The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

August 30, 2013

Business leaders hear of Big Picture Learning

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — In a nation where one student drops out of school every 12 seconds, Dr. Elliot Washor believes the educational system is simply not working.

“In school, we measure what students can’t do instead of what they can do,” Washor told West Virginia business people Thursday during the state Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting at The Greenbrier.

Hearkening back to a previous speaker’s address regarding health care, Washor said, “We have a system of treatment for the most part, but we don’t have a system of prevention.”

Co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit movement dedicated to designing innovative learning environments, Washor said schools need to find out what each student is interested in and has a talent for and then encourage the student’s progress.

Much of that progress, Washor said, occurs outside the traditional classroom, much in the same way an adult’s professional growth progresses — through trial-and-error and by learning from a mentor in a chosen field.

“It’s biological — we are going to be engaged around our interests,” he said.

He offered algebra as an example of the traditional education system’s insistence on imposing its will on students rather than engaging them. Washor said studies have shown only 9 percent of the country’s population will actually use algebra in work or life.

“Yet, we make every student take it,” he said.

“We don’t recognize what (students) can do and build on that,” Washor maintained. “We impose restriction upon restriction upon restriction on students who want to solve problems they don’t know the answer to.”

Big Picture Learning counts 60 schools in the United States that are now operated according to the organization’s principles. Students attending those schools spend two days a week outside the classroom with volunteer mentors, and on the other three days they follow an individualized learning plan that may include small-sized classes, workshops and projects.

“We are competency-based,” Washor said, explaining that Big Picture schools give credit for a student’s work, no matter where that work was done.

According to the organization’s website (, 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 Learning was established by Washor and fellow professional educator Dennis Littky in 1995 with a motto of “Education is everyone’s business.” Six years later, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation embraced Big Picture’s concepts and awarded the organization the first of several substantial grants to encourage the launch of additional Big Picture Learning schools.

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