Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dr. Denis Littky and Passion Schools

Dr Denis Littky is the co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning. He has over 40 years in the education field and is known for his innovations in secondary education in rural, suburban and urban settings.

I have been studying Dr Littky’s work for this project. I saw an excellent talk by him online, at the New York Education TED Talks event where he spoke about the work he is doing and his passion for education.

Watch the TED Talk here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbpqVPtUIFQ

He starts the talk saying, ‘Every thirteen seconds, there are eight hundred students dropping out of school.’

I think about what the numbers are around the world and it scares me. The question to ask here is not why  students are dropping out but why are they not being engaged enough to stay in.

Dr. Denis Littky got together with a colleague and asked himself this question.

‘If we did not know there was such a thing as schools what would it be?’

He further adds and I paraphrase, “Think about it. If you were teaching your own kid at school, you wouldn’t sit him down in the living room, teach him a subject, then ring a bell, then call him back and tell him to do science again. You wouldn’t do it. Its ridiculous.”

They interviewed over 100,000 students across high schools in America and asked them what was the one word that came to their mind when they thought about school. The answer in most cases was ‘boring’.

So he and Eliot Washer decided to start a school with different mission. A school that was not boring, that would empower kids. They wanted to see what was best for students’ one school at a time.

Picture Credit - www.edu.blogs.com

Every class in these schools has about fifteen students. The first questions they ask the students are,

‘What is your passion? What is your interest?’

Then they call the every individual student’s parents in and they an individual plan for each student. If the student says his passion is animals. The school  then tells the student, that is good and they will work on that.

Now all the education that happens at these institutions is done from the perspective of a student’s individual passion.  As Dr Littky says, “We are going to teach how to read and write through your passion.”

Student Stories

For example there is a fourteen-year-old student in the ninth grade that is passionate about some field. The school will arrange for the student to put into the community with somebody that has the same passion. If they are passionate about writing, you spend time with a published author or a regular columnist.

Now the school looks at this experience that the student goes through as a very important aspect of his overall education. When the student comes back to school, they don’t tell the student that they have met somebody in their field and now they must come back and do science, math and English properly. Instead they integrate all the Math, Science, English with what that student has learned on the job.

They exhibit their work as 9th graders at the end of a particular semester or term to friends, parents and teachers. These people look at their work and give them constructive criticism and encouragement based on how the students have presented and worked on their individual projects.

Dr Littky states how students cannot cheat in this model. They are speaking about something that is close to their heart and they do all they can, to ensure they do it right.

Met School Students visit the City Archives. Picture Credit - www.providenceri.com

Example of a Met School Student

One student from the Met School was passionate about Vietnam. This is how he works on this passion then,

·     He gets in touch with a veteran that is building a memorial and goes out interviewing people.
·     Takes a class at a college nearby called Providence College about the Vietnam War.
·     Takes another class at the Brown University nearby where an individual was teaching a class about how they could teach other about the Vietnam War.
·     Dr. Littky had visited Vietnam earlier and done a presentation there. This student asked Dr. Littky for his slides.

Why was the student so passionate about Vietnam?

His father had fought in the Vietnam War. Growing up he would ask his father every single day about what happened in Vietnam.

What did he do with the knowledge he received?

·     He created a website about how to talk to your family about the war.
·     It helped him re-connect with his father. His father soon opened up to him seeing the work he was putting in.
·     The student went on to become a History Major.

That student has come back to the Met School and is now a teacher at the school. Dr Littky mentions how this happens very often with the students from the school. They often come back to teach.

Some of the statistics that Dr Littky provided in the talk further convinced me about how effective this method actually was. The school had a 98% attendance rate compared to the city’s average of 48%. It had a 97% graduation rate compared to the city’s average of 47%.

Interest in the Model from the Gates Foundation

Picture Credit - www.youthworkers.net 

The Gates Foundation, which is one of the largest charitable trusts in the world, started showing some interest in the model. They sent a representative from the Education department to study the work being done at the school.

How are the students at MET School different?

He loved the students at the school because they were talking about a passion. They would talk to him about something they loved. They did no just speak about history, science, math and other subjects. They spoke from their heart about something that was very close to their hearts.

The students at this school do not talk about homework, they talk about they work they are doing with regard to their passion to actually make the lives of the people of their community easier.

Support for Expansion

The representative from the Gates Foundation discussed what was happening at the school with his team. Soon they got a five million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation and were told to start these schools all around the country, They have opened over twenty schools around the United States of America up to now.

He soon got twenty five million dollars to start 40 more of these schools around the U.S.A. Today they have over seventy schools and groups using the same model in places like Netherlands and Australia

College Unbound

Dr Littky was still angry. Because even after this, there were some statistics that really troubled him. Many of the students that went through his school would get to college and then drop out. A study found out that out of the low income households, 89% of the students dropped out. He also found out that the college drop out rate for sections of the population is about 51%. More than half of the students that apply to course do not graduate from them. According to high Fees, traditional schooling environment, lack of engagement may be some of the many reasons they decided to take such a step.

This statistic worried Dr. Littky. But like every other radical innovator Dr. Littky decided to take personal responsibility for this situation. He decided to start a college called, ‘College Unbound’

Plan for College Unbound

He hired a house next to his school and told the first batch of students to stay there.

One student in the group was passionate about Sustainability. So Dr. Littky found two of the top architects in the city and the students is now working with them.

What is the model of College Unbound?

1)  Ask the student what their passion is about.
2)  Let them work on it.
3)  Around the passion they conduct seminars and teach skills.

Dr Littky calls himself a Radical Educator on his Twitter page. The world needs more people like him. Education needs more people like him.

As he famously said, “We can’t afford to tweak across the stages. If you’re not standing on the edge, you are taking up too much space.”

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