“At Big Picture Schools, there is no canon of information that all students must know. In a world where information doubles every couple of years, the most important thing is a student needs to know how to learn.”

Competencies are the first symbol that there is a difference between staying at a traditional school and coming here. They are a new lens with which students and advisors are asked to look at learning. Instead of grades evaluating content-based learning structures (think 'A' in History or a 'C' in Biology), competencies are a frame for looking at learning in all arenas and provide a transition for students (and advisors) from learning for school to learning for life.

At Big Picture they are leveraged to encourage authentic work and evaluate learning more comprehensively than grades or credits can. When competencies are being utilized by an advisor effectively, they facilitate engagement while providing a scalable ground for assessment. In practice, this can look like the learning goals disappearing from conversation about work, but still remaining present in the work itself. When competencies are being mismanaged by an advisor, students often essentialize the competencies into class/credit equivalents and/or extrinsic learning targets, thus removing their leverage as authentic engagement motivators (think: calling quantitative reasoning ‘math’ or ‘I just did this project to check off my communications competency’).

Motivating and measuring using the competencies is nuanced and difficult, and developing your own personal understanding is paramount. What follows is a brief description of the competencies, presented intentionally to show them in an ‘unschool-y’ light. Imagine as a student what it might feel like to have these pursuits supported. As an advisor, imagine how you might be able to push students farther and deeper with these frames, rather than traditional classes and credits. Resources below provide a longer description, but starting here is a good way to put yourself in the mind of a new student being convinced that these learning goals aren’t just business as usual. Bottom line, they’re for life, not ‘school’.

Quantitative Resoning

Quantitative Reasoning

Can you analyze and manipulate data to see if you were right about something?

  • Student: “I’m totally fine getting less than 7 hours of sleep.”
  • Advisor: “Prove it.” (analyzing data sets, perhaps developing statistical models, coming to a conclusion)
Empirical Reasoning

Empirical Reasoning

Can you find the answer to complex questions?

  • How do you make professional quality makeup? (research, developing a hypothesis, prototyping, etc.)
  • Why do I always get tired after lunch? (research, developing a hypothesis, conducting an experiment)
Social Reasoning

Social Reasoning

Can you see and understand people and problems? Can you see how the actions of others impact outcomes?

  • What issues affect you and your community?
  • Why are people so worked up about immigration?


If you have something important, can you get people to understand it deeply? If someone has something important to tell you, can you understand it deeply?

  • If you have needs that aren’t being met, can you convey those needs to partners, friends, bosses, etc?
  • If you create a visual, written, or oral project on human trafficking, will your audience understand? Deeply enough to be convinced?
Personal Qualities

Personal Qualities

How do you be the person you want to be?

  • Do you need to improve your organizational skills in order to be the person you want to be?
  • Are you more able to navigate challenges in general, or in specific situation x, now then you were a year ago? What helped you?