The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business
reviewed by Yvette Daniel - 2005
Title: The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business
Author(s): Dennis Littky (with Samantha Grabelle)
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
ISBN: 0871209713, Pages: 230, Year: 2004
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Dennis Littkys book opens with a poignant journal entry by Mareoun Yai, an alumna from the first graduating class at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center and currently holder of a college degree, who writes, I sometimes wonder where I would be now without the support I got from my high school. The center, lovingly referred to as The Met, was started in 1996 by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor as a group of six vocational education schools in Providence, Rhode Island. Littky and Washor are affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools started by Ted Sizer, which is built upon 10 common principles that re-imagine education infused with equality, personalization, and intellectual vibrancy. Littky hopes that the ideas and testimonials presented in this book will serve as a springboard for others in taking up this vision. He does not intend to provide a template, mainly because templates do not work. The book makes no prescriptions, but Littky hopes that once readers get the big picture through The Met, it will serve as an analytical model to further our understanding that schooling is about the ways people relate to each other and about the way knowledge is positioned and the curriculum is designed. It is also about the ability of schools to nurture the qualities required for students to become caring, active, and contributing members of a community, as Yais journal entry clearly indicates.
The first chapter outlines the real goals of education, which go beyond marketplace dictates to emphasize goals that are consistent with education for a democratic citizenry. The Met is infused with the joy of learning, and students are there because they are engaged in projects that are relevant to them (the book is full of wonderful examples). The philosophy of The Met is articulated by Littke with a quote by George Bernard Shaw: What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge is pursuit of the child (p. 5).
Further, the notion of mindfulness is central to the philosophy of teaching and learning at The Met, which encompasses mind, body, emotion, and spirit (Orr, 2002). Mindfulness implies using imagination and creativity in understanding what works best for each individual as he or she engages in authentic and meaningful activities for learning. Littky claims that it is possible to set up strong structures that promote flexibility, echoing the idea of liberating constraints espoused by Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2000), a phrase that describes the balance between freedom and restraint that creates conditions for learning and creativity (p. 87).
The second chapter underscores the importance of seeing students as valuable resources instead of a resource drain. Deweys progressive philosophy of education is evident throughout the book, but especially in this chapter. The chapter also outlines a variety of authentic assessment tools that are used at The Met to replace traditional paper-and-pencil tests.
The Mets emphasis is on small schools with a personal approach that addresses the heart as well as the mind in a holistic manner. The third and fourth chapters expand upon this central theme by explaining the significance of the atmosphere and the school culture at The Met and the individual attention given to each student. Students are seen both as individuals and also as members of a caring family within the school. The community and, in particular, the parents are involved in designing individualized curricula for students.
The fifth chapter underscores the importance of learning through pursuing passions and interests. The words of one Met advisorThey are passionate about their learning, because they are learning something they are passionate about (p. 99)sum up the essence of learning at The Met. The sixth chapter highlights the importance of real work in the real world through several examples of authentic hands-on tasks. Two units undertaken by the same teacher illustrate the point that even though both are hands-on, one looks like real work but isnt real enough. The vital role of mentors is also discussed in this chapter. Mentors, who work with students in internship programs, are perceived as additions to the faculty. They are equally respected and valued for the central role they play in nurturing The Mets students.
The seventh chapter is devoted to the role of parents and families. The admissions process at The Met is unique. Both the student and his or her parent(s) have to write essays explaining their reasons for applying to enroll at The Met. Several excerpts from these essays are reproduced on pages 136 and 137. In the words of one parent, So many children lose interest in school. I do not want this to happen to Anya. Authentic engagement of parents and families requires changes in the power structure such that decision making takes place at the community level and parents are involved in the daily decisions made at the school, as these decisions are integral to the whole process of their childrens education.
The eighth chapter addresses the contentious issues of assessments and grades. Although The Met has tried to get rid of grades in favor of exhibitions and real conversations about learning, the faculty and administration have realized that students need grades because that is the way the world works. To enable students to gain admission to colleges, their narratives and exhibitions are converted to letter grades. The second half of the eighth chapter argues for changes in the way we assess students and the standards we create. It is refreshing to note that the commissioner of education for Rhode Island, Peter McWalters, has helped implement a different kind of assessment tool, the SALT (School Accountability for Learning and Teaching) survey, that considers things that really matter. A sample of questions from the survey is reproduced on pages 173174.
The concluding chapter uses the metaphor of the school as a living organism that is continually evolving and changing. This metaphor, although very useful, has its limitations. It is useful because it allows us to understand that schools must pay close attention to the contexts in which they operate and enables us to gain a better sense of the ecology of the organization. Its main limitation is that it obscures the tensions inherent in attaining internal cohesion. Morgan (1998) argues that although organizations may be highly unified, with people in different departments working in a selfless way for the organization as a whole, they may at other times be characterized by schism and major conflict (p. 66). These aspects of organizational operation should be brought to the forefront of the discussion in this chapter.
The Big Picture is engaging from beginning to end. Each chapter opens with beautiful quotes and excerpts from the journals of students and teachers. At the end of each chapter there are questions for discussion that attempt to further the conversation about a different way of thinking about schooling. This book is more than valuable or essential reading. It should be recommended to educators, students in preservice and in-service teacher education programs, and principal-qualification courses to start a conversation about teaching and learning in the hope that the ideas the book presents come to fruition in different contexts and that what is currently perceived as alternative schooling becomes mainstream.
Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2000). Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world. London: Erlbaum.
Morgan, G. (1998). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Orr, D. (2002). The use of mindfulness in anti-oppressive pedagogies. Canadian Journal of Education, 27(4), 477498.