For over 40 years, Dennis Littky has been reimagining education and preparing students for success in high school and beyond. His organization, Big Picture Learning, which was built on a student-centered education philosophy, became the framework for the high schools and programs that he has created since. Students at Littky’s schools spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and are evaluated beyond standardized tests; they are assessed on exhibitions that demonstrate their achievement, on motivation, and on character assessments that reflect real-world evaluations we all face daily.
This year, the theme of Schools That Can’s 11th Annual Forum is Reimagining the Education Pathway. We are honored to have Littky as our keynote speaker, as he is an influential thinker and “radical educator” who has been not just re-imagining but re-creating education for years.
To get a sneak peek into Littky’s talk, our Communications Intern Kei-Sygh Thomas had the chance to connect with him for a Q&A session. Read on to get to know Dennis Littky.
Dennis: All of the programs fit together perfectly. Big Picture Learning was the first program which has a philosophy that we call “The Big Picture Philosophy,” where students are at the center of their own education. Eventually, the idea and philosophy spread into schools all around the country. Big Picture Learning is the nonprofit with our education framework and the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“The Met”), is the model for [the] 150 schools. College Unbound uses the same philosophy, but applies it to adult learning. I have had students that I taught 20 years ago who have graduated high school, dropped out of college, raised families, and now they are in College UnBound. Our student-centric learning schools and programs are for students from high school grades through college.
Kei-Sygh: What kind of student were you growing up?
Dennis: Growing up, I was cute and I followed the rules. However, I did push them, just enough not to get kicked out of class. I knew the work, but I knew it was all fake work like copying out of books. Later on, I wrote a book saying that I knew school was wrong since I was a student in 7th grade. I became a psychologist and the first unit I taught was, “What’s wrong with schools?” That was before I became a principal and educator. I always knew that something was wrong with school. I had my students read about it, I wanted them to know that something is wrong with school.
Kei-Sygh: On Twitter, you self-identify as a radical educator. What does that mean?
Dennis: I do not think I have ever called myself that, people call me that. I think the work that I’ve done for the last 40 years is different from what most people have done. People are slowly coming around to the work I have done since and they call that radical. I’ve also been called a rebel, troublemaker, and educator.
Kei-Sygh: You’ve accomplished a lot as an educator, what keeps you up at night?
Dennis: Do you mean last night? [laughs] The good news is that I work during every second that I have. I know what I need to do the next day, so I sleep good. I worry less about me and more about my staff around me and how we can be efficient in our work. Whatever I start something, I always finish. Sometimes, I worry that I don’t have everyone on board and I try to operate as a team.
Kei-Sygh: Before you became a founder of all these organizations you were a teacher. Tell me about a student who deeply influenced your educational path.
Dennis: Recently, we had a party celebrating the 20th anniversary of Big Picture Learning with over 400 alumni who attended. About 300 alumni students hugged me and thanked me for changing their lives. A guy said to me, “I could not pass you without hugging you because you have changed my life.” This is what keeps me going. You change people’s lives by listening to them.
One of the kids wanted to start a business. I setup a business competition and put the [students] in front of venture capitalists. One lady designed shoes, so I asked if she could design shoes for 25 people. She agreed and I supported her as much as I could by connecting her with interns and companies like Nike. Essentially, students are people. People like to be listened to and supported. When you tell [and show] that you care, that is how you change lives.
Kei-Sygh: The theme for our Forum is reimagining the education pathway. You’ve worked in both K12 and adult education. What do you think a reimagined education pathway would look like and what impact would it have on our society?
Dennis: Reimagining the education pathway is what i’m trying to do now. I’m trying to carry out my reimagined dreamed with both college and high school. Reimagining the education pathway means that all students are standing tall, are more confident, and learn things that help them improve their lives. I read online somewhere that 75 percent of people hate their job and even their friends. I hope to raise students to be people with happy lives, good jobs, and good morals.