Littky, Dennis (No.2)

Dennis LittkyDennis Littky is the co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, based in Providence, RI. Big Picture Learning “designs innovative learning environments, researches and replicates new models for learning, and trains educators to serve as leaders in their schools and communities.” Big Picture is the force behind the Met School in Providence, a high school where students follow their own interests in planning projects through which they learn their chosen subjects. When knowledge in another discipline becomes necessary, the students have access to teachers to help them learn the additional piece. Thus, they achieve a multi-disciplinary education, and, more importantly, they learn how to think. About five years ago, Littky began applying the same approach to college students—mainly those whose educations had been interrupted—through College Unbound. In this program, students plan their projects, with the difference from the high school being that their actual jobs are integral to the projects. Then, when a project is complete, the student is granted college credit from a partnering university, at present only USNH. This bio comes from and, where you can find more details. asks:
It’s been close to 10 years since we last caught up with you. You have expanded your focus at the Big Picture schools beyond secondary school to include kindergarten through college. Tell us about that transformation.

DL: Our main emphasis has always been grades 9 to 12, but along the way we have always talked about how our philosophy is good at a young age, it’s good at college level, it’s good just for adults. It’s finding your passion, and going after it, be it in school or not in school. Some elementary schools as well as some middle schools started talking to us, so that is what shifted us to a younger cohort, although our emphasis is still high school.

Now we have around 52 schools in the United States, about 25 in Australia, and 25 in the Netherlands. We have interest from other areas of the world. Wednesday, some people from Beijing and another group from Korea were visiting. We’ve stayed pretty popular—even in the world of standardized tests. We’re really about one student at a time.

About five years ago, I started looking at the college piece. We do pretty well with our students [from Big Picture high schools], because we keep working with them after high school. But, in general in this country, if you are a first-generation low-income kid—it doesn’t matter what color you are—and you graduate from high school (which means you hit the 50–60% that actually make it), and you start college, only 11% of that population completes college. That is absurd. Colleges always say the students aren’t college-ready—which is probably true—and I always say, “But the colleges aren’t student-ready.” It is their obligation to not be elitist and say, “You don’t know X and Y, you can’t come here,” but to take the students from where they are.

If we as a high school said we only take kids that are on a ninth-grade level, we wouldn’t have any kids in our high school. But we take the kids and we move them. That’s our job. Imagine if kindergarten said they would only take kids that do X and Y. They wouldn’t have any of the low-income kids. It’s ridiculous. It’s our job to help educate everybody.

I decided I’d start a college and try to turn the numbers around, so that it’s 11% dropping out and 89% graduating. I’ve been very close to that over the last five years.

As a college, how do you make that switch to being student-ready? How is the teaching different than with other, as you call them, more elitist colleges?

DL: Every student comes in with certain skills, certain attributes, certain motivations, a certain attitude. Our job [as educators] in this country is not to say, “You have to know X and Y and that is what college is.” It’s a redefinition of learning that I have always been trying to put into practice and a redefinition of learning for college. So, you want people to be skilled, you want people to be lifelong learners. We took 10 traits or skills that businesses say are the most important, like creativity, like reflection, like problem solving, like communicating. Those are the traits that are making or breaking us. You can learn the other skills that go along with a job. We said we’re going to emphasize those 10.

And similar to our action in the high school, the students have projects around real work. Their subject is integrated.

With this difficult job market, young adults that are coming out of college now have to have done internships and gotten real world experience if they are going to have any hope of getting a job. Isn’t that true?

DL: That’s right. And most of the colleges are just coming around to that now. I’ve been doing that for 40 years.

I see. Studies in your schools are very student-led. They’re allowed to follow their passions, and you develop an individualized education plan for each kid.

DL: Right. We try to help a kid find his interests and partner them with an adult who knows how to work in that area. The students then work in their chosen areas and begin to learn as they go along. And then when they’ve got to learn something else, they go study it in order to come back and do it. So, learning is pretty much in the moment. They find out, “Oh wow, I’d better know statistics if I’m going to be helping this company do research.” Then we support people in doing that.

If the students work within a particular vocation—your website has a story about a kid working with a policewoman—do you see the kids following along and staying with that passion for a long time, or do they check out a few different areas and end up in a different place?

DL: It doesn’t matter to me. The good news is we are using their passion as a way to get them involved in learning. I don’t care if they’re at a restaurant. I’m not looking for them to be that person when they grow up. If they are, great. But most kids are exploring. You have a kid that says, “I wanted to be a teacher my whole life” and then we put her in a classroom and in six months she says, “You know what, I hate kids.” It’s true, and thank God we’re finding it then, right? And then she says, “I really love computers.” So she works in a computer place for a year, then says, “This is too boring. I’m sitting in one place.” Finally, she gets brave enough to say, “I always wanted to be a dancer, but I never thought I could.” Then we place her with a dancer.

The idea is to put you in an environment where you want to learn. Where we can help you go deeper and broader, learn your reading, writing, thinking, how to get to the place on time. That’s what we are. When they are ready to go to college I’ve often heard students say, “You saved me a lot of money, because now I know what I want to do. Now I’m ready to go in and be an entrepreneur and run a business.” That’s what we do.

My passion right now is working in the college arena. We have something called College Unbound, and it’s working with the adult learners who have started college and never finished, and there are 37 million of those in this country. A lot of these people are poor. They can’t move up because they don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, and regardless of how good a Bachelor’s degree is or is not, it is a ticket.

I put out an email, just a simple thing on my Facebook page, that if you started college and didn’t finish and you’re interested in coming back, come to an open house. In my little city 75 people showed up. They’ve taken all these courses but they’re not getting credit for them. They have had a lot of life experience. And so I have set up a program that gives people credit for their life experience, takes all of their college credit, even if it was from 25 years ago, and then, using the same philosophy, take their place of work, use that as an internship, and try to get them to grow doing real projects, where they are helping their place of work as well as learning.

It’s almost like Big Picture high schools on steroids, I say.

It sounds like it. Is the primary issue being able to afford to finish?

DL: Absolutely. And most colleges are set up for the 18- to 22-year-old, and that is not who is out there. These people are not going to go sit in the class at University of Rhode Island with 30 19-year-olds when they’re 40, have three kids, two jobs, and want to get their butt back home. They’re serious about learning. There is online stuff, but that doesn’t seem to be working in our country for certain populations. We’re combining an online piece and on-the-ground piece to support people to do real projects, to help them in their work, and they’re graduating at an 85% level and staying in school and being transformed learners, which is what I’m really all about.

Do you foresee giving yourself even more steroids here and moving beyond the Bachelor’s? Or is it that your passion lies in these underserved populations who need to have a more creative solution applied to their problem?

DL: That is my interest right now. We may do a Master’s degree for teachers, because it helps in my field. But I really care about this population of 37 million that ain’t going nowhere and can’t get back in school. We have a group of ex-prisoners who work for this institute where they’re on the street at night working to prevent gang activity, because they used to be in gangs. I’ve got them all coming back to school. I got them on Friday afternoon reading Malcolm X, and the guy who runs their organization says, “I could never have done that.” And they’re standing tall.

Most daycare workers don’t have Bachelor’s degrees. There’s a lot of pressure for them to do it—get the degree. So I’m working with them, because I figured out an inexpensive way that students can go back to school full-time while they’re working full-time and only be out one night a week. So I’m really building a program around these people. Teacher aides are similar. All the women of color who live in the cities are working in the schools for 11 bucks an hour, and they’re the ones that should be the teachers. So if I can help them get their Bachelor’s degree in teaching, then they can get paid decently and be a teacher.

I’m focused on these populations right now. Call me in 10 years, I should be working on nursing homes at that time so that Tom has a good place to live.

I know we all will appreciate your efforts on that front.

You did a lot to work towards changing the conversation in the country about education. Rather than just doing your own thing with one school, you really are a creator of movements. There are a lot of complaints about the way the educational system works, and businesses are talking about what they need to see in graduates coming out of schools. You’re the one out there in the field having these conversations with leaders. Do you see whether or not it’s possible to make some real change?

DL: I’m an optimist. I keep working and I keep believing. Our country has kind of gone backwards with No Child Left Behind, the standardized tests, even the Common Core. It’s all about the kids passing a test; it’s not about a kid’s thinking. We try to keep the conversation going about the whole child and those areas that people used to call soft skills—that Tom refers to as the soft skills that are hard skills. Businesses don’t want to hire the people out of college that have an A average but don’t know how to do anything.

Now the wealthier communities are starting to speak out against standardized testing and the Common Core. That’s when people listen, unfortunately, when the richest community starts saying, “I don’t want every one of our kids to look the same. My kid is a great artist, and according to your standardized test, he or she won’t graduate.” I love to see that.

The conversation about change is still there. It’s not strong enough, though. Today, we’re having a staff development day at my high school. The day is built around how to help kids ask the good questions. Education is about learning how to ask the questions in order to find the answers. I always said we should evaluate kids by the questions they ask, not by the answers they give.

I read in the New Yorker recently about the Waldorf Schools and how they’re taking off in China, because people in China are finally waking up to the fact that maybe all this rote learning isn’t exactly what they want. It made me happy to hear that some folks from Beijing were just visiting you. Everyone is watching China as they grow, and if we see some of these other innovative educational approaches there, it may mean that others will be willing to change.

DL: You’re absolutely right. I spent a week at this creativity conference, keynoting it, in Korea. Korea is the worst. The kids go to school from 7:00 to 7:00, they’re not allowed to speak to the teacher, and then most get tutors from 7:00 until 10:00 at night. And, yes, they come out number one in the test scores, but they can’t do nothing. So, there were little groups of people, little schools here and there, private schools that called me in, and they’re constantly trying to push it. So maybe there is some light.

Interesting enough, I’ve been talked to by China various times and, just as you said, I thought it would be a great mix, like, it’s fine if you can get your kids to be great mathematicians; now let us help you get them to be great thinkers, talkers, collaborators, along with that math skill. So, we’ll see what happens in the years to come.

Well, I know that we are going to keep watching what you’re doing, because you’re turning out these really great students of life and people who are ready to be engaged in the work world. Thank you for your time.

DL: Nice talking to you.

Email: dlittky -at- metmail -dot- org