About Our Academic Approach

Big Picture believes that high school graduates must know how to reason, problem-solve, and be active members of the community. At Big Picture Learning schools, there is no canon of information that all students must know. In a world where available information is growing exponentially, we believe that the most important thing a student needs to know is how to learn. Integral to the Big Picture Learning design are our five Learning Goals, a framework for looking at concepts, skills, and abilities and help guide the creation of personalized student curriculum.

The Five Learning Goals Are:

  • Empirical Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Communication
  • Social Reasoning
  • Personal Qualities

How Big Picture Learning Is Different

Big Picture Learning schools are unique environments where students can flourish as individuals within a community of learners. There are many elements within our learning design that are uncommon and distinct, and they set Big Picture schools apart from most schools. We call these common characteristics “distinguishers.”

Big Picture Learning’s School Distinguishers, listed below, exist as a comprehensive whole. They are interrelated and inform one another—none works in isolation. It is the seamless integration of reflection-based action and the distinguishers that results the powerful success of the Big Picture Learning design.

  • Learning In the Real World: LTI
  • One Student At A Time: Personalization
  • Authentic Assessment
  • School Organization
  • Advisory Structure
  • School Culture
  • Leadership
  • Parent/Family Engagement: Adult Support
  • School/College Partnership: College Preparation and Support
  • Professional Development

Authentic Assessment

Big Picture Learning views learning as a process of growth and change that is accentuated by the creation of quality products. There are high expectations for each student in a Big Picture Learning school. Assessment criteria is individualized and fit for each student based on the real world standards of the student’s project (as gauged by the student’s mentor). Students in Big Picture schools are not assessed by tests and are not given grades.

Assessments instead include public exhibitions (one per quarter or trimester which tracks student growth and progress, quality of work, and academic depth in the learning goals), weekly check-in meetings with advisors, weekly journals, yearly presentation portfolios, and transcripts (which translate the Big Picture Learning design in a way that colleges can understand). Gateways for student progress are between 10th and 11th grade and at graduation. The Gateways serve as signposts that students have completed necessary work and have achieved the goals set in their learning plan.

Essential Elements of Authentic Assessment Include:
  • Exhibitions
  • Portfolios
  • Narrative assessments (written by students and by advisors)
  • Real-world standards for assessment guidelines
  • No grades
  • Weekly individual check-ins (between advisor and student)
  • Reflective Journaling
  • Gateway to Senior Institute
  • Graduation readiness
  • Autobiographies and Senior Projects (approximately 75 to 100 pages)
  • Depth of work
  • Academic transcripts

School Organization

Big Picture schools use time, people, facilities, resources, and space in unique ways. Big Picture Learning believes that all students should have the opportunity to learn in a place where people know each other well and treat each other with respect. Schools must be small – small enough so every student has genuine relationships with adults and other students and no one falls through the cracks. From assessment tools to the design of the school building itself, a truly personalized school approaches each student and situation with a mind to what is best for the individual and for the community.

The organizing principle of Big Picture schools is to educate one student at a time. In order to carry out our design, we believe that each school should not exceed 150 students and no more than fifteen students make up an advisory. Students work individually as well as in small group learning environments around authentic topics both in and outside of school.

Each school is a small community of learning, is part of a system of small schools in their geographic area, and is also a part of the international Big Picture school network. School facilities are small, personalized, and are organized to facilitate the Big Picture programmatic design. This is reflected in the outside-in/inside-out design of the schools, where real-world learning occurs in the community as well as in the school. The Big Picture Learning design necessitates interdependence between the school and the community.

A Big Picture School cannot exist in a vacuum, separate from the community. The core of the students’ education is the Learning Through Internship/Interest (LTI). As a result, the community plays an integral role in the educational success of the school.

Essential Elements of School Organization include:
  • Small school and small advisories
  • A culture of communication among staff and students within the building
  • Learning Through Internship/Interest (LTIs) in the community
  • Weekly staff meetings for staff
  • Written reflection shared among staff members
  • The community as a resource to the school/the school as a resource to the community
  • Service learning projects in the community
  • Facilities that reflect the Big Picture Learning design

School Culture

School culture is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Big Picture Learning schools are small, personalized communities of learning, where students are encouraged to be leaders and where school leaders are encouraged to be visionaries.

Our schools strive to create a respectful, diverse, creative, exciting, and reflective culture.

One of the things that is striking about Big Picture Learning schools is the ease with which students interact with adults. A culture of respect and equality exists between students and adults, among students, and among adults. Students are encouraged to take a leadership role in the school and student voice is valued in decision making processes.

For staff members, teamwork is a defining aspect of the culture. Principals create regular opportunities for professional development and life-long learning for their staff. Staff members also reflect regularly and share ideas through verbal and written communication.

Essential elements of school culture include:

  • Intense focus on school culture
  • Students are comfortable talking with adults about academic and personal issues
  • Verbal and written reflection shared among staff members
  • Rituals (e.g. new student orientation; International Night; alumni reunions; etc.)
  • Pick Me Ups (formal time to start each day as a community)
  • A focus on professional development/life-long learning for staff members
  • Inter-grade & across-grade student groupings
  • Democratic governance
  • Student leadership
  • Respect and caring
  • Diversity recognized and celebrated
  • Clear policies and expectations for behavior
  • Emphasis on reflection
  • High attendance rate
  • High graduation rate
  • High college acceptance rate
  • Low dropout rate
  • Fun!


In Big Picture Learning schools, leadership is shared and spread between a strong, visionary principal and a dedicated, responsible team of advisors. The leadership of the school community functions as a democracy.

Principal Leadership:

All Big Picture Learning principals begin their training before their school opens through our TYBO program (The Year Before Opening). This program uses current Big Picture Learning principals as mentors, as well as utilizes the expertise of the Co-Founders and Big Picture coaches. Principals are trained around Big Picture principal leadership criteria through mentor/mentee relationships with other Big Picture principals and coaches including: human relations and communication, moral courage, vision, flexibility and efficiency, life-long love of learning and leading, and recruitment.

The principals participate in on-going year-round professional development, and are supported in the start-up years of operation by Big Picture Learning. Principals also actively participate in professional development and conferences designed especially for the Big Picture network of schools. Principals are cultural/instructional leaders, as well as CEOs/entrepreneurs for their schools. They are the liaisons to districts, to Big Picture Learning, and to their own staff. Overall, the success of the whole school and, in particular, the professional health of the advisors, is the responsibility of the principal.

Advisor Leadership:

All advisors are trained by Big Picture-trained principals and supported, through the principal, by using Big Picture materials and coaching methods. Advisors take great responsibility in the day-to-day organization of the school, in the management of school time, in successful implementation of the curriculum, and finally, in the success of all students. In addition to formal professional development, advisors learn from other advisors on a daily basis by serving as each other’s mentors and mentees. Much of the learning that advisors do is done through the sharing of best practices and through the collegial relationship with other advisors.

Essential Elements of School Leadership include:
  • Principals trained through Big Picture coaching and through relationships with mentor principals
  • A culture of communication among staff and students within the building
Essential Leadership Roles of the Principal:
  • The principal is an educational visionary, an instructional leader and manages the team of advisors in her/his school
  • Within the community, the principal is the visible spokesperson for the school, the fundraiser, the political and community networker
  • The principal organizes, plans, and runs regular staff development sessions, including staff meetings and retreats
  • The principal supervises staff, reflects upon her/his observations of staff members in their work environments, and provides regular feedback
Essential Leadership Roles of the Advisor:
  • Advisors and other staff members work in tandem with their school principal to share school leadership and management responsibilities
  • Advisors and staff members have fluid relationships with each other, sharing best practices and informing each other’s decisions

School/College Partnership

College Preparation and Support

Essential to student success. Big Picture does not only enroll students, we enroll families—and involve them in all aspects of student learning. By bringing students out into the community and bringing the community into the school, Big Picture schools become community assets and positive, learning-rich contributors to their surrounding neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Big Picture Learning believes that parent/guardian engagement in a child’s learning is essential.

Parents and families are essential to the success of Big Picture Learning schools from the process of start-up through day-to-day operation. Most importantly, we are intentional about engaging families in their children’s education by asking them to regularly participate in learning plan meetings and attend exhibitions. Families serve as resources, providing information about their child’s strengths, weaknesses, and lives outside of school. They also serve as resources to the school community by connecting the school with potential LTIs and mentors; many parents and family members serve as mentors themselves.

Families play an active role in the school community, including political support of the school, participation in celebrations and social gatherings, and the support of new parents and students. They are also viewed as life-long learners who need support to learn how to play a proactive role in the school lives of their children through high school, on to college, and in the professional world.

Essential Elements of Parent/Family Engagement include:
  • Families are actively involved in the education and school life of their children
  • Parental voice is vital in school organization and culture
  • Families attend and participate in learning plan meetings and exhibitions
  • Parents are involved in recruitment and enrollment processes
  • Families are engaged in the college search process
  • Families play an important and proactive role in garnering political and community support for Big Picture Learning schools.

Professional Development

At each Big Picture school, the principal in conjunction with other Big Picture Learning staff leads professional development sessions for the school staff. This ongoing professional development takes place at staff meetings, at regular staff retreats, and conferences designed to delve deeply into various topics. Advisors and staff members participate in all Big Picture Learning professional development activities, including but not limited to: our annual Big Bang conference, conferences around specific Big Picture Learning initiatives, visits to other schools, and through conference calls.

Big Picture Online, an innovative, interactive website, is a primary tool for the sharing of information and resources for both students and staff, greatly increasing opportunities for professional development. A major component of Big Picture Online is its use as a tool to share best practices throughout the searchable Knowledge Exchange area, in Forums to discuss and share ideas, and by creating compiled materials on particular topics.