Time to Explore Learning - Steve Barkley

Time to Explore Learning

A recent message on twitter sent me to a blog, (My Time at BIG),  written by Aren Buresh, a high school senior enrolled in Iowa BIG,  a partnership of the Cedar Rapids Community School District and the College Community School District (Prairie).

Students from these districts pay no tuition, and the teaching staff is employed by the two organizations. Students from surrounding districts can participate.

The core design principles of BIG are:

Using student passion to drive deep learning and deliver core academic credits

Engaging students in authentic community projects, problems, and opportunities

Connecting them more deeply to the people and resources of the Iowa Creative Corridor

We believe that educational options are necessary for every student to be successful and that we must provide students with as many contextually-rich experiences as possible so that they not only develop basic skills but, more importantly, that they can competently use those skills to solve real problems and make new things happen.

An article  in Innovation Iowa Magazine provided the following information about BIG:

Students must choose and love the project– the business community creates a pool of problems that students can choose from as well as students being allowed to pitch their own idea.

Projects must be interdisciplinary– a multi-disciplinary problem prevents problems being taken from the back of a textbook

The project must have a participatory third-party audience– students need to identify a partner in the community who will participate, mentor, and assess their project.

Students have been involved in aquaponics, aerial drones, the creation of non-profits, college campus designs and conducted speeches for government officials.


An interesting observation was shared by Tony Miller, the director of strategic partnerships at BIG: “some of the highest performing students have a GPA of 2.0 or lower while higher GPA students have mixed results when dealing with real world problems.”

This link which includes an example of a BIG student’s attainment of core standards describes the assessment process. I love this statement: “Our students do not measure their progress with points, grades, or any other toy economy.”

Aren’s blog caught my attention as she described the school day in a traditional high school being like an assembly line with ringing bells and classes with starting times like 7:52 or 10:46 compared to the time at BIG, which she described as an open pasture with a mixture of set meetings and free work time.

In an earlier blog I described the need to focus on innovation in learning over innovation in teaching and linked to a Wil Richardson’s blog  where he stated;

“As learners ourselves, we know that real learning that sticks with us over time occurs when it’s built on passion, when it has an authentic purpose and audience, when it’s relevant to our lives in the moment and beyond, when it’s not constrained by time…”

“Not constrained by time” is the issue that Aren was addressing with the description of an open pasture. At BIG, a student’s schedule is two or three class periods of unspecified subject content that provides a student freedom to manage their own time, and looks different for everyone. “The purpose of your two or three hours set aside for BIG is to make progress on your projects, and learn.”

 I recently observed grade 5 students in an international school during a week when they were preparing for their exhibition presentations. In groups of three or four, students lined the hallways on two floors collating, displaying, and rehearsing the delivery of their learning on topics like preventing athletic injuries, legal and illegal graffiti, dealing with stress, virtual reality and the impact of arts in school. What I observed was students at times being extremely engaged and focused on producing and at other times more laid back talking, experimenting with an idea, or discussing opinions or options. At times they roamed to a neighboring team and observed and listened to other students. Teachers moved through the groups sometimes being summoned for support and other times probing students’ thinking. I observed students being given the freedom of time. I also attended the students’ exhibition evening and experienced first- hand the outcomes of their learning.

I am wondering what an observation of these 5th graders prepping for exhibition or the students in BIG, using some districts’ walkthrough engagement forms, would indicate? Assessing when learning is being promoted is more complex than most observations are designed to consider.

Aren’s blog suggested that experimenting with the manipulation of time maybe a strategy to uncovering innovations for learning. I agree. Where might your school provide time for the exploration of learning?

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Blog: Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Listen to Steve Barkley’s Latest Podcast

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Academy for Educators

Become an expert in instructional coaching, blended and online learning strategies, engaging 21st Century learners, and more with online PD from PLS 3rd Learning.
Learn more

Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email