Littky, Dennis

Dennis LittkyDennis Littky co-directs the Big Picture Company (, a national non-profit working to support a fundamental redesign of secondary education by starting and sustaining small schools nation-wide. He is director and co-founder of BPC's flagship school, The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center ( in Providence, Rhode Island. Nationally known for more than 35 years of innovative leadership in secondary education, he has been a community organizer, education reformer, and principal of three innovative schools. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Newsweek, Fortune, NPR, the London Telegraph and numerous other publications, as well as the NBC movie A Town Torn Apart.

His book The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business has been named a finalist in the annual Association of Educational Publishers' Distinguished Achievement Awards program.

Purchase the book, The Big Picture asks …

Dennis, who is this book for?

DL: The book is for a lot of different people. I want to change the way people think about education. So it’s for the people who are thinking a little too much in their own box about schooling. I wanted to get them to say, “God, this makes sense! Wow! Why didn’t I think of it this way?” It’s also for the people who are already familiar with our schools, because I was really afraid that they sometimes forget the philosophy behind what we’re doing. I wanted to make our philosophy clear in an interesting way to keep it going in the schools we have.

The feedback I’ve gotten makes me think that a lot of educators working in regular schools have the same feeling, and the book put it in words for them and made it come alive. So for that group of people, even if they’re teaching a chemistry class someplace, it helps them start doing that chemistry class a little differently.

It’s been pretty cool that we’ve gotten calls from principals and superintendents who are using it. It just raises a lot of questions about what people are doing and why.

When you say “are using it,” I think that leads into my next question. What is your underlying philosophy, your working philosophy of education?

DL: We have two mantras: 1) to always do what’s best for kids, and, 2) to teach one student at a time. The idea is that schooling shouldn’t be about how long the periods are. It’s really about helping kids. I would like for every kid to have his or her own individual plan, because every kid is so different. At The Met, we help kids find their interests and passions and then figure out how to teach them to read, write, and think like scientists and mathematicians through relevant hands-on learning.

We differ from the norm because the curriculum comes from inside the kid, rather than from a publishing company in New York that says, “In November, you have to read about the Vietnam War.” That’s the drastic difference. And you laugh because it seems so wild, right?

On the one hand, given our current education system, it seems radical. And yet if you think about it for more than 30 seconds, you realize this is how we go about learning in the real world, which seems to be what your education is geared for.

DL: Right, right. That’s my answer. There’s a large population of smart people not working in the education business who tend to think, “Oh, No Child Left Behind keeps kids accountable. They have to learn stuff. That’s good.” I want to turn those people’s minds around and get them to think, “Wow, maybe I need something else for my child instead of this private school that just has good science classes.” So I tried to address that population as well as the educators.

Who is your inspiration?

DL: You, Erik! My inspiration? I always talk about Tom Peters as being my favorite educator. The reason Tom has been that for me is because he’s not an educator by profession. He uses a different language; he reads different books; he runs a different company. But he thinks in the same way I think, and he can push my thinking from a different point of view. That’s one of the reasons I read all the management stuff.

Tom is one who keeps pushing me. I have a quote of his on my board that goes something like, “You do a lot of shit. You hope some of it turns out right.” That’s an important one to me, like “thriving on chaos.” I say to my people, “You’ve got to love chaos if you want to be a good principal.” I tell them, “A new manager of McDonald’s can turn that place around in ten minutes.” And I believe that can apply to a school.

When I first read Tom’s work, what I loved about it was that it supported a lot of the “soft” stuff people used to make fun of me for doing. For instance, some big company rents a football field and has everyone run through the center hoop. If I did it, they’d say it’s a waste of time, but when a big business does it, it’s seems like it must make sense.

Yeah, you got some real world affirmation.

DL: That’s right. Everyone thinks it’s so tough in business and soft in education. But people like John Dewey have been saying this before I was born.

We need to read Dewey’s book. What’s it called?

DL: Experience and Education. It’s 91 pages. John Dewey was not a great writer, so it’s a little hard to read. But it’s all there.

I’m forewarned. But I’m going to order it today anyway.

DL: In the back of my book, I have a list of 30 books—they’re not all education books—for people to read. One very inspiring book is The Long Haul, an autobiography that Myles Horton wrote with my friends Herb and Judith Kohl.

As a great community organizer, Horton talks about how you need to take what people have and empower them to be leaders. He trained Martin Luther King and he trained Rosa Parks. He also talks about having a problem that’s so big that all the work you do is just part of the solution. So you’re constantly working on stuff. Horton had a center where he brought people together, helped them understand who they are and their strengths, and prepared them to be community organizers.

What are your critics saying about you and your philosophy … this radical concept of project-based, student-led education?

DL: What the critics say is that the kids don’t learn specific content. They say they’re not learning chemistry, for instance, or they’re not learning their American history.

I do not believe there’s any one content that everyone should know. I have friends who say, “It should be the Constitution,” or “It should be understanding your body.” I love all of those ideas, but every one of us has 10 different ideas about what’s most important to learn. How do you decide what’s important?

My criticism of the American curriculum is that it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. The researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” and really studied that. He has a book called Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work where he talks about how you become an adult thinker. He says that you study something, anything, in a very deep way, and that helps you become a deep thinker.

I use the example of the kid who studied the Vietnam War because his father would never talk to him about it. He took the course at Providence College, took the course with Brown professors on how to teach it better, studied with a veteran, and then took his dad back to Vietnam. He knew that war in the kind of depth that made him a real academic on the subject.

Did I care that he didn’t know about the Boer War at that time? No. Do I ever care? I don’t know. He went on to become a history major, so he learned some of the standard content. Our critics say everyone needs that content. And I say they don’t. That’s the biggest complaint.

The other criticism is that kids won’t pick up all the things they need to learn, so we have to give it to them. I argue that they don’t learn it just because we give it to them. One of my former students works in a restaurant and was complaining to me about a kid who’s being mentored there and doesn’t know his fractions. She said to me, “You’d better teach him math.” And I said, “Well, it’s great that you say that because he needs fractions for some of the work in the restaurant. But you’ve got to help us teach them to him. What you forgot is that he had four years of fractions in school!”

The point is that I love knowledge and I’d love for my kids to know everything. I’d love them to know chemistry, physics … everything. But realistically, what are you going to get them to really learn? Especially when the reality is that we’re reading less and less every day.


DL: Oh my gosh, yes. The National Humanities just did a study that showed the number of books we read has been decreasing, I think five to ten percent in the last ten years.

But there are more and more books published every year.

DL: Doesn’t matter. It’s just more and more books that aren’t being read or are being read by the same small group of people. Do you ever wonder how many people actually read Tom’s books, the fat ones? I’m saying people buy them and don’t read them.

Well, a hundred thousand books will put something on a bestseller list.

DL: That’s right, but it doesn’t mean they all really read it. I added up all the minutes we’re in school, and all the minutes and hours we live if we live until we’re 70. If we go to school from age five until 22, we’re actually in school just nine percent of our lives. That tells me that to have a real effect, we need to teach kids to love to learn, and to keep learning even after they’re out of school. Otherwise, what good are we doing?

I saw a study somewhere about a group of valedictorians who were interviewed. Something like 70 percent of them hadn’t read a book for pleasure in the last year. People sometimes laugh at the idea, but if you don’t love to learn, if you don’t have it inside you, then you aren’t making it in this society. That’s why I love it when Tom says he would hire the C student instead of the A student.

I remember in college when I was reading Heart of Darkness. I read it six times because I had to get ready for the test. I ended up getting my A or B. But my roommate read it and said, “This is a cool book. I’m going to look for whatever else Joseph Conrad wrote.” He got a D in the course, but I knew then he was the better learner.

And that’s what I want for kids. If they don’t know Shakespeare, I’d like for them to think, “Oh, he sounds interesting,” and want to read something he wrote, rather than read his plays in 10th grade, 12th grade and in college and still not understand or enjoy it (which is what I did). The important thing is to love learning and to have the skills to learn. It’s about using the knowledge rather than just learning the content.

I don’t want to quote Tom too much here, but I noticed that he said, “Sometimes I think only Dennis Littky knows exactly what needs to be done regarding education.” And so I ask you, what does need to be done?

DL: Well, I think we’ve got to get out of our box of teaching specific content in math, science, English, and social studies, and focus instead on applied academics, teaching the skills it takes to succeed in the real world. When you look at the people who have made a difference in our world, they’re passionate about something. They’re not necessarily generalists who know a little about everything. They have perseverance and a lot of personal skills.

I think that every single kid needs an individual plan with a personalized curriculum that addresses his strengths, weaknesses, and interests. There needs to be less emphasis on a standard content for everyone and more emphasis on using content to engage kids. Schools typically aren’t interested engaging kids. In an EdWeek survey, students were asked to describe school in one word. The number one response was “boring.”

The interesting thing is that whenever I’m speaking at a conference and I mention the survey, everyone knows what the one word will be. So it’s even more sick to me that not only do the kids think it’s boring, but everyone around them knows it’s boring. And, as we all know, you don’t learn when you’re bored. So how do you get kids involved in their own learning? That’s what you want. You want them to love learning and to be committed to the community.

That’s truly, deeply cynical if everyone involved in the system knows it’s boring, but they continue to work within it that way.

DL: That’s right. That’s the scariest part—even worse than the kids saying it.

That makes me think of a friend, Jordan Ayan, who just couldn’t believe that his kindergarten-aged son had flunked art because he couldn’t color inside the lines. I don’t know where this came from, but somebody pointed out that the people who are attracted to teaching are the kind of people who do color inside the lines. I thought that was an interesting thing and scary for us, I suppose. Even in your book, there’s a story where you ask a math teacher if she could try to contextualize the math learning and make it more real-world for the kids. And she says to you, “But you hired me …”

DL: “… as a math teacher.” Right. So that kind of goes along with the kindergarten story. You’d just think that somebody working with kindergarten kids would know not to do that. But that’s how scary our world is. And high schools are the worst. Most high school teachers get hired because they love their particular subject area and want to get that in. They’re not looking at the kids.

It’s even worse in college, where the dropout rate is 50 percent. We never talk about that. The teaching there is often worse than in high schools, but people pay for it.

I was close. I took a year off from college. That was in the 70s and everybody was talking about going out and trying to find yourself. But it’s all just looking for meaning, which seems to be a big thrust of what you’re up to … just trying to find the meaning. And if there’s meaning, then the kids will educate themselves, right?

DL: Got it, you got it. You said it better than me on that one. I’ll now say it that way. It’s really finding meaning in their learning. I took two 10th grade girls to speak with me at Framingham College the other day. One of them is working with animal behaviorists. She happens to be a great basketball player. She was saying to me that she’s not sure she has time to play basketball next year because she really wants to devote herself to this animal behavior stuff. This is a goddamned 10th grader!

After the presentation, someone asked the girl, “You went to the school, you loved the school. But when you go to college, it’s going to be very different. How are you going to deal with it?” She answered, “I am so passionate to get my degree in animal behaviorism that I don’t care if I have to stay up until 5:00 a.m. every night.” It was because that’s what has meaning for her right now. Who knows if it will in two months? But it has meaning now.

The other girl is working with a policewoman. The policewoman, her mentor, drove an hour to come see this kid talk. What does that say about a relationship that gives the whole thing more meaning?

We talk about relevance, relationship, and rigor. The relevance is the meaning part. Teachers have to know kids, to have strong relationships with them in order to be able to push them academically. The rigor is in the depth of the project—so kids aren’t just doing collages, for example.

You mentioned that you read resumes from the bottom up. Can you talk about that?

DL: When did I say that? In the book?

In the book. You said everybody puts their interests and hobbies at the end, almost as an afterthought, but you like to actually start with that because all the other stuff is more or less pro forma.

DL: Right. A young teacher just hired here asked me today, “What makes a great advisor? Is it a master’s degree in education? Is it …?” I said, “I don’t know what my people are certified in. I don’t really give a shit what degree they have, okay?”

Now I’d love for them to have what they’re supposed to get out of that degree. I’d love for them to understand the pedagogy of education. But I really look for people who are passionate about learning, because that’s the role model that you want.

I look for a combination of relationships and academics. We have teachers who have good relationships with kids, but don’t know how to push them. That’s not good enough for me. But it comes out ahead of the teachers that have all the academics, but no relationships. Then they can’t do anything. Kids get nothing. I really look for somebody who has the high standards for themselves as well as understanding that it’s about the whole child and the relationship.

A kid in one of my schools had wanted to be an architect since he was five years old. We hooked him up with the best architectural group in Chicago. He’s been an intern there for two years, and they love him. At his exhibition, half the office was there watching him. They say he’s better than any college intern.

I said to the kid, “This is all fantastic. But you’re not reading well and you’re not writing. You’re not going to be an architect forever, so, you’d better get those other skills.” You’ve got to do that as an advisor. You have to not only put them in a good place and have a good relationship so the kid’s very happy, but also really understand what kids need to make it in this world and push that.

If you have the relationship, you can get it. When we have activities at night to recruit new kids, I have to turn kids away. I have kids coming here at night who want to help recruit because of the relationships they have with their teachers.

So back to the resumes. I look for what a person does with his time, what excites him. I also want to know if they are well-organized. If you’re not well organized, you can’t do this job. You can have all the passion and all the relationship stuff, but if you can’t manage 16 kids’ lives at once, you’re in trouble.

That sounds daunting. You started the Met School in Providence. I understand you’ve gotten funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Where else have you started schools now?

DL: We have 24 schools, counting the six in Providence.

Six in Providence?

DL: Yes, we have small schools in Providence, Detroit, Denver, Indianapolis, and Chicago, and in Sacramento, El Dorado, Oakland, and San Diego, California.

And they all operate the same way that the first Met School operates?

DL: Yes, with varying degrees of success and some tweaking of the model to match the city. We have to adapt because of restrictions by the city or state or the demographics of the area. One of our schools in Chicago is 100 percent Latino, which means spending a lot of time on the bilingual piece of their work.

But if you walk into any one of these schools and talk to the kids, you’ll get the same general flavor, which is pretty exciting and pretty hard to believe.

One last question: I don’t know how one could read this book and not get excited about what you’re doing because I think they’re just fabulously moving stories. But if someone is excited about what you’re up to, how can they get involved? How can they help?

DL: There are several ways people can get involved, from providing financial help to actually starting a school. We just had our first public conference for anybody who is interested in this.

If you say, “I want to start a school like this,” you can contact us and anybody is allowed to go ahead with it. We call them “Big Picture-Inspired Schools.” You can buy our materials and hire us as consultants. You could start a school.

Some people in Buffalo, without ever talking to us at all, went to our website ( and said, “I love this stuff.” They got approval for a Bison Big Picture Academy that’s supposed to start next year. We didn’t even know they were doing it.

On the other hand, if you’re in a place where we already have schools, you could get involved by being a teacher or a volunteer at one of those schools.

Being a mentor to a student is also a possibility. Is that right?

DL: Absolutely. That’s a big one too. It’s being involved in your school. The last chapter of the book urges people to make it happen and talks about ways people can get involved if they’re committed to this. Joining your own school board, for instance. We’ve had calls from parents saying, “We need an alternative in town. Could you send somebody to speak about this?” So there are lots of different ways, from helping one kid, by tutoring him or mentoring her, to starting your own school.

Erik, you seem to have the right connection inside already. This really resonated with you. Recently, a woman applying for a job said to me, “This is my next step. It’s finally come together. I had to come here and get a job.” People like that bring something with them when they read the book. You know what I mean?

Yes. Not everyone is ready to understand what you’re doing. Thank you for talking about it today.