The Big Picture
Education is Everyone’s Business
Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle
Let me start by saying that I love this book. I laughed, commiserated, remembered, and reflected on teaching and educating. Most of all, I felt a sense of hope and optimism. No matter where they are in their careers, teachers who read this book will remember why they became teachers. And they can understand one of Littky’s major points – each of us can bring about change.
Everything we know about how people learn tells us that successful people in any field are good at demonstrating or creating or talking about it to ‘show their stuff’. While reading and writing are important, only a very small and rather specialized group of people are primarily good at these skills. Littky asks why the educational system persists in measuring achievement through written tests and assignments rather than using oral assignments for students to demonstrate what they know and how they know that they know it. Why, he asks, do we continue to use an outdated, ultra-traditional school structure to meet the needs of 21st century learning? Do we really believe that the only learning that is important occurs only in schools teaching a finite, prescribed curricula? Do we truly believe that if we can’t see it and measure it, it’s not important? Do we believe that test scores are the absolute measure of what our students learn? To Littky, the large warehouse school is an absurd way to learn and contrary to everything we know about learning.
What would happen if we turned the system on its end? Our students could use their growing base of knowledge as the foundation for new learning. They would be able to explore concepts, develop skills and become life long learners. They would have the skills to learn, be critical and be aware.
But wouldn’t that be tantamount to turning the asylum over to the inmates? Littky’s school would be a truly co-operative learning institution where students, parents, communities, peer groups, and teachers as mentors would work together. This school would be a living organism which would look at itself. This school would change curriculum, order content, adjust structures for teaching and learning with the sole focus of doing whatever is best for each student.
But Littky’s school can only happen in America, right? Wrong. There is a ‘Big Picture’ school in Manitoba. What about Ontario? We can do nothing until ‘Big Brother’ at Queen’s Park tells us what we can do, right? Again — wrong! Littky challenges each of us to consider what it means to us to be educators. How can we support the growth of each individual student ‘one student at a time’? How can we work to ensure that what our students learn is honest, real and valid? Littky believes that we can each promote ‘flexible change’ if we examine what we do and are sure that we aren’t trying to put ‘new wine in old wineskins’: trying to make old patterns meet the needs of new situations. This habit of reflection will inevitably lead to change from the ground up.
Each chapter is filled with writings from his students and quotes which have affected his philosophy and practice. Each chapter ends with questions. Answering these questions is a very effective form of personal and professional reflection. In working toward our own answers, each of us will promote change. And having finished the book we will be able to do what Littky tells us to do: “You may now begin changing the world”.
Dennis Litkky is the founder of The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“The Met”) in Providence, Rhode Island and cofounder and codirector of The Big Picture Company – a not for profit educational reform organization which supports the creation of small, personalized, public high schools that work in tandem with their communities.