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Brightworks: A School that Rethinks School

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Flickr: tinkering-unlimited

At Brightworks, a K-12 private school set to open in San Francisco this fall, there will be no tests, grades, or transcripts.

Instead, students will participate in activities and interact with professionals in various fields, design a project that they bring to fruition themselves, and produce a multimedia portfolio that they'll share with the school, the community, and – via the Brightworks website – the world.

Brightworks is co-founded by Gever Tulley, creator of Tinkering School (a sleepover summer camp where kids explore and build things) and author of 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, and Bryan Welch, director of A Curious Summer (theme-based workshops for kids that spark curiosity and critical thinking).

The philosophy at Brightworks builds on the approaches to learning that Tulley and Welch have developed and tested through their respective summer programs, and the premise is simple: Get students passionate about something (read "The Nine Tenets of Passion-Based Learning to learn more"), then set them loose to explore and enact that passion.

"What's been happening with A Curious Summer since I've been running it," says Welch, who co-founded the program with Marina McDougall, art projects director at the Exploratorium, "is that we will pickle these children in curiosity. We'll get calls from parents months after the camp, saying, 'After taking your workshop in stop-motion and photography, my child can't stop playing with optics.' It can be problematic, even: Kids go back to school pickled in curiosity and that might supercede what they're being offered at school. So I felt like, wouldn't it serve our children better if we could then give them tools and materials and let them do their own work?"

Isaac is determined to leave the ground, by any means necessary. Aka - jumping.

He thought that Tinkering School could benefit, if prior to arriving, children could develop a passion on a certain theme at A Curious Summer and drive the tinkering themselves. "At Tinkering School, children arrive not knowing what they're going to do," says Welch. "Gever whips off the tablecloth and says, 'These are the tools and materials I challenge you with and this is what I challenge you to build.' But wouldn't it be better if the children said, 'We challenge ourselves'?"


The result of this fusion is Brightworks, a school where children will get to spark their enthusiasm on a certain theme and tinker with it year-round, using what Tulley and Welch call "the Brightworks arc," a curriculum with three phases: 1) exploration, 2) expression, and 3) exposition.

This means that if the year's theme is "wind," for instance, Brightworks students will look at wind from many disciplines and angles, such as meteorology, wind instruments, wind as an element in the body in Chinese medicine, sailing as a method of wind-powered transportation, or nautical history and the way wind has fueled colonialism and changed the way languages and cultures interact in the world.

The teachers (or "collaborators," as they'll be called at Brightworks) will populate this vast thematic landscape with exploratory activities and professional expertise. "Let's bring in a pilot. Let's bring in a kite flyer. Let's bring in a wind musician," says Welch. "And we want them to bring the real tools and materials that they use" in their careers in an effort to "dismantle the membrane that so often in traditional schools keeps children and expertise separate."

The project that the students subsequently design, Welch says, can be absolutely anything that deepens their understanding of the theme – from building a sailboat to writing a rock opera about Amelia Earhart. "The kingdom of childhood is this place where we can actually support this incredibly experimental work," he says.

And in the third phase, students will share their work with a "legitimate audience" – not just their classmates, but also, for instance, the elderly at a local assisted living center, a class of kindergartners, or students at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

The school, though private, will offer sliding-scale tuition to every applicant, effectively allowing for half the tuition to be given away. And the hope is that as soon as things get rolling, Brightworks will be able to offer sliding-scale after school programs, workshops, and night classes for children and adults in the neighborhood, too.

Sure, there are only 30 students aged 6 through 12 starting in September (though there are a few slots still open for 12-year-old girls) and the teacher-to-student ratio at Brightworks is a minimum of 1 to 6. The program is resource and labor-intensive. "We don't scale well at all," says Welch.

But they plan to replicate through offering their curriculum as an open-source platform online and building their reputation throughout San Francisco. This is something they're already doing. Tulley and Welch have already received plenty of calls from other educators asking how they could build their own Brightworks school.

Also, Welch says, the development of the school's structure was hugely influenced by the nearly 200 home visits he made to explain its mission and methods to local parents. "We've created, in dialogue with these families, a much more full-fleshed version of our school," he says. And at this point, "it's as full-fleshed as it can be for a school that hasn't started yet."

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