Learning in the Time of Lockdown

In the last week of Term 1 on the Central Coast of NSW, Year 9 Big Picture Education student Taylor* rose each morning, checked-in online with her small learning community of 17 peers and one teacher, (no need for school uniform, bed-hair welcome), then quickly got down to work on her personal interest project about the properties and molecular structures of chemical compounds used in cancer-treatments. Taylor’s younger sister got cancer when she was 12 and Taylor saw a real need to understand what the doctors were advising and prescribing.

Taylor is just one of the 4,000 students in 40 Big Picture schools and campuses in urban, regional, rural and remote locations across Australia. While the Covid-19 pandemic has caused much angst and uncertainty around schooling - for students, parents, teachers and principals involved with the Big Picture design, the transition to learning from home has been relatively smooth.

In the Hunter region in at the end of first term Big Picture student Kane* presented the highlights of his learning for the term in an exhibition to his whole family in lieu of doing so at school. Meanwhile this week in south western Sydney, Rahan* is implementing his plan to revamp the Instagram presence and unite Big Picture students around the country. In southern NSW, students from the Big Picture Academy within the local high school are getting ready to guide Years 7 and 8 students from the mainstream through their first online student-designed passion projects next Term.

According to Mike Saxon, Principal of Liverpool Boys High School, winner of the Secondary School of the Year award in 2019 (Government category), and with a Big Picture Academy within his school of 500 students, ‘Big Picture has been a seamless transition to the new way of doing school. No issues.’

For nearly 15 years in Australia, the Big Picture learning design has engaged students in real life learning. It challenges our conventional views of what learning is and where it takes place, but its success is widely recognised. What’s the Big Picture secret?

Personalisation: The Big Picture design is all about personalising and enlivening learning by basing it around student interests, passions and aptitudes. Research shows that we all learn better when it is something that we choose to investigate, rather than being told it is something we need to know. Every student works to a personal learning plan that they have devised in consultation with family and their teacher. This has continued seamlessly throughout the lockdown.

Relationships: A strong culture of connection, support and inclusion is nurtured. Each student belongs to a small learning community known as an ‘advisory’ with 17 students and one advisory teacher. They ‘check in’ and ‘check out’ daily. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Their teacher knows their family. Throughout the Covid 19-imposed isolation, students are sorely missing their peers, but Big Picture advisories are finding creative ways to connect online to laugh, get help and feel energised enough to continue working on their own.

As an advisory teacher from the Hunter region recounts, ‘Some students were quiet at first, but now they talk more than at a face-to-face check-in! I like to keep it fun for their social wellbeing, then follow up, one-on-one, with those having anxiety or technical difficulties, or send a text message ‘push’ to those struggling to resist the siren call of online gaming!”

Independent organisational skills: Big Picture students are well-versed in taking responsibility for setting goals, designing learning plans and planning weekly and daily tasks. This has put them in good stead throughout the lockdown and impressed many parents. As one parent from a Big Picture Academy says: ‘All school work is getting done without parental pressure to do so.’

Family involvement: While some parents are finding it difficult to keep tabs on the assignments that their children are being sent online, or even to know how to contact a teacher, parents of Big Picture students are already intimately involved with their children’s education through regular learning plan meetings, attendance at exhibitions each term and regular phone calls and emails with the advisory teacher. Throughout the lockdown, this familiarity has paid off, with many families and advisory teachers enjoying increased contact via the daily group zoom and chats.

Year 11 and 12 students in Big Picture and their lucky parents do not need to worry about the implications of Covid-19 on the 2020 HSC...

The Senior Student’s Graduation Portfolio: Year 11 and 12 students in Big Picture campuses and their lucky parents do not have to worry about the implications of Covid-19 on the 2020 HSC. This is because they all do a ‘Graduation Portfolio’ that opens the door to post-school opportunities, including negotiated non-ATAR entry to over 14 universities that have partnered with Big Picture Education around Australia. Many are already well onto the pathway towards careers or further study.

The only aspect of the Big Picture design that is currently on pause is the student internships with expert mentors in the community. Some students though, are maintaining contact with their mentors and even researching the commercial, technological or social impact of the pandemic on their mentor organisations.

As Big Picture CEO Viv White AM explains, Big Picture students are encouraged to be socially active and to be stewards of the planet in normal times as well as during the current public health crisis:

'"What do I want for my world post Covid-19?" It's a rich essential question...'


‘If I was Minister for Education for the rest of 2020, I would ask every student in NSW high schools to ​stop school as they currently know it, and to apply themselves to the question “What is it that I want for my world, post Covid-19?” It’s a rich essential question that lends itself to varied personal responses, and requires introspection, inquiry, hypothesising, consultation, visualisation and articulation. Just imagine the evidence of growth a teacher or a parent could observe as their child designed and undertook such a meaningful project.’ 

Does the design lend itself to being scaled up to all schools? CEO Viv White is unsure but says it is worth asking the question and predicts that in a post-pandemic world, more educators will be interested in having the conversation. ‘The Big Picture design is certainly not expensive. It’s about relationships, a room and the teacher-student ratio.’

We know that many new ideas and opportunities, including in education, will be with us at the other end of the pandemic. We can do school differently. The success of Big Picture students in terms of learning outcomes, wellbeing and engagement throughout this current ‘crisis’ is a potent opportunity to reconsider the sort of education we want for our young people, before we return to old industrial educational models that have long been failing students in the Digital Age, (pandemic or no pandemic).

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Joanne Pettit

(Joanne is an instructional designer and video producer. She manages communications and training resources at Big Picture Education Australia in its Sydney office.)