who typically come…after negative previous educational experiences and with continuing immersion in communities dominated by the challenges associated with poverty.” You can see it when you look at our schools. You can see what’s happening in Reno, at Innovations High School:


Or what’s happening in Los Angeles at New Village Girls Academy: “I know who I am what I want to do,” says Emily in the below video.


When we asked students at East Big Picture in Rochester, NY, were asked to write about a challenge they had experienced, about a third of them wrote about losing a family member to gun violence. We know that schools like these are helping students who face direct threats to graduation. And, thus, these students need both strong relationships and varying kinds of support. So, clearly, we have to start with healing.

But students also need to be challenged. They need to find their place and a pathway in the world. They need to find rigorous, exciting, and innovative ways of expressing themselves and their learning. And, in our network, they are. At Nashville Big Picture, a student’s internship experience made the news.  A student from the Met School in Providence addressed a conference of educators on the other side of the country. Students at San Diego Met exhibit real world learning as it happens.

So, I believe we can be both healing and innovative. I believe that all students deserve a truly transformative educational experience—one that helps them to develop skills that will assist them throughout life. Skills like the non-cognitive competencies we have championed for so long, which now are rising to prominence across the educational landscape. Skills like empathy and teamwork and perseverance, which are becoming relevant not only in school, but also in the workplace. . And our students deserve deep knowledge—knowledge that can only come from pursuing their interests through real world work, and through reflection on themselves.

I think the appeal of Big Picture to my inner student comes from the fact that I, like most adolescents, looking to find my place and was struggling to do so. Maybe I was looking for some kind of healing. When we think of healing, we often think of doctors. But a doctor is literally a “teacher,” from the Latin (docere=teach, doctor=teacher).  We cannot heal without teaching, we cannot teach without healing. We have to do both.