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Can a Truly Student-Centered Education Be Available to All?

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Unschooling is a hotly debated topic on MindShift. This subset of home schooling, which doesn’t use any set curriculum and is instead directed by the child’s interests, is vastly different from traditional public and private schools. While the freedom inherent in the model excites some readers, others question whether young people educated this way will learn the important information and skills they need to become productive adults in our society.

Some readers object to unschooling because its proponents have opted out of the public system. They argue that a student-centered teaching approach like unschooling could never exist in a public system governed by standardized tests. But in reality there have been public schools modeled after unschooling, and a few still operate programs that hold self-direction at their core.


The Big Picture Learning network started with the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (MET) in Providence, Rhode Island, and has expanded to almost 100 schools around the world, with 55 in the U.S. alone. The majority of the U.S.-based schools are traditional in-district public schools, although about 25 percent are public charter schools. Many are located in tough urban environments and serve challenging populations.

In a longitudinal study of 23 U.S.-based Big Picture schools, 56 percent of the students identified a language other than English as their first language, 18 percent were certified special needs and 62-74 percent were low income. All the Big Picture Learning schools use the learner and his or her interests and passions as the organizing principle of school.


“The focus is on each and every student, not on courses and classes,” said Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning. “We changed the lowest common denominator from the course to the student.”

This model relies on small learning communities, about 150 kids per high school, although the model can be used in a larger high school that is broken down into smaller communities. Within that, each student gets an adviser who stays consistent for at least two years, but often as many as four years. The adviser’s job is a complex mix of getting to know the student and his family and setting learning plans quarterly that include academic and social goals, as well as independent learning and internships outside of school. Each adviser has between 15-20 students.

“It’s a design that’s malleable and always evolving,” Washor said.

Students may change their interests, but their advisers, who are also credentialed teachers, are keeping in mind the standards required by the state and fitting those into the interests of the students. The combination of internship, independent projects and teacher-led projects help cover the learning goals of the school, which are broadly: empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, communication, social reasoning and the personal qualities necessary for success in any endeavor.

While the adviser plays a big role in pulling these strands together and helping to shape independent projects, she also brings in other community resources when necessary to support a student's individual academic, social or home-life needs.

If a student wants to dig into a specific subject, he or she will often take a class at a nearby community college. Big Picture schools bring in mentors and tutors from the community, and two days a week students are learning in the community through internships.

“Application is a very important part of knowing and it’s not a very important part of school,” Washor said. “How you use the things you learn outside of school in your daily life and how you manage yourself socially, emotionally and personally are all important. You can’t separate all these things.”

A big part of the Big Picture Learning approach is to make the learner accountable for his own education. When a student sits down with his adviser and guardian to set quarterly learning goals, he has much more power than in a traditional school when the same student might receive a schedule of required classes. The adviser works with students to scaffold skills like time management, goal setting and interest discovery, which are crucial to an independent learner.

At Big Picture schools, those quarterly meetings result in a spreadsheet of learning goals that the student is working toward, with deadlines and resources to help him accomplish them. Then, throughout the quarter, the adviser guides that student to meet the goals, teaching when that’s appropriate, finding experts if necessary and providing emotional support as well.

Students are studying different things at different times and the focus is not on “mastery,” as it often is in other asynchronous learning models. There are still classes, but they aren't necessarily attended by every student in a grade.

“We think you’re on a journey, and when you really learn how to do something well you realize how little mastery you have over something,” Washor said.

He admits teaching in this way is time-consuming and it takes trust between the student and her adviser, but Washor says learning takes time and is based in relationships. Big Picture schools honor the slow process of learning, trying hard to meet required standards in non-standardized ways without sacrificing depth.

Despite the unconventional approach and structure, Big Picture schools generally perform better than the district average on state tests, Washor said. He doesn’t believe those tests measure much about students, but good scores allow his staff to maintain their commitment to student interests, while still having a voice in the public system.

Big Picture Learning has made sure that outside evaluators are monitoring its work, including a longitudinal study on post-secondary activities of its graduates that shows that the vast majority are either in college or employed in meaningful work.


Critics of home schooling and unschooling often say only affluent alternative families choose this path. While it’s true that home-schooling families tend to be at least middle class, there are also families who choose it despite economic hardship.

When student-directed, choice-filled education was offered free to public school families in New Orleans, a wide array of families chose to attend the school, according to Bob Ferris, a founding teacher and onetime principal of the New Orleans Free School before it shut down in 2005. They had many low-income families and by the time the school closed the school was about 95 percent African-American.

“Black and Latino parents would come to us. Some were quite desperate,” said Chris Mercogliano, the former principal of the Albany Free School, an independent school operating on a sliding-scale model. “Their kid has already flunked out of five schools and they had nowhere else to turn.” Those parents were often skeptical of the model, which allowed students to choose what they studied, had mixed-age groups and looked very little like the schools they themselves had attended.

But over time, Mercogliano said parents couldn’t deny the change in their kids. Students who had been kicked out of multiple schools were suddenly begging to go to school. Staff members were saying positive things about students’ intelligence and unique ways of looking at the world, not calling with the newest problem. All of these things helped parents see beyond the traditional model and appreciate what Albany Free School offered their kids.

Still, very few people are ever exposed to this model, and those who are often find it threatening.

“The reason there are so few truly unconventional publicly funded schools is that society doesn’t want them,” Mercogliano said. “School districts and school boards and school people don’t want them.”

But is that the same thing as families not wanting them? If some kids find success in a more open, choice-based, free environment, isn’t it worth having that option for families that want it? Perhaps the real answer is not to turn all public schools into free schools, but to allow for a bit more variety within the public system so there is something for every kind of learner.

Still curious about the Free School movement? Check out this admittedly long (55-minute) documentary on the New Orleans Free School.


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