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Leaving To Learn

Leaving to Learn

Longtime alternative educator Elliot Washor and his colleague Charles Mojkowski have just come out with an excellent book called Leaving to Learn. The authors’ central theme is readily given away by the subtitle: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates.

It’s been 17 years since Washor and Dennis Littky started the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, aka “The Met,” a publicly funded four-branch high school for 700 students in Providence, RI. The Met learning model is far more experiential than instruction-based, with the keystone being the substantial amount of time that students spend out in the adult world involved in internships, apprenticeships, and community service projects. The model is also highly personalized. Students, with the assistance of a mentor and input from their families, design their own individual learning plans based on their own particular needs and interests.

Washor and Littly’s goal from the outset was to accomplish widespread school reform. While the original Met in Providence was not a charter school, its founders took on the same challenge espoused by the early charter movement, to create a new educational model that will then spark system-wide change. To this end  they also created a not-for-profit umbrella organization called Big Picture Learning to serve as a kind of alternative education think tank. BPL’s role: to continue to develop ways to refine and articulate the Met model, as well as to objectively validate it and make it easily replicable.

The Met’s success was so immediate—100 percent of the first graduating class, a large majority from low-income families, were accepted into college—that Big Picture Learning’s mission to create systemic reform is well underway. Thanks in part to two hefty grants from the Gates Foundation, BPL has already launched 35 more similarly successful schools around the country.

In a private conversation with me, Washor was careful to articulate what BPL’s goal is not, which is to crank out a bunch of carbon copy franchises that all look and operate the same way. He prefers to use the term “design” rather than “model” because of the latter’s mass production implications. A design, on the other hand, is when an individual school’s participants and stakeholders take the basic principles of the model and apply them in unique ways to the school’s local circumstances. “We just don’t want people to have to start from scratch,” Washor said, “because starting from scratch is so damn hard.”

In Leaving to Learn, Washor and Mojkowski decry the fact that most reform initiatives have no long-term effects. Meanwhile, as Sir Ken Robinson points out in the book’s foreword, 1/3 of Americans don’t graduate from high schools taken as a whole, with the figure in most urban areas today hovering at or even above 50%. Or as the authors like to put it, every 12 seconds a student quits high school. Moreover, writes Robinson, there is a direct correlation between the drop-out rate and the fact that over 3% of us are currently incarcerated.

The book then examines the underlying reasons for these disturbing statistics. First there are the “Big Four”—academic failure, behavior, life events, and disinterest. Then Washor and Mojkowski delve into what they call the “Deeper Four”—not mattering, not fitting in, unrecognized talents and interests, and restrictions. All of these ingredients are pretty self-explanatory, but some of the statistics they use to drive the message home are worth mentioning. Such as that teens in the U.S. are subjected to more than ten times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many as active duty Marines, and even twice as many as incarcerated felons. Or that a full 50% of all high school dropouts who responded to a national survey reported disinterest as a major factor.

The authors’ catchall term for summing up the causes of the drop-out crisis is “disengagement.” Student disengagement is not an anomaly, they emphatically point out, nor is it the teachers’ fault. Rather it is an emergent property of the conventional school model and the resulting culture. And dropping out, in their view, is a healthy reaction to an intolerable situation. Moreover, the national focus on drop-out stats is a distraction from the pervasiveness of disengagement, and the typical dropout interventions tend to only reinforce the problem.

I especially like the way that Washor and Mojkowski view school as a relationship, with the onus rightly on the school to attend to its quality. Just as with people, the same basic equation applies: When a school fails to develop an emotional bond with its students and to meet their expectations, the relationship becomes estranged and antagonistic. Then students start to turn elsewhere for excitement, social contact, etc. Even a great many of those students who don’t leave the marriage, add the authors, wind up disengaging and just going through the motions. Which is a big reason why so many young people arrive in college today unprepared to do independent work, or in the workplace lacking the requisite skills and drive to be competent and productive.

The antidote, meanwhile, is glaringly simple: invite students to bring their interests to school with them, provide them with ample one-on-one mentoring, and empower them to pursue their passion and hone their skills in real-world contexts. Or as the book quotes Howard Gardner at this juncture, “We should spend less time ranking students and more time helping them identify their natural competencies and gifts, and then cultivate them.”

Or in the authors’ own words: “Until schools deal with students’ estrangement from their schools, they will continue to overlook talent, waste energy on compliance, and force students to fit into an increasingly archaic learning system.

It really isn’t complicated.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim McClung #

    Thank you for continuing to drive home the message and mission of Big Picture Learning. It has become my mission in life to start 3 of these schools in my state. I have not figured out how to make that happen yet but I know that when the doors open, everybody will look at public education with new eyes and new energy.

    It really is that simple…

    November 18, 2013
  2. Chris Mercogliano #

    Do you know about the Alternative Education Resource Organization’s school starters course, Tim? I co-facilitate it along with Jerry Mintz and we help people start alternatives around the world. The group gives each other a great deal mutual support as well, so that you don’t feel so out there on a limb.

    December 2, 2013
  3. Hi Chris,

    I just came back across this review and was so appreciative. I was wondering if you might be up for also posting it to the Amazon Website? –

    Also, Elliot has spoken highly of you and your work – Hoping that our paths might cross one day soon,


    July 28, 2014

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