Love the Questions

Special Focus : Reimagining Education for a Better Future
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership August 13, 2020

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…, Live the questions now. Rainer Maria Rilke

Revisiting Rilke’s advice to love and live questions prompted my own reflection on our current task of developing answers to the many questions requiring an urgent response at the expense of identifying the important questions we may not be asking. Could it be that this urgency is causing us to do our transformation under the lamppost rather than seek the challenges in lesser traveled but much more important pathways?

Has this need to redesign schools and schooling in this hopefully temporary pandemic provided an opportunity to not only seek new answers to perennial questions but to identify new questions as well? 

Might this transformation we are crafting be less about revolution and more about devolution, a slow unwinding of the current paradigm?

Our mission at Big Picture Learning (BPL) is to “activate potential” at all levels of the education system, but most of all the potential of our students. BPL pursues this mission through three broad strategies that have become our signature: 1) deep personalization—one learner at a time; 2) relationships—learning in, with, and through a community of learners; and 3) real-world learning—learning in authentic contexts and settings. Many of BPL’s school design components—advisories, learning plans and portfolios, and performance assessments, for example—are now not only employed widely in BPL’s network of 60+ schools in the U.S. and more than 100 internationally that provides a vibrant set of “proof points” for our work. Many non-BPL schools have embraced one or more of these components in their own school designs.

At Big Picture Learning, we strive to create new answers to the perennial questions about learning and learners and schools and schooling. The current pandemic has forced us to dig deeper to ensure our design remains relevant in the new normal whose features are still emerging. Even as we do that work, however, we are also devoting some energy to identifying the important questions that are yet to take center stage.

Let me share a few questions that are challenging us.

Why are most schools and curriculums designed in a way that presupposes deep and sustained student motivation and engagement, when the reality is that most students report high percentages of disengagement?

We look where few educators look, or where few education organizations allow educators to look—at the power of students’ interests and dispositions as the sources of deep motivation and engagement, the secret sauce of deep and sustained learning.

  • Should we resist the natural quest to “return to normal”? Is that quest possible or even desirable?
  • Should we lessen our efforts to predict and anticipate the new normal, or should we seize the opportunity to design that new normal?
  • What school design components should be part of the new normal, perhaps even help to shape the new normal?


Several years ago, two of my BPL colleagues identified a set of 10 “Expectations” that students have of their schools.  They sought to step outside of the Big Picture Learning school design to create a set of requirements to assess the design of any school. We have used these Expectations to assess our own BPL design as well as those. We believe Big Picture Learning delivers well on these Expectations.

Over the years, we have found three of the Expectations to be particularly central—interests, relationships, and practice, confirming in practice the research that Benjamin Bloom documented in Developing Talent in Young People (1985).  How to wrap a curriculum around each and every student’s interests and strengths? How to help each student develop numerous and varied relationships with adults and peers doing learning and work they want to do? How to help students engage in deep and sustained practice in their interests, facilitated by the relationships they form? We have found that schools that wish to address these three Expectations particularly and all 10, will need to create opportunities for students to “leave to learn,” to do their learning and work in real-world settings and contexts—the community and workplaces.

Our question is how well will our designs for the new normal meet these Expectations? 

As we are all practicing a healthy distancing in our COVID-19 world, we are employing technology to provide learning at a distance. How can we listen carefully to what the technology can do? For example, might there be new blends of technology-enabled one-on-one tutoring (another of Bloom’s recommendations) and online learning individually and in a variety of small groups?    

Sociologist Elise Boulding once said: “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” At Big Picture Learning, we are devoting a good part of our energy to seeking the questions that will open us to imagining the future and keeping our work vital and compelling.