By Marcy Stamper
Students at the Independent Learning Center (ILC) already create a curriculum around their own interests — this year’s topics include anthropology, World War II history and reggae music.
But those interests are just a starting point. By doing extensive research into these topics and finding internships, the students turn these basic themes into a wider interdisciplinary study. In the process, they develop learning skills to apply to other subjects, according to ILC teachers Sara Mounsey and Kim Odell.
While this kind of hands-on, real-world learning has been a central feature of the ILC for the past several years, Mounsey, Odell and Methow Valley School District administrators are investigating options that would formalize the philosophy. This year they are working with a consultant and exploring a program called Big Picture Learning.
“The important part is students are allowed to say what they’re interested in and why they have a passion for it,” said Mounsey. This approach helps develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, she said.
Tiva Ward, a student in her second year at the ILC, is enthusiastic about the opportunities to delve into her passion for physical anthropology. “They let us do what we want to do, instead of assigning projects like at a normal school. It helps us understand, instead of just learn,” she said.
Ward also likes the interdisciplinary aspect of the school. “In the real world, history is connected with other things. The real-world way of learning, instead of learning one thing at a time, is really cool,” she said.
The approach at the ILC emphasizes three main ideas: learning through internships, individualized projects, and an advisory class that combines English and history and includes one-on-one work with students to help them design their own learning plans, according to Mounsey.
Several Liberty Bell High School students are also doing internships through the ILC, in subjects as diverse as engineering, special education and broadcasting, said Liberty Bell High School Principal Deborah DeKalb. “I just think it’s so amazing that they’re able to follow their interests and passions. They all have a good idea where they want to go,” she said.
As part of their exploration of project-based learning, Mounsey and Odell will be consulting throughout the school year with Jeff Petty, the founder and director of the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation, an initiative of Big Picture Learning. The consortium looks at ways of capitalizing on students’ interests and builds schools centered on these principles, said Petty.
Mounsey and Odell had their first session with Petty last month during the district’s professional day. “He’s helping us wrap our minds around what being a Big Picture school would really mean,” said Mounsey.
Big Picture Learning provides a network of schools and professionals interested in innovative approaches to teaching and learning, said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.
“It’s a different way of teaching and learning — it’s not what they learn, but how they learn,” said Methow Valley School Board member Frank Kline. The board also met with Petty last month. Petty’s services are being paid for by a private grant.
Looking at the Big Picture framework is one way to put the district’s goals for differentiated, individualized learning into action, said Dana Stromberger, the school board chair. The goal is to tap into individual kids’ strengths and interests and to build on them.
“We still have state standards we have to meet,” said Stromberger.
Some question whether students will learn all they need if they only follow their passions. But students do research, come up with theories, explore connections across different subject areas, and present data to back up their ideas as part of “deep dives” into their own interests, said Odell.
“The idea is to develop really skillful learners, rather than kids who are exposed to a big body of information,” said Petty. Students discover that learning can be exciting, and learn how to learn, rather than trying to memorize material for a test — material they often don’t retain, he said.
“They learn critical thinking and approach their topic from different perspectives. It’s more analytical,” said Mounsey. And without strict deadlines, students are encouraged to pursue an interest further.
Students do not focus solely on topics they’re already interested in, but are introduced to new ideas through internships and relationships with adults — academic subjects, professional opportunities, life experiences — that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought about, said Petty.
Students write résumés and cover letters and set up interviews for their internships. They also bounce ideas off their classmates, helping one another decide if they have answered all the essential questions, said Mounsey.
Internships stress collaboration, whereas traditional assessment — exams and individual grades — emphasize the individual, said Petty.
Another feature of the Big Picture model is that students make several presentations about their learning every year to fellow students, parents and families, and community mentors, which become a powerful form of assessment, said Venable.
Big Picture’s history
Big Picture Learning started in 1995 and now has more than 60 schools across the country, including three in Washington. There are also Big Picture schools in other countries. Petty started the Highline Big Picture School near Seattle in 2005 and was principal there until 2013.
Big Picture has three basic principles: learning must be based on each student’s interests and needs; the curriculum must be relevant so students can do real work in the real world; and students’ growth and abilities must be measured by the quality of their work and how it changes them.
The program claims a nationwide on-time graduation rate of 90 percent, compared with 70 percent in traditional schools.
Most Big Picture schools are considerably larger than the ILC, which is maxed out this year — in terms of space and staffing — at 18 students, with another six doing off-campus internships or electives.
There is no licensing process and no set or annual fee to become a part of the Big Picture network; instead, contracts are developed based on a school’s needs, to cover coaching, conferences, and books and materials, said Petty.
Since the community and school board backed the district’s plan for creating instructional programs that provide a real-world context and a high level of student engagement, the directors would not have to officially approve the Big Picture model, said Venable.
“It’s a big conversation,” said Stromberger. “The district and staff could decide to look at something else. Community members will also have input.” She said community meetings will be scheduled before the end of the year.
ILC students have been very positive about the real-world approach, said Mounsey. “Kids who haven’t liked school in the past love this,” she said. “They’re interested in learning about something, rather than just a desire to complete something.”