The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: Big Picture Learning (BPL)

This article was originally published on the CACE Blog on August 25, 2020.


In this series, we spotlight six particular approaches, or design models, used to implement Christian Deeper Learning. For each, we will ask four questions to school leaders implementing the featured model:

  1. What was the reason you adopted this design model?

  2. How does this model promote Deeper Learning?

  3. How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?

  4. What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?

Big Picture Learning

The promise of truly personalized learning plans has been a part of education for a while, though more commonly created for students with exceptional learning needs on either end of the achievement spectrum. The “average” student has not typically had the opportunity for the level of personalization seen in Big Picture Learning (BPL). A key component for each BPL high school student is an internship that helps them explore their interests. This is arranged for outside the school setting and in close collaboration with parents. In this post, we will explore this newer and promising model further.


I recently talked with two longtime educator friends and former colleagues who are both implementing Big Picture Learning as alternative programs within their traditional Christian schools in western Michigan. I have deep respect for their expertise: they have both been innovators throughout their careers, and I am impressed by their deep passion for students, for Christian education, and for the Big Picture approach. Bill VanDyk began the Big Picture Learning program at NorthPointe Christian (Grand Rapids, MI) in the fall of 2017, after many years as Head of School at Zeeland Christian, a PK-8 school of around 1000 students. During his years in Zeeland, he was a pioneer in Christian schools by implementing inclusive education as well as Spanish and Mandarin total immersion programs. Kristyn Kamps has been a middle school educator, Buck Institute/PBL Works National Faculty member, and Christian Deeper Learning leader/speaker, inspiring Christian educators across North America to engage students in more meaningful ways. She is currently leading the BPL effort at Ambassador High, which is a part of Calvin Christian High School in Grandville, Michigan.


What was the reason you adopted this design model?

Bill was looking for a better way to educate. He became increasingly frustrated with seeing how traditional educational models failed to meet kids’ needs and how they were disconnected from the real world. Kristyn has deep concerns that traditional education sucks the joy out of learning and does not help students understand who they are: “We tell them what they have to know, what questions they have to answer, we tell them when they have to learn things, and how they have to learn it.” Both Kristyn and Bill talked about the need for “unlearning” with students early on in their BPL experience: students expected to be told how and what to do by adults. Instead, they need to take charge of their own learning.


BPL helps students learn who they are and then frees them to explore their interests through real-world experiences, all while being part of a smaller learning community of 15 students or fewer when they are onsite at the school. Bill estimates that about 75% of students don’t have an idea about their vocational interests, so part of the 9th-grade experience in the first semester is to give interest inventories, take field trips to businesses/organizations, etc. to help students answer the question: “What are you truly passionate about?” Once ideas form, students need to initiate contact and arrange their internship experience. Students typically spend three days in school and two in the internship setting.


Among BPL participants, the word “family” comes up often: students are known by their teachers/advisors and their workplace mentors. Kristyn and Bill agree that the two word sets that best describe Big Picture are “interest-based” and “real world.” 10 Distinguishers fully describe the BPL experience, and you will see these personalized for each school on the NorthPointe and Ambassador websites (see links above).


Putting their mission into student language, Big Picture suggests that there are 10 things students should expect from their school:

How does this model promote Deeper Learning?

Student interest in learning is fanned into flames through their ability to choose areas of interest and to apply learning in real-world settings. A common misconception of BPL is that it is an at-risk program or a “learning a trade” program. In fact, students of all abilities thrive in the program, and the approach has been proven to motivate gifted kids who are simply bored–one student in the program held the highest SAT score at their grade level! BPL “gets kids to the why”–both Bill and Kristyn reported higher than normal retention of content because students apply knowledge in the real world through “real work,” not “fake work.” Students are responsible for doing a project on their own for their internship and participating in a collaborative project with others during school time.


How does the program deal with core knowledge/standards? Because each student’s learning path is customized, there is an opportunity to align with and meet the standards within the context of their plan. Kristyn mentioned that they track the standards throughout the year, giving students options for achieving them. Standards are also used to guide the learning plan conversation with students and parents. Part of the responsibility of the teacher/advisor is to mesh the requirements with the learning plan of the student’s interest.


How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?

BPL sees the unique, image-bearing qualities/strengths/talents of each child and allows them, in Bill’s words, “to be educated as God created them.” Kristyn reflected on how BPL helps students meet the mission of the larger school they are a part of, living, loving, and serving. She feels that the program forces students to grow personally in understanding who they are and to prepare them for their calling. She believes that “when we take the lead so strongly in schools, we deny kids that ability to really know themselves and to help them build the path that they should be on.”


Additionally, many Christian schools would see themselves as parent-controlled and believe that parents hold the primary responsibility before God for the education of their children. The BPL model honors this primary relationship through deep engagement with the parents in developing the individualized learning plan and through support during the internship process.


What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?

Over the past four years, BIll has gotten feedback from over 100 company CEOs along these lines: “Why isn’t everyone doing this? This is the right way to do it!” Many of those leaders/entrepreneurs reflected on what a discouraging and disengaging experience school had been for them personally and how glad they were to see a new model in place.


Kristyn noted that it also is an effective way for the school to connect with the community and for the community to better understand what is happening in the school. Students learn what employers expect and what skills are needed to be employable. Both noted that in some cases, the internship has been eye-opening to students in helping them to understand the longer-term implications of a career choice and perhaps saving them and their parents dead ends–and thousands of college tuition dollars.


In the closing part of our interview, I asked my friends to address BPL as a model for Christian schools. Not surprisingly, both were enthusiastic about this model in two ways: as a school within a school and as a whole school model for smaller and perhaps struggling Christian schools. Bill gave an example of a small Christian high school and how this kind of approach would really set them apart in their community and give them a distinctive niche. He believes that “it’s not enough to simply be a Christian school anymore! This program is real world, and nothing else out there comes close to applying what you have learned.”

Note: The NorthPointe and Ambassador programs are both for grades 9-12 and the only Christian schools I know of doing Big Picture Learning in North America. If you know of other Christian schools using this model, I would love to hear from you!

 

This article is part of a series on different paths to Christian Deeper Learning. You can read the introduction to the series here: The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: An Introduction.