The kids stay in the picture

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Students at a pioneering group of US high schools have ditched the textbooks in favour of internships in jobs of their choosing - and completion rates and motivation are booming. Now the world is waking up to the individualised approach. Jon Marcus reports

In a hip workspace in a converted factory building on the fringes of the US city of Providence, Rhode Island, DeLos Tate deftly works a mouse to call up some of the live-action and animated videos he has helped to produce.

DeLos and his colleague, who is the owner of this cutting-edge design firm, exchange ideas with a comfortable, casual rapport. On occasion, when deadlines dampen their creative energies, they unwind around the basketball hoop that's wedged into a corner of the high-ceilinged room.

But this scenario is not just about fun and games. It's a deadly serious challenge to conventional secondary education called "learning through interest" that has taken root in pockets of the US, Australia and New Zealand, and may now be exported to the UK.

DeLos is only 17, tall and thin, his long hair tucked under a baseball cap. Two days a week for six hours a day, he comes here to complete his internship with a company called TyTy Works. He spends the other three at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center - "the Met" for short - a campus of four high schools, with two more nearby, serving students aged 14-18.

Where the average US secondary school has more than 700 students, these institutions enrol no more than 140 apiece, selected by lottery. Rather than teachers, they are staffed by what are called academic advisers. Each is responsible for 16 students all day every day, and for all four years leading up to their graduation. This is a radical departure from the set- up in traditional secondary education, where students sit in largely random combinations of about 30 per class, listening to different teachers talk about specific subjects at different times over different years.

The personal touch

But it is not solely the structure of these schools that makes them distinct. It is also how they treat the teenagers who attend them, creating individual learning plans based on their personal interests.

"Here's the difference - the centre is the kid," says Dennis Littky, co- founder of the Met and co-director of its parent organisation, Big Picture Learning, which runs about 120 of these experimental schools across the US. Bearded, wearing a colourful kofia hat, he raises one hand high and leaves the other low. "All except a few schools put the curriculum up here, above the kid. We put the kid up here, find out what they're interested in and help them to learn about it."

This direction is the opposite of where many other schools in the US and elsewhere are heading by formalising content and regularly testing how well students have learned it. Big Picture's leaders don't push what they disdainfully refer to as a canon of what everyone should know. Instead, they believe that students should learn how to learn, especially at a time when they are surrounded by an overload of information.

"Sure, you need content," Littky says. "You can't be a critical thinker without content. But it doesn't matter what content you use."

A significant part of the Big Picture approach is internships like the one DeLos is doing, which are common in the US for university students but rare in high schools. Such internships do more than teach young people real-world skills - they also show them how to act around adult co- workers.

One Met student is a news writer at a radio station. Another, interested in film-making, worked on the set of a Hollywood film shot in Providence, then competed in a business-plan contest and won the money to buy her own camera. The president of a university was in the audience; he was so impressed that he offered the student a scholarship to study film- making.

"So many positive things have come from my internships," says DeLos. Like many students at the Met, he is noticeably self-confident and well-spoken for his age, thanks to the periodic presentations he is required to make about his work to audiences including parents and classmates. "This has been a giant part of learning where I want to be after college."

That doesn't mean that he or others always know, at 14 or 15, what they want to do. DeLos dabbled with becoming an engineer, then a personal trainer, then an artist, then an architect, then a furniture designer. During an internship at a furniture design company, he was assigned to make a video and fell into what he describes as his calling. He is so good at it that he has been helping to produce television commercials at TyTy Works, and an earlier internship in the audio-video department of a large insurance company led to a paid after-school job.

DeLos says that, at a conventional school, he'd "probably just be in a textbook". He adds: "It sounds really boring, the whole textbook life - turn to chapter 4, take a test."

That prospect is what draws some 350 students to apply for the 200 places that open up annually at the Met. Each one has to write an essay about why they want to go there. As do their parents, who are required to play an active part in the school.

The faces in the large, open spaces that supplant conventional classrooms on the Met's main campus - divided into separate schools called Liberty, Justice, Equality and Unity and arranged around a neat grass quadrangle - come in all hues. Forty-two per cent of the students are Hispanic, 15 per cent are black and 4 per cent are multiracial, making this the third most diverse school in the state. Two-thirds of the young people are from low- income families, measured by whether they qualify for government- subsidised meals.

Defying convention

These demographics present particular challenges for Big Picture high schools, all of which serve mostly urban and low-income students from racial minorities who have the odds stacked against them.

Despite these disadvantages, however, 73 per cent of students graduate from the Met, compared with 65 per cent in the surrounding district. And that is one of the lower levels of success among Big Picture's US schools, which have an average graduation rate of 92 per cent. One in New Jersey has a 100 per cent graduation rate; at another in San Diego, the figure is 98 per cent. The national average among all US schools is 78 per cent.

This is one of many ways in which the Big Picture system seems to be a referendum on conventional schooling. And in many ways the mainstream approach comes up wanting.

"Even for bright kids, traditional schools are not working. How can teachers possibly get to know 30 kids in their classroom who they have for an hour a day?" asks Nancy Diaz Bain, the Met's co-director. "The system of warehousing students in classrooms and lecturing to them is breaking kids. Their curiosity is broken."

Alex Rogers, who will graduate this year from the Met, was often bullied in his former school. "I was basically mute throughout those years and now people can't get me to shut up," he says. Liberated by the Met, the teenager has started a band and set up his own business selling environmentally friendly laundry detergent.

"A lot of them hate school," he says of his former classmates who are at conventional high schools. "They don't know what they want to do. I'd be miserable [if I was still in that system]. I'd be sitting in class bored out of my mind. And I'd be more self-conscious and worried about what people thought. In other schools, teachers are always telling you what you're doing wrong."

In spite of their avant-garde way of learning, Big Picture students beat their counterparts in surrounding districts on standardised tests in every subject. Although they sometimes fall short of the average test scores in their states, which encompass wealthy as well as low-income schools, on other measures they do much, much better. For instance, 91 per cent of students at the Met believe their high school education is preparing them for success at university, versus 75 per cent of students statewide. Moreover, 81 per cent say their teachers inspire them to do their best work, 74 per cent that their teachers keep them interested, and 92 per cent that their teachers care about them personally. All those proportions are at least double the state average.

"[These] are the kind of results you can get when you design a high school to prepare every student for college," Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said of the Met. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has urged schools to "follow the example of places like the Met centre in Rhode Island that give students that individual attention, while also preparing them through real-world, hands-on training for the possibility of succeeding in a career".

Independent reviews, too, have come to favourable conclusions. Karen Arnold, a professor of education at Boston College who has studied the Big Picture schools, found that the learning-through-interest concept "really does work". "The [students] are hooked," she says. "They're interested. They want to be doing what they're doing. You hook them that way and then say, `How are we going to get you to the place you need to be in literacy or numeracy?'"

Conventional classroom education, by contrast, "is kind of an industrial model left over from a point where you just wanted to get a bunch of people to basic literacy in an agrarian society," she says. "It doesn't make any sense. And schools have become entrenched institutions and bureaucracies."

A world of possibility

What is most notable about Big Picture schools, Arnold adds, is the relationships between the students and their mentors and advisers. In 96 per cent of cases, she found, they remain in touch as much as five years after graduation.

"These relationships are unbelievable, and they endure," she says. "These students, lots of them, come from all the traumas of poverty and you just get this feeling that these are very healing relationships."

Conspicuously young, hip and tattooed ("A teacher who's taught too long in a regular system can't change," Littky likes to say), the Met's academic advisers eat their meals with students rather than in segregated teachers' lounges, and give out their personal mobile phone numbers so that they can be contacted at night and on weekends.

"All my colleagues really want to be here and want to help the students," says one, 28-year-old Kristin Re. "It's more of a human interaction and less of an `I'm the boss' kind of thing. I ask them, `What do you want to learn and how can we learn that?'"

The staff seem as passionate about what's wrong with other schools as they are about what's right with this one.

"We have a system that's broken," Brian Matthews says over lunch. Chichi Carvalho pipes up from across the table that students in other schools "are a number or a last name". Erica Dalomba, DeLos' adviser, adds: "The philosophy we believe in is one student at a time."

But expanding this beyond a few pilot programmes would be a formidable job. "It's hard to break that mould of thinking," says Toni Gough, another adviser.

Littky blames textbook companies, teacher training programmes and other vested interests for resisting change. Some university schools of education refuse to send student teachers to Big Picture schools, he says, adding: "There's a mindset that you can't do it."

One reason behind this is the assumption that the emphasis on individual attention in small schools is expensive. But financial records show that Big Picture schools cost no more per student than those in surrounding districts. Arnold found that this is because they don't have the large numbers of administrators typical in other schools, or provide such things as libraries and sports programmes - students use public libraries and can join sports teams at larger schools nearby. Nor is there a need for textbooks or many other curriculum materials, or for subject specialist teachers. At the Met, if students have particular academic interests, they can take university-level courses at the community college next door.

The Big Picture model has been taken up in Australia, which has about a dozen such schools, and New Zealand, which has two. Louise Thomas, education programme lead at UK public services social enterprise Innovation Unit, also supports the model. She says the organisation wants to bring the approach to the UK by encouraging existing schools to take on components of the system, and getting free schools, alternative schools and independent providers to adopt the concept wholesale.

There are a few evident shortcomings. The lack of structure, for example, is not for everyone, as students Alex and DeLos agree. And although the proportion of Big Picture students who plan to go to college is higher than that of other high-school graduates in their income category, not all of them follow through on their ambitions. Among those who do, not all are sufficiently prepared. Because of their families' socio-economic situations, many end up at low-priced universities with little support and low completion rates.

"They take these kids a long way but they can't take them all the way to parity," Arnold says.

At a morning "pick-me-up" assembly, the high-energy principal of Equality, Steve Bartholomew, has as little success silencing a group of 40 or so teenagers as a counterpart at any other school might do. In a large room with inspirational posters on the walls, Bartholomew tries to get the fidgeting students to choose, from a long list of bureaucratic-sounding categories, the careers they would like to pursue.

Slowly Bartholomew's point comes into focus: that the students' experiences in their internships and schoolwork can lead to the jobs they want. Their enthusiasm rises, hands shoot up and they applaud each others' answers. Bartholomew finally manages to quieten the room. "All of a sudden," he says, "the world of possibility has opened to you."

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