On a typical day at Brightworks, one of the most fascinating experiments yet in the effort to disrupt grade school, you might get cut, bruised, and bloodied. But you’ll deal with it, and you’ll learn something.
Gever Tulley, a former software engineer, founded Brightworks in 2011 because he believes in the tenacity of the human child. He has no qualms about handing a power tool to a kindergartener, playing with fire, or holding class in a tree house. When a student plays dangerously, they discover what they’re capable of, according to Tulley. Problems start to look like puzzles, and the world needs more solvers these days.
Last month, Tech Insider named Brightworks one of the most innovative schools in the world for its living-on-the-edge approach to education. I recently spent a day at the San Francisco school as a student to see what makes Brightworks so unique.
And Gever Tulley, the school's founder and 'education architect,' isn't far behind. He comments on students' coffee choices as they enter.
Ten years ago, Tulley noticed how his friends restricted their children's play in order to keep them safe. The kids weren't allowed to play with sticks, let alone run wild in the woods, like Tulley and his brother did growing up.
He started a week-long summer camp in his backyard called Tinkering School, which explored the idea that children can build anything -- and through building can learn anything.
The camp became a hit among Silicon Valley families, and a few years later, Tulley took the plunge into disruptive education.
Brightworks is an extension of the Tinkering School's pedagogy. It puts real tools and real problems into the hands of kids to foster their curiosity and perseverance.
At 9:30, a 'collaborator,' or teacher, begins to clap. Students join in and migrate toward the common room.
With the students sitting in a circle, the age disparities become immediately clear. Brightworks' 60 students range from kindergarten to 12th grade.
After announcements, they celebrate a summer-birthday boy, Jack, by sticking Post-Its with sweet messages all over him. Many describe his love for drones.
After quieting down for a 'moment of mindfulness,' the students disperse throughout the warehouse. There are no bells to signal transitions.
Instead of classrooms, students gather in tree houses furnished with floor pillows, futons, and wood crafts.
Brightworks groups students into 'bands,' rather than grade levels. Each colour-coded band contains seven to 10 students with at most a three-year age gap among them.
This little guy shows off his plant in progress, which relates to the school's current course of study ...
The school year is divided into three 'arcs,' or themes that guide students through a course of study. The current arc is 'seed.'
In the yellow band, made up of late elementary school-aged children, students are learning about averaging and estimation by cracking open oat seeds.
They can figure out how long it would take to make a bowl of oatmeal by hand if they deduce how many oat seeds they can open in a minute, and how many oats are needed to fill the bowl.
'We have so many resources and such understanding from collaborators, that even if we make a mistake, we're not shunned for doing something bad,' Max, 13, says. 'We're encouraged to learn from it.'
After lunch, the tool shop starts humming again. The sounds of hammers and drills are a constant soundtrack.
He points out that most tools are located where even a kindergartener can reach them, which encourages agency.
Students work in small groups or alone. Aidan fiddles with a remote control's hardware so that it communicates with his quadcopter.
Meanwhile, the elementary school-aged teal band is tasked with recreating a long, rectangular table that currently sits in their room.
Their collaborator, Willow, who often refers to himself in the third person, provides vague instructions, such as 'make a new leg.' The kids find a way to make it happen.
The day winds down with falling class, where students practice how to take a tumble without injuring themselves.
At the end of the day, a little girl named Tesla begins the slow clap that signals students to grab their backpacks and meet in the common area.
Students raise their hands to share highlights of the day, which include opening the school's first robotics lab and playing with Play-Doh.
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