The Voice – much like the Big Picture approach to learning

I watched the first episode the other day of what I bet will be the next BIG THING for talent shows – The Voice.

As one critic put it: “Essentially The Voice takes everything you knew about the tired reality format (Yes American Idol, I am looking at you) and turns it on its head and the result is absolutely entertaining.” Read it all here.

I would absolutely agree. I liked the humour, the passion, the talent and the human story.

I especially liked the premise of the show and how it followed similar principles as the Big Picture program which I use to work with young people and help them to get back into learning and find a career. The similarities included:

  • People following their passion
  • Working with coaches who are like mentors
  • Coaches work with singers in small groups of 8
  • The work with mentors is like an internship
I wonder which network will pick this up in Australia. My bet is the Ten Network.

Choice in Education

Seth Godin: “The mass market is being replaced by multiple micro markets and the long tail of choice.” View the article here.

What choice do students and their families have with education?

Apparently over the last 20 years there has been about a 20% shift in families choosing private education over the public sector (mass market).

Government schools educate approximately 65% of Australian students, with approximately 34% in Catholic and Independent schools. (Wikipedia)

Since 2000 the number of students in private schools has increased by 21% compared with an only 1% increase in students attending government schools. Since 2000 the proportion of students in private schools has increased to 34%, or more than 1 in 3, up 4% over this period. (Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Other than choosing between public or private schools, there is little choice…but it is needed today.

A new example of choice of schools in Melbourne is (Sports Education Development Australia) – sports education and training.
The concept was established to meet the needs of young people requiring an applied learning education focus that was set in the real world. The disengagement of young people in the senior years often results in lack of attendance, motivation and reflects a lack of direction and meaning in what they are learning. Learn more about SEDA

Notice how this initiative cites the need to learn in the real world, student disengagement and lack of motivation and direction.

Many students feel trapped in schools and find that much of the “real world” is banned or regulated against:

  • Technology – The banning or limitations of Mobile Phones, Facebook, YouTube
  • Choice of subjects – not able to follow their interests, passion
  • Work experience – limited to 1-2 weeks when they reach year 10
  •  Lack of Personalisation – large classes, many teachers, uniforms
  • Cells and Bells – trapped in classrooms and movement dictated by bells

A great opportunity exists now for a greater range of choice in education and learning.
The opportunity exists, the need is amongst us, but I don’t think the school system as it stands will allow it.

Hence we see the rise of home education and alternative learning programs. These are the micro markets Seth was talking about.

Let kids rule the school

This is a wonderful story of one teenage boy’s desire to start his own school…within a school.

What struck me is how it is so very similar to the approach that Big Picture uses. It should not be surprising as the Big Picture principles work…wherever and with whoever…given the right environment.

Let Kids Rule the School


New Marlborough, Mass.

IN a speech last week, President Obama said it was unacceptable that “as many as a quarter of American students are not finishing high school.” But our current educational approach doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.

We want young people to become independent and capable, yet we structure their days to the minute and give them few opportunities to do anything but answer multiple-choice questions, follow instructions and memorize information. We cast social interaction as an impediment to learning, yet all evidence points to the huge role it plays in their psychological development.

That’s why we need to rethink the very nature of high school itself.

I recently followed a group of eight public high school students, aged 15 to 17, in western Massachusetts as they designed and ran their own school within a school. They represented the usual range: two were close to dropping out before they started the project, while others were honors students. They named their school the Independent Project.

Their guidance counselor was their adviser, consulting with them when the group flagged in energy or encountered an obstacle. Though they sought advice from English, math and science teachers, they were responsible for monitoring one another’s work and giving one another feedback. There were no grades, but at the end of the semester, the students wrote evaluations of their classmates.

The students also designed their own curriculum, deciding to split their September-to-January term into two halves.

During the first half, they formulated and then answered questions about the natural and social world, including “Are the plant cells at the bottom of a nearby mountain different than those at the top of the mountain?” and “Why we do we cry?” They not only critiqued one another’s queries, but also the answers they came up with. Along the way, they acquired essential tools of inquiry, like how to devise good methods for gathering various kinds of data.

During the second half, the group practiced what they called “the literary and mathematical arts.” They chose eight novels — including works by Kurt Vonnegut, William Faulkner and Oscar Wilde — to read in eight weeks. That is more than the school’s A.P. English class reads in an entire year.

Meanwhile, each of them focused on specific mathematical topics, from quadratic equations to the numbers behind poker. They sought the help of full-time math teachers, consulted books and online sources and, whenever possible, taught one another.

They also each undertook an “individual endeavor,” learning to play the piano or to cook, writing a novel or making a podcast about domestic violence. At the end of the term, they performed these new skills in front of the entire student body and faculty.

Finally, they embarked on a collective endeavor, which they agreed had to have social significance. Because they felt the whole experience had been so life-changing, they ended up making a film showing how other students could start and run their own schools.

The results of their experiment have been transformative. An Independence Project student who had once considered dropping out of school found he couldn’t bear to stop focusing on his current history question but didn’t want to miss out on exploring a new one. When he asked the group if it would be O.K. to pursue both, another student answered, “Yeah, I think that’s what they call learning.”

One student who had failed all of his previous math courses spent three weeks teaching the others about probability. Another said: “I did well before. But I had forgotten what I actually like doing.” They have all returned to the conventional curriculum and are doing well. Two of the seniors are applying to highly selective liberal arts colleges.

The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented. They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn things that matter to them and when they learn together. In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship.

Schools everywhere could initiate an Independent Project. All it takes are serious, committed students and a supportive faculty. These projects might not be exactly alike: students might apportion their time differently, or add another discipline to the mix. But if the Independent Project students are any indication, participants will end up more accomplished, more engaged and more knowledgeable than they would have been taking regular courses.

We have tried making the school day longer and blanketing students with standardized tests. But perhaps children don’t need another reform imposed on them. Instead, they need to be the authors of their own education.

City Campus Launceston

The first school I have visited with my trip to Tasmania was in Launceston.

The City Campus (Big Picture) building is amazing.

Located in a precinct that has the University of Tasmania, Aurora Stadium (Football Ground) and the Arts Museum makes a wonderful setting.

The building is two stories with the lower floor being the Polytechnic (TAFE) building and construction and canteen and the top floor for the Big Picture.

The layout is open with plenty of break out areas and ideal for advisories and students to work in groups or individually.

In my next blog post I will talk about the learning and student work.

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John Bladen Scholarship

This past week I was very fortunate to be awarded the John Bladen Scholarship by the ANSN (Australian National Schools Network). This scholarship was to support my travel to Tasmania to visit Big Picture Schools.

I am planning to visit:

My interest in visiting these schools is to learn more about how the schools/advisors develop the following Big Picture principles:

  • Advisory
  • Respect, trust and care
  • Academic rigor

I am really looking forward to spending time in the schools investigating their learning spaces and meeting teachers and students.