Monday, 1 May 2017

Brightworks - Tinkering School

The mission statement for the Tinkering School school is think.make.tinker which is exciting as what we know, is that students learn best when it is through doing.  

Have a read of Daniel Birch's perspective of the visit here

The Tinkering School was established as a summer holiday programme based on the notion that 'children can build anything, and through building learn anything.'  Gever Tulley founded the school back in 2006, which gained international recognition and saw the establishment of Brightworks.

Brightworks School opened it's doors in 2011, as they wondered if they could create a school that would be as memorable and hands-on as this summer school.  And so, Brightworks was established taking with it some of the best practices from the summer holiday programmes.

Brightworks has a vision of putting lifelong learning and curiosity at the forefront of a student's experience and at the heart of their pedagogical approach.  This rang true for us when we visited this morning.

Brightworks and The Tinkering School are housed in an old brick industrial building in the Mission District In San Fran.  It is a private school of approx. 80 students ranging from 5 years to 18 years. Their Summer Programmes have over 1500 students attending over the period of a year.  Parents choose this school based on their reputation and a desire for their children to engage in purposeful learning.

We had the opportunity to meet and talk to founder Gerver and Karen, Director of Tinker School at some length about the philosophy underpinning the school and practices we saw.  It was one of those conversations that will stick with me as we shared the commonality of wrestling with the tension of creating an education system that is engaging, promoting lifelong learning that will also support these kids in the various pathways that they are on.  I was also curious about just what the students would be doing...

I'm loathe to start this blog talking about the space as it can be a very surface level subject however this space was child centred and responsive.

When we wandered throughout the space we not only noticed autonomy in how and what the students were learning but the very cool feature that the kids responsively design and physically build the spaces within the building. This included the framework, soundproofing (when necessary) and adding doors etc  Also, they have to contend with earthquake specs so engineering plays a part too.  It made me think about the huge investment in the redesign of NZ schools and potential to design inspiring spaces on tight budgets if people were to think outside the box and make the most of what is already available or cheap to purchase.  It also made me think of just what children are capable of if we give them the tools and put in place some scaffolds to support them.

What we experienced at Brightworks was a truly flexible space that responds to the learning that is taking place.  Overall the space is quite full-on  however you can see the organisation behind the busyness. I saw a lot of up-cycling, clever use of nooks and crannies and the children moved around the space freely.  Not surprisingly there was a lot of doing!  I did not see many children on devices but engaged in rich hands-on learning activities. 

Students are organised in multi age groups and get the opportunity to mix across all year levels. Teachers are called 'Collaborators' and have varied skill sets from STEM to bioscience and they don't have to have teaching degrees.  What we saw was teachers working alongside students and no 'teach from the front' styles in fact I didn't notice a single whiteboard which says a lot about the way in which staff work with and don't do 'to' the kids.

Experts are called upon a lot at Brightworks as a lot of the projects require specialist input.  The students approach the experts and they have a far better chance of engagement than if an adult does the approaching on behalf.

The Saw

Every child who starts at Brightworks is inducted via 'The Saw.'  It sounds ominous but is a fantastic metaphor for the tone of the school.

You could see a 5 year old put behind this tool, taught safety aspects and experiences the joy of a commercial level cut of wood.  

The reasoning behind this practice is to start the educational journey from a place of TRUST which is embodied through the saw.  It illustrates the potential of the child and sets the tone for the relationship between collaborator and student.  It helps to make a point about the capabilities of a child, when freed from confines and the magic that can take place. 

Notice the power point placed up high.  This serves a dual purpose.  Obviously it is the safe place for the power cord but also it is their as a reminder to staff that when you have children operating powerful tools you also need to pause and think about the protocols you are following.  It is interesting that given the nature of the learning taking place across the school, injuries have been very few.

In a nutshell there are three parts to learning:
1) Exploration
2) Expression
3) Exposition

What we saw when we walked through the door was groups of children working on a project that had fallen our of an exploration phase of learning exploring water. (far more to this but summing it up here)  They were building boats that they were going to take out and sail.  They'd had to design special clamps to help them make the boats, they were full size and being painted.   Most of the children were engaged, a few had shifted their focus to individual projects they were going into.  It was refreshing hearing the perspective of the staff that it didn't matter as there is is a focus on process rather than just a polished product at the end.

The students blog about their learning experiences and record their dispositional growth e.g. collaboration, tenacity and mindsets as they work through a project culminating in a sharing of the project through an oral and written presentation.  Before children embark on largely self directed projects they present their thinking to staff who conference them through their ideas before they get the green-light.  

I think one of the biggest assumptions parents and some teacher have about self-directed learning is that their is the ability to do whatever and where-ever with loose parameters in place and limited expectations.  What I saw was high expectations and students delving into some very complex thinking and problem solving.  The teachers were 'collaborating' and facilitating learning with the children through high trust relationships.

One of my biggest take-aways from this visit was the way in which the students learned in context, the staff noticed the learning opportunities and brought in what we would call the 'traditional curriculum.'

I saw cohesion across the school with students learning via concepts, explicit teaching visible on walls, posters, through graphic designs and interpretations.

Gever Tully has some TED Talks that are available.  He's a dynamic and interesting man with a true passion about making a positive difference for children.

These were some of the questions I had posed at the beginning of the tour and some observations from this visit.

How interconnected curriculum is working?
Learning through multi-disiplinary projects the staff make the most of natural connections in a responsive manner.

What pathways are in place linking elementary, high school and beyond?
This school caters for primary and secondary in the same build.  The students work together through learning communities.  The emphasis is on students learning how to learn and think for themselves. High School students can enter Colleges through 'alternative pathways' Stanford, MIT and Berkley all offer these non-traditional entrances.

What skills, dispositions and habits are focused on beyond the traditional curriculum?
By the very nature of how learning is structured they have ample opportunities to grow dispositionally.   

Fun Fact
Brightworks is in the Mission District which has some of the best Mexican Restaurants in San Fran (and Mexican food goes very well with margaritas) !


  1. Wish I had been there but got a great description from this post

  2. Sounds amazing. I wish I was there too. How many students does each adult collaborate with?

    1. You would love it :-) They have low ratios due to the private funding...I think they mentioned in some cases 1:8.