What’s it like to be a Big Picture Learner?

Take a look at what our learners have to say in these two video clips and then read James’ story below…



“So far [in education] he didn’t feel he’d had an adult he could work with and trust. Did he have that now? Yes, with everyone here.”

James struggled in primary school. He had emotional outbursts that led to him hitting walls and getting worked up on a regular basis. As a result he spent a lot of time on his own, either in offices or with support staff having been withdrawn.

When he left primary school he didn’t feel that he had a positive relationship with any adult there or trust them. When he came to Big Picture he was always very keen to get involved and began by being very polite and pleasant but when things went wrong for him he would get worked up – largely with himself- very readily.

During his immersion period with Big Picture Doncaster his advisor got to know James and what he was interested in as well as what was important and valuable in his life. As someone who had spent a good deal of time away from his own parents because of issues with alcoholism he finds relationships challenging but desperately wants them so family was a huge part of the initial conversations with his advisor.

This, along with his career interests in the police, formed a central part of his ‘Who Am I?’ project where learners work with their advisor to set out themselves as people, their interests and background and the sort of things they might want to aim for. Exploring this during the immersion stage allows learners and advisors to build relationships which in some cases the young people have not had before. It builds trust and the openness which students like James need to feel more secure and comfortable, and in turn, able to explore education in a more successful way.

Through strong and authentic relationships built during immersion and then developed throughout, advisors are able to build a curriculum with the learner that has relevance for them and to their experiences and lives. With heightened interest and autonomy through self determined learning there is then the opportunity to raise the level of rigour and challenge and students will often produce more extensive and substantial work than they may have done in school before.

For James this work was around the environment. Having seen the Extinction Rebellion protests as well as watching documentaries about climate change and global warming, as well as news reports about hurricanes, floods and wildfires he had lots of questions; Is Climate Change real? What can we do about it? Can ordinary people make a difference if businesses don’t change things? Is it too late anyway?

These questions provided a great opportunity to form a project so James wrote out his project proposal explaining what his key question would be (Is it too late to save the planet?), where his research would need to start, how he would cover the Big Picture Learning Domains (trans disciplinary standards used across projects) and how he would choose to present his work. 

This joint approach to work means that the work itself becomes what social pedagogues refer to as the, ‘common third.’ Something that isn’t the school’s and imposed on the learner but rather stemming from them in conjunction with, and supported by, the advisor. The relationship enables the work to be relevant, and the relevance affords a higher level of rigour, challenge and expectation.

James still showed some of the signs of his lack of self regulation during his immersion period. He would get worked up and angry and at times this would mean that he was unable to cope on site so took his work remotely. This was rare though and for the most part the advisory team were able to support him by taking him elsewhere. He would rip up work, bang tables and chairs and refuse to engage but at every stage he was reassured that the advisory team would still be there for him when he was finished and – crucially so would his work.

He was never ‘marshmallowed,’ his behaviours were never allowed to be a reason to avoid work, or as a way for him to get himself out of a situation, but neither was he rejected and pushed away when he displayed them. The team at Big Picture Doncaster showed James that his behaviours and emotions could be contained. Working with home we discussed the learned behaviours that were getting in the way of his success and James soon learned that there was no need to hide behind these or use them as a way to avoid or escape work that he was scared of or at times just didn’t want to do

It wasn’t going to go away and neither were we so he may as well look for ways to enjoy it and make it work.

A blended learning approach and the use of our platform meant that James was able to continue with his work and keep in touch with advisors even on the occasions when he was working from home. He could use video check ins to make sure he was on track and ask any questions as well as vitaly still being part of the community. The work he began at Big Picture could be continued anywhere and the Google Site started for his Who Am I? project could be developed and added to with other work or activities completed at home with siblings or other family members and relatives. He began to see learning as a central part of life with opportunities all round him and as something he could succeed in.

By the time his formal placement began James was able to attend Big Picture Doncaster full time for three days a week and any emotional difficulties were dealt with in house either through one to one conversations with advisors or by removing himself from situations. As would be expected with any twelve year old there were times where playing became too much, where ‘banter’ became hurtful and led to a negative reaction but these became less and less as the weeks went on. 

James had always been a pleasant and polite boy. It was just that this was overshadowed too regularly by his inability to contain his emotions and self regulate. As progress was made here he was able to work reciprocally with his peers, advisors and family members and the need for the emotional, verbal or physical lashing out that was seen initially and had characterised his time in primary school dwindled.

At the end of each project Big Picture Learners hold an exhibition to share their work and discuss what they have found out, produced and how they have developed as people as well as developed knowledge, skills and attributes. At the exhibition James was a very welcoming and genteel host, inviting guests to look at the work that was on display as well as sharing his own project around the state of the planet, where it was going and where it could be were more care and conservation approaches taken. It was a delight to see James go up to strangers and a variety of people from the local community to school governors and high profile guests. He spoke with confidence and enthusiasm and engaged all that were around him. One guest asked him about Big Picture and what he had learned and he was quick to compare his experience with education so far explaining that he didn’t feel he’d had an adult he could work with and trust. Did he have that now? Yes, with everyone here.