Big Picture Schools and Project-Based Learning

Before a presentation given by a co-worker of mine, I had never heard of Big Picture Schools.  I found their ideas interesting so I decided to do some research.  After doing a little reading, they seem to have creatively implemented many of the project-based learning principles stressed in many district.

Big Picture Schools originated in Rhode Island and have expanded both throughout the United States and internationally. Founded with the basic principle of raising graduation rates and providing an engaging education for “at-risk” (meaning, at risk to not graduate) students, these schools look to teach core disciplines through projects that get the students involved in the community. Putting the students in charge of organizing their own projects, Big Picture Schools seek to personalize students’ education. According to Big Picture Schools, a personalized approach to project development gives students a drive to learn and apply the traditional disciplines needed to excel at their given project.

When talking about Big Picture Schools on their podcast site, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states, “when a person is wholly engaged in an activity and a deep focus and connection with that activity is achieved. These are ultimate experiences for people – experiences like these provide the best internal motivation to learn.” I encourage you to take a look through their website and listen to some of their podcasts if you would like to learn more about their approach to education.

My next project with my seniors might help me test out some of the Big Picture School’s theories on a small scale. A couple weeks ago I had my students brainstorm a list of things that they would like to study from now until the rest of the year. One of those areas of interest was international business. Last week we talked about how we wanted to conduct the unit. As a group, we decided that before we could do anything complicated with the ideas here, we first needed to educate ourselves on what “international business” means. Next week we will be breaking into teams. Each team will be in charge of researching one of the following topics we found most interesting to our class: marketing/sales, communication/logistics, cultural/social influences on a business, political issues and recruiting/career development/ networking. Students will have to explain what their topic has to do with the success of an international business. Students will have to create vocabulary lists for the rest of the class as to teach important Spanish words that relate to their field. They will also have to choose a grammar topic that they find pertinent to their project. For example, marketing folks might be interested in teaching commands like what you might see in a commercial. After a given period of research, students will report back to the other teams of their findings. The next step in this project is open for the moment. I’m interested to see what the students learn, what they find interesting and what they would like to pursue with this information.

I hope this project will mirror some of the work done by the Big Picture Schools. That said, I know many teachers resist the movement to a project-based approach to learning. What problems do you see coming from the educational approach put forth by Big Picture Schools? What suggestions do you have for me as I try to incorporate some of their ideas into my class?

For those who are interested, below is a video that highlights the goals of the Big Picture Schools:

One thought on “Big Picture Schools and Project-Based Learning

  1. Interesting.

    In the video, the person who talked about
    “End of the assembly line = no passion, just what legislators think they need to know…”
    has a point.

    Our kids start school in pre-K so eager to learn, so excited, and by HS we have so many who are bored, blasé, unenthusiastic. Not in all areas, of course, and in our department we have a very good rate of student retention compared to many other places. Still, we should always be thinking about improving our courses so that students can be more excited about high school, more engaged. But I worry, too. We have always had a very strong program, and I would not want our students to be graduating, going on to college, and having a tougher time than before. The trick is in the blending, I suppose. Just as different types of coffee are mixed to make special blends that can be just as strong but have many different flavors, so we must try to find the correct balance in our classes, including projects and many types of experiences and assessment while trying not to take much away from the core components of what kids need to know to be successful at the next level. It’s a balancing act, and I think your polling the kids is particularly great for the seniors or for any end-level course.

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