Elliot Washor

Elliot Washor

Co-Founder, Co-Director, Big Picture Learning


In great learning environments, young people with adult and peer support are capable of amazing things that schools say they are not capable of or old enough to do.

It may sound odd, but back in the 1950's when I started school, I was very aware that schools had a hard time understanding how you learned or got good at something if you didn't learn it in school. For example, when I was nine years old no one in school understood how I knew so much about Brooklyn’s history or how I knew so much about electricity and fixing radios. My mentors/teachers were my two uncles who had very little former schooling but were life-long learners. Also, my teachers had a hard time understanding how I or other students in my class with a variety of skills learned things from people who "only worked with their hands." Sadly, however, even when they figured out I knew something, little changed. I was still not considered educable because I didn't read well and wouldn’t sit still.

We see this type of out-of-school learning play out all the time in news articles, books, and movies. Schools assume you can't learn math or science or music or art or writing outside of the classroom. This experience drove me—and continues to drive me—to develop schools that honor students’ choices and their work both in and outside of school. This is especially important for low-income minority students and students who learn differently.


I'm surprised how policymakers use words and terms such as personalization, deeper learning, next-generation learning, blended learning, mastery, to describe innovations that look similar to what already exists with, consequently, so little changing.

I don't feel we set high enough expectations for ourselves as adults, yet feel our students are demanding much more of us. The public school system will not be improved with minor adjustments from cost-efficiencies achieved by doing essentially the same things just a little bit better. Every student needs a school that reaches out to fit them academically and socially and emotionally—that starts with their interests and needs.


What matters in learning is whether each and every student matters to the schools they attend with regard to what matters to each student.

The real choices students make all the time are often overlooked in school. There is the tendency to treat everyone the same, with the same curriculum, at the same time in an age-grade system with little time for anything else. Our students want to do incredible things and they want what they do to matter in the world. Students need to be taken seriously about their choices and the challenges they set for themselves. Once this occurs, the academics fit.


There is a need for schools to engage all students in productive learning.

To achieve that, schools need to do a better job of meeting students’ expectations. In a soon-to-be-published book, Leaving To Learn:  How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates (written with my colleague Charles Mojkowski), we identify ten such expectations—we call them Imperatives—and describe how helping students learn outside of schools and link that learning to their in-school learning will go a long way toward increasing student engagement. We see the Imperatives as a kind of Apgar test for schools.

Here are questions around School’s Imperatives:

Relationships: Do my teachers care about me and my interests?
Relevance: Do I find what the school is teaching to be relevant?
Choice: Will I be able to choose what, when, and how I will learn?
Challenge: Do I feel sufficiently challenged in doing this learning and work?
Practice: Will I have an opportunity to engage in serious practice of those skills I wish to learn?
Play: Will I have opportunities to explore and to make mistakes without being chastised for failing?
Authenticity: Will the learning and work I do be regarded as significant outside of schools?
Application: Will I have opportunities to apply what I am learning in real-world situations?
Time: Will there be sufficient time for me to learn at my own pace?
Timing: Can I pursue my learning out of the standard sequence?


We have to push the boundaries of learning and re-imagine the possibilities for educational change.

Big Picture Learning schools continues to be visited by thousands of people from all over the world. The network of schools we have developed, grown, and helped keep together is something I'm really proud of. They have had tremendous influence on so many students, teachers, policy makers, and communities. There isn't a week that goes by that I don't hear from people in schools about how they have been influenced and inspired by what goes on day-to-day at Big Picture Learning, and that makes me feel very honored to be with the group I'm with.

Below is an email from Eve Gordon. Last year, Eve was the principal of the MetWest School in Oakland. In the email she tells me about a student I met at her school last year.

Christsna Sot transferred to MetWest in his junior year, hoping to find a more personalized and caring environment where his real interests could become part of his high school education. Christsna had started writing spoken word poetry in middle school, and had become an accomplished and active poet by 11th grade, and was featured on HBO's Brave New Voices. In addition to studying subjects he found interesting, he found an internship at New American Media working with a Cambodian American filmmaker. Like many first generation Cambodian Americans, Christsna never knew many details of his family's experience during the Khmer Rouge years leading up to their arrival in the United States. Between his junior and senior years, Christsna traveled to Cambodia for the first time to explore his past. He returned with his worldview expanded, and his connections to both of his cultures (Cambodian and American) deepened. Fully funded by a Gates Millennium Scholarship, Christsna will be heading to UC Berkeley in the fall.

Below are some links to Christsna's spoken word videos, including when he was highlighted in HBOs Brave New Voices."


The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.


Elliot Washor, Ed. D. is the co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning in Providence, Rhode Island. He is also the co-founder of The Met Center in Providence, RI.

Elliot has been involved in school reform for more than 30 years as a teacher, principal, administrator, video producer and writer. He has taught and is interested in all levels of school from kindergarten through college, in urban and rural settings, across all disciplines. His work has spanned across school design, pedagogy, learning environments, and education reform. He is supporting others doing similar work throughout the world. Elliot’s interests lie in the field of how schools can connect with communities to understand tacit and disciplinary learning both in and outside of school.

At Thayer High School in Winchester, NH, his professional development programs won an “Innovations in State and Local Government Award” from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has been selected as the educator to watch in Rhode Island and has recently been selected as one of the Dirty Dozen—The Twelve Most Daring Educators by the George Lucas Education Foundation.

His dissertation on Innovative Pedagogy and New Facilities won the merit award from DesignShare, the international forum for innovative schools.

Elliot lives in sunny San Diego with his wife and five dogs.

You can e-mail Elliot at ewashor@gmail.com.


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