September 06, 2007

The MET Schools: an ingredient for the future of schooling?

Met_school The MET Schools, Rhode Island, USA, take open-ended schooling to a level about which most of us can only hypothesise. I was fortunate enough to visit four of these schools in Providence this summer as part of BLC07.

There are now MET Schools all over America, changing the face of US education under The Big Picture Company umbrella - their site carries the aims and ethos of the schools. Just taking a look at some of my photos from the day will a small part of the big picture.

When you enter a MET School, initially funded through the Bill Gates Foundation and now providing education on the same funding as any other state sector school, you get what the students get: an early morning Pick-Me-Up. Someone shares a story, what they've been doing: a student, a teacher, the Principal, an 'outsider'. They effectively give a face-to-face blog, where the comments come thick and fast and a dialogue begins. The whole school attend pick-me-up, but when your maximum school size is 150, with a Principal and the administration that entails, it's not too much to ask.

Also, when the walls are magnetic and loosely attached to each other, making a room a few metres squared bigger isn't too much hassle, either.

MET Schools can say with no sense of irony or "management speak" that they are truly centred around the child. When we asked what mechanisms were in place for student involvement, expecting to have seen student councils and boards, the students looked kind of quizzically at us: "we're always saying how this school should be run; we're always working in partnership with our advisors (teachers)."

The schooling here is based on four 21st Century education principles:

  • Knowledge
  • Application of knowledge and critical thinking
  • Experiential learning: learning by doing
  • Storytelling and presentation skills

In the MET, every teacher is a generalist, helping to scaffold learning alongside others: students, parents, local business. There's an emphasis on the practical hands-on connection to learning, something they have honed over the past 6-6 years.

What does a day look like?
After Pick-Me-Up, groups of around a dozen students enter their Advisory. This is their first and only class, with the same Advisor (teacher) getting to know them, and them getting to know each other, for an unbroken four year period - until they leave school. They plan their learning with their Advisor and each other, once every quarter, building a narrative around a project and then presenting a final exhibition of their work to family, friends and school. The plan is not something that can be formulated in one meeting; it takes a long time for advisor to get to know student, for student to find an internship that's going to actually bring them something worthwhile. It's worth it in the end, of course: Lyall followed her passion of organising events and now works for the New England Patriots doing just that. Passion is the main criteria for doing, or not doing something at school. If a student does not have a personal passion for something then they will not be allowed to follow learning down that road. Just watching Lyall illustrates what I mean:

Assessment and the real world
Formative assessment is in, summative assessment is saved for the very end. Meta-cognition, learning how to learn and knowing what and how you've learnt, is equally important. Ultimately, it's the assessment that peers give in that final exhibition that counts most - and makes them never want to fail. Impressing your peers in the audience is the ultimate in motivational carrots.

And school work is not the only thing being assessed. Two days a week are spent in internships with local businesses - the four schools in Providence feed off a network of over 1200 businesses, built up over the years, with students firing off letters and making phone calls to arrange over 1000 internships for themselves every year. The schools' Advisors visit these businesses on a rotating cycle, seeing them at least every three weeks. Individual internships can last anything between three months and several years.

Met_schools_ri Making time count, 24 hours a day
MET Schools have a lot going on in them, with students following completely individualised personalised timetables, internships and learning paths. the equivalent of Literacy and Numeracy hours are set aside to guarantee some continuity of progression. "Where does 'Core PE' fit into this?" you might ask. Here, if a student is taking part in sport outside the main school day, for example, then this is documented and counts towards their school time. The same goes for literature studied or films viewed. The whole time spent my the child counts as learning - why should learning only be accountable between the hours of 9am and 4pm?

University life appears relatively well-structured when that time comes, as students are continuously taught time-management skills to cope with the complexity of working for oneself.

Getting breadth out of depth
Having students choosing their own learning paths means that a lot of depth can be gained in some areas, while none is achieved in others. This is where the Pick-Me-Up and close-knit Advisory Group setup is invaluable. As students share in their exhibitions and informal discussions, interviews with Advisories and collaborative brain-picking with peers, the breadth of study you'd hope for in a more traditional school setting is achieved. Key to this working well is the Advisor, who aggregates all the work going on in the school and attempts to make links between students who could mutually benefit from working with each other.

Tv_studio How do they pay for it?
As I've said, the amount spent on a student in a MET school and the amount spent on a regular state school are roufghly the same. But in the MET about 80% of student 'cost' is spent on salaries of staff, to make class sizes no more than around a dozen. They're not spending on textbooks or large scale facilities, their schools being so small, which means there's that much more to invest in what really matters: the teachers. There is no shortage of ICT equipment for students to use, with enough money saved up to create media studios and theatres for the community to use, too. When we were in a local rapper and hip hop artists was in recording some tunes in the studio, for free in return for mentoring some students during term time. As you would have hoped, students are encouraged to bring in their own tools as much as possible to ease the load.

Does it work?
The MET provides a highly effective means of schooling kids. Attendance runs at 95%. Every child sits their SATs (final examinations), where in many state schools up to 20% can be refused, so as not to negatively affect the overall results. 80% of these students choose to move on to Further or Higher Education - 100% of them get accepted.

The low-/no-assessment model of the MET is respected by the universities, but only after the schools had gone out to the universities to explain how things are done, that the students are that good bit more rounded and that their scores, if the same or slightly lower than the norm, don't reveal this extra added value these students bring, above all their hard-work and passion-led ethic.

The MET's too busy with teaching and learning to be spending the disproportionate time on exam technique that most traditional state schools do.

The schools reach out into the community, often in sensitive areas. There is no graffitti, the sports fields and facilities are open to the community and the community returns the favour by welcoming the school in.

On an emotional literacy scale the MET is somewhere in the stratosphere. In state schools only a third of students say that they feel there's an adult they can approach with their problems. In the MET, nine out of ten students feel that they can approach their teacher. What does that say about the kind of education on offer?

The MET welcomes over 1000 visitors a year, events being organised by students, of course. If you fancy a gander, head over the The Big Picture and arrange your management team or department their own visit.


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Nicely done, Ewan -

Tom Hoffman and I were discussing the MET Schools recently on his blog at

Here are some other articles I wrote about Dennis Littky and the Met.

Thank you for this. I had so far only read what the Met schools had written themselves. It's nice to have an outsider's view. And it seems the Met school idea is still very impressive.

thanks you for this..

Great post Ewan ... I am reminded of work that has taken place over a number of years now and was published in 1992 about optimisation of the size of human groups for maintenance of social releationships. The Dunbar number is 150, 'this representing the theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person'

You blogged about it back on May 31st 2007 and hey ho the number pops up again in the MET School.

The Gore Tex example written about by Gladwell in 'The Tipping Point' also points out that social networking structure also must have a 'tipping point' at about 150. We need to look at 'facebook' etc to see what is happening in terms of meaningful relationships there.

Nice overview, Ewan. One thing I'd disagree with is this:

"As students share in their exhibitions and informal discussions, interviews with Advisories and collaborative brain-picking with peers, the breadth of study you'd hope for in a more traditional school setting is achieved."

You certainly DON'T get the breadth of coverage you'd "hope for" in a traditional school. That really isn't a goal of the design, and definitely not what you end up in practice. You just can't spend four years letting kids follow their path AND expect them to see the whole territory.

OTOH, I wouldn't be surprised if, in practice, a Met graduate's knowledge is as broad as what a student in a traditional high school in Providence RETAINS after graduation.

My point is that there are trade offs.

Also, stating that "knowledge" is the first "21st Century learning principle" that the Met is based on seems off. Obviously this depends on how broad your definition of "knowledge" is, but I'd say that the Met is much less knowledge focused than other schools.

That last point struck me, Tom, but it's a direct lift from the powerpoint we were shown while the explanations were running along. Another trade-off?

Also, the current state statistics for The Met differ in some cases significantly from what they told you. For example, their per-pupil expenditure is 50% higher than the state average. They spend significantly more on "operations" than the average school, less on classroom teachers, significantly more on technology, materials, trips, etc. and over twice as much on "leadership."

Go to

and enter "metropolitan" for school name.


Regarding their use of "knowledge," I'd chalk it up to marketing, especially if they used "21st Century learning principles" in the slide as well. Telling people what they want to hear.

good article! thanks!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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