I was somewhat familiar with the “Big Picture” school movement but had never read the philosophy and story behind it.  Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates (2013) by Elliot Washor & Charles Mojkowski is just that book.  For anyone interested in stemming the dropout problem and improving student engagement, this book is worth your time.

The authors identify four main reasons for dropping out: academic failure, behavioral problems, life events, and disinterest.  They expand that list by identifying four other reasons: not fitting in, not mattering, overlooked talents and interests, and restrictions. (xxiv)  The authors discuss what productive learning looks like.  This rigorous student work must result in mastery of some type.  Productive learning, then, is the answer to the student engagement problem.

The authors explore common student expectations: relationships, relevance, authenticity, application, choice, challenge, play, practice, time, and timing.  Their analysis of these 8 expectations is concise and valuable.  They then use these (failed) expectations to explain why students disengage.

They use the “learning funnel” to explain how learning takes place.

Businesses (we would include all manner of entrepreneurs and tinkerers), he observes, are successful when they can work within an area that has a lot of unknowns (“mysteries”); develop strategies and tactics (‘heuristics’) for understanding and resolving those unknowns and challenges; develop efficient, often formulaic, responses (‘algorithms’) to those challenges; and eventually convert those responses into automatic behavior that increases productivity and effectiveness. (71)

The authors argue that this is what productive learning must look like, not standards-based lessons.  This is where the emphasis on field trips, internships, and outside work takes shape.  The authors then offer suggestions for designing and supporting “Big Picture” type programs.