You Don't Need School to do Big Picture Learning

 Having worked in and around high schools for many years, I’m sometimes called on by friends or relatives to talk with parents whose students are struggling. A recent email reads: Jeff, OK if I introduce you to (name of acquaintance)? He’s got a rising high school junior who is not thriving at (local large) High School. May I introduce you two?
In the ensuing conversations I invariably find myself suggesting the same questions and behaviors. What are some of this student’s interests? What are they drawn to? What do they want to get better at? What people might they reach out to to learn more? What issues do they care about? How could they participate locally in addressing that issue? It starts with trying to understand what interests the student, and then it’s about finding some toehold for that interest in the real world, through connecting to a person, setting, cause, or meaningful project the student might join or initiate. For the most part, these suggestions have nothing to do with school.
Recently I came across the story of Avi Schiffmann, which to me exemplifies this kind of learning. “On December 29th, as Trump vacationed with his family at Mar-a-Lago, Avi Schiffmann, a seventeen-year-old from Washington State, launched a homemade Web site to track the movement of the coronavirus.” Avi’s site has become one of the most-used COVID-19 tracking sites in the world, with more than 350 million visitors as of last week. This short article about Avi, written by Brett Crane and published in The New Yorker, speaks volumes about not only what’s missing in our mainstream approach to schooling, but also how we might take advantage of current times to enliven learning not just now, when we’re stuck at home, but also in the coming months as restrictions lift and we slouch back toward paradigms now paused.

What immediately struck me about this article was the (non)role of school in relation to Avi and his learning. Some excerpts: 

  • He began teaching himself to code when he was seven, mainly by watching YouTube videos, and has made more than thirty Web sites…
  • A few days earlier, his school had shut down. But he had already skipped the last week of classes to focus on the site, he said, “when it kind of blew up.”
  • His mother, whose medical colleagues use the site, had given up coaxing him to return. “Maybe learning algebra can come later,” she said. (Her son is a C student.)
  • His mother said, “I’m not techy at all myself. I see it as just really boring. He sees it as an art form.”
In another interview, posted to his Twitter page, Avi says “I mean I’m pretty much a terrible student.” I’m less worried about Avi’s chops as a student than I am about the system that identifies him as a mediocre learner.
Since I work with Big Picture schools, I know a lot of young people like Avi Schiffmann. They may not have famous websites, but they are chasing their interests and applying their skills in real contexts, with real consequences. Danielle in Idaho is building a prosthetic leg for a goat, and, as a high schooler, has participated in numerous veterinary surgeries and independently performed castrations, inseminations, dental procedures, etc. Mal interns with the King County prosecutor’s office where they routinely review police body cam footage for material relevant to pending cases. These are tasks and contexts typically reserved for adults, just like developing one of the most utilized websites for tracking a global pandemic. None of them depends on school.
As most of us won’t be returning to school buildings any time soon, here’s a quick primer on Big Picture Learning. It’s the advice I share with parents struggling to support disengaged students. It’s the conversations I have with students in schools I visit. It’s what I would suggest to parents during the Coronavirus shutdown. It’s also how I hope we can redesign schooling at scale.
  1. It starts with you and your interests and where those intersect with the world around you and us. Who are you and what are you interested in?
  2. If you’re a parent, don’t be daunted by not being an educator. It’s not about teaching, it’s about being co-curious and advocating for your student. You can be way behind your student on the content they’re interested in but lead with advocacy and resourcefulness to support their continued learning.
  3. How do we pursue interests or build on existing ones? This could take the form of following up with a person, place, job, issue, skill, community, etc.
    • Person: I am drawn to this person and want to know more about how they got where they are, how they think/work/respond/etc., how they are navigating this situation. Can I contact them and arrange to interview them?
    • Place: I think this is a compelling place or setting and want to connect with people there to understand more about it. Whom can I interview about this? Might I do a job shadow there after the shutdown? What might I do in the meantime?
    • Job: I’m interested in this line of work, this job. Can I search online or within my network to find people willing to talk with me about this, how they became interested in it, what it’s like for them, how I might enter the field, etc.
    • Issue: If I ran the world, what would I change? What issues are most dear to me, what do I care most about? How does that issue play out in this locale? How is Coronavirus impacting this situation? What can I do? How might I get involved? (This might have been Avi’s entry point - addressing the need for better information about the spread of the virus.)
    • Skill: What do I want to be good at? What skills can I offer this situation? What do I want to get better at? Who are the local experts? How might I meet them and learn from/with them?
    • Community: What communities exist within my community? What voices do I represent? What voices are not represented?
  4. As ideas develop into intentions and we want to get things done, project tools such as the natural planning model can be helpful resources.
Not only do we not need school to engage in all manner of compelling learning that never depended on school in the first place, but time away from school can also be a healing respite from a place that tends to overlook us as unique individuals. Chris Emdin recently wrote: “In the midst of the dissension about online learning, some children are having the best learning experiences they have ever had. For some, the school building was a site of trauma. Not having to return to the place that implanted a lack of value for self is a small victory.”
We help implant and strengthen a value for self when we take the time to explore, elevate, and pursue individual interests. Schools, as typically structured, tend to be fairly incurious about student interests, especially relative to what we might accomplish in families and other small groups. I believe I do my best work in schools when I remember what powerful learning experiences abound outside schools. How will we translate the learning of this time out of school to our transition back into schools?