Students working on their projects (and talking with a teacher) at Brightworks, a school that describes itself as
With no formal curriculum, children at Brightworks come to school to work on projects they devise entirely by themselves © Talia Herman

Hidden behind the unremarkable frontage of a low-rise warehouse in the Mission district of San Francisco is one of the most innovative education experiments in the US. Now in its seventh year, Brightworks is turning education on its head with an approach that makes the pupil entirely responsible for shaping their own learning experience. A private school for children of all ages, Brightworks is unusual in that there are no exams, no testing or SATs, no formal curriculum, no learning objectives and no teachers, only “collaborators”. Children come to school to work on projects they devise entirely by themselves — often using power tools, drills, hammers and saws. Whether inside, creating extraordinary large-scale metal works, or outside on field trips around the Bay Area and beyond, the emphasis is on playful stress-free learning.

“I like to think of our school as a huge lab for learning and play,” says Brightworks’ founder Gever Tulley, a self-taught coder for software company Adobe with no formal education who has reinvented himself as a disruptive educational entrepreneur. “Instead of school being about written tests, we’ve made it about games, puzzles and challenges [that children] devise themselves and solve together. School should be empowering and set them up for a life of learning and curiosity. I hated seeing the light go out of children’s eyes at the mere mention of school.”

One of the most surprising differences between Brightworks and its mainstream, state school counterparts is the lack of screens in classes. Despite its location in the technology crucible of the world, you won’t see pupils idly tapping on iPads or watching educational videos in class. Tulley’s model is designed around helping students discover their intrinsic ability free from the easy distractions of technology and increasingly popular forms of edutainment — activities that blend screen-based learning with visual entertainment. “If they are interested in something, we let them run with it, but they have to chase it and get deep into things,” says Tulley. “We don’t have many rules, but one of them is that if you want to play a video game you have to make it yourself.”

Students at Brightworks, a school that describes itself as
© Talia Herman

The Brightworks approach is proving increasingly popular with California’s tech elites, whose children currently make up over 60 per cent of the school. The other 40 per cent are subsidised places for those with the motivation but not the means to pay the $30,000-plus-a-year fees. Karena Capraro, a graphic designer, and her husband Michelangelo, a digital experience designer, sent their son Oscar to Brightworks when he was eight. “He was strong academically but not empowered as a learner,” says Karena. “He’d get the answers right, but when we asked a little deeper and asked why, he would usually say it was because they told him it was the right answer. So much knowledge is accessible through the internet that schools have to start teaching us what we can do with it, not what it is.”

Karena’s husband did not enjoy his own schooling experience. “My experience with school is that kids flew under the radar all the time,” he says. “These kids, these little walking idea factories and sponges can do anything, and the thought of quashing that seemed wrong.”

Students working on their projects with their teachers at Brightworks, a school that describes itself as
© Talia Herman

The academic establishment appears to be coming round to Tulley’s playful, learner-led approach too. Even though his students have no SAT scores, Harvard and Stanford universities and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are looking at students’ portfolios as a way of assessing their potential. “They already know the best people are not necessarily the ones who’ve aced their SATs,” says Tulley.

Brightworks’ rip-up-the-rulebook approach reflects a set of complex tensions currently consuming education. Many parents worry that conventional education is failing to develop the creative intelligence people will need in the age of the so-called fourth industrial revolution — characterised by technological innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and connectivity.

With Google chief executive Sundar Pichai earlier this year at Davos pronouncing AI to be “more important than fire or electricity”, the stage is set for an urgent debate around technology, humanity and the kind of education we give our children.

The popularity of the alt-education movement’s “low-tech, high-play” ethos can be seen as a first response to rote-learning and exam-focused schooling by trendsetters who can afford to do things differently. The more conspiratorially minded have suggested the shift towards tech-free education for the Silicon Valley “technoscenti” is merely a sign of self-interest — in the way that all dynastic groups always seek to ensure their continued dominance.

The tech savvy understand better than anyone how technology can enhance human intelligence but also how it can impede its development, the argument goes. They are looking to ensure their own children are future-proofed while the rest slip into tech dependency.

Students working on their projects with a teacher at Brightworks, a school that describes itself as
© Talia Herman

If more dystopian voices such as Elon Musk are to be believed, those currently being educated will find few roles available to them in an automated world. If they do find work it will be low-skilled, creating lives of dependency and, ultimately, redundancy. Recent reports from the OECD and consultants Deloitte on the future of work predict a significant decline in the number of jobs requiring traditional skills taught in schools and a need for people with the “new skills” of creativity, emotional intelligence, innovation and self-determination.

In March, Apple beamed its latest product launch live from a Chicago high school. It announced new educational iPads and apps to “edutain” the next generation of schoolchildren. At the same time, a group of influential Apple shareholders was putting pressure on the company to embed controls into its smartphones to restrict children’s screen access time. The company’s late co-founder Steve Jobs was a tech-refusenik when it came to his own children. In a New York Times article in 2011 he memorably let slip that his children had never used an iPad. Similarly, Bill and Melinda Gates have been open about their children’s decidedly low-tech upbringing.

While technology undoubtedly aids learning in some spaces, the question is whether it dominates and, as a result, displaces the skills needed most in our tech-dominated futures. For low-tech alt-school group the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, the evidence is irrefutable. “Despite unremarkable results, significant amounts of money are still given over to putting technology into classrooms,” says Beverly Amico, AWSNA’s executive director. Increasingly popular with tech families in Silicon Valley, Waldorf schools focus on play, and learning through doing and community, with little or no access to technology allowed before age 13-14 at school or at home. “Technology has its place in education, at the right stage, but it’s safe to say Waldorf educators don’t place much value on it,” she adds.

The role of modern education and the technology debate is something 68-year-old Liverpudlian educationist Sir Ken Robinson has spent much of his professional life exploring. His belief is that play and natural learning promote the skills we need most. An unlikely mix of comedian, rock star, head teacher and guru, he gave a TED talk in 2006, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, that has been viewed online more than 50m times.

Now a resident of California, the one-time education adviser to former UK prime minister Tony Blair is calling for a complete remake of the education system, rather than piecemeal reform. He argues for a return to a more active, problem-solving, play-based schooling that allows every child to gain the full benefits of early childhood and to develop a sense of who they are and what they are good at.

Sir Ken’s latest book, You, Your Child, and School, asks what we think education is for in a rapidly changing world. “I wrote it because we are in crisis,” he says. “Parents are deeply invested in their kids’ education and increasingly anxious and confused. They unwittingly focus kids on achieving academically and then wonder why their children are anxious and stressed. A degree doesn’t set you up for life any more, yet we’re still hypnotised by that idea as a society. Exams and testing have turned children into data points on a graph and we reject the ones for whom education doesn’t work — with terrible consequences.”

Sir Ken Robinson says exams and testing ‘have turned children into data points on a graph’
Sir Ken Robinson says exams and testing ‘have turned children into data points on a graph’ © Harry Mitchell

Robinson was an adviser to an initiative announced in January at the World Economic Forum called the Real Play Coalition — a collaboration between Unilever, the Lego Foundation, Ikea and National Geographic that will aim to raise awareness of the importance of play in education. The argument is that a lack of outdoor play spaces, solitary screen-based activities and a well-intentioned but misguided belief that children need more structured learning activities in their lives to enhance academic attainment is responsible for play disappearing from schools and from homes. The resulting play deficit is, according to Robinson and other leading academics, hurting child development. It is precisely these skills that Silicon Valley’s tech-savvy parents are prioritising in their own children.

Despite the debate around play, technology and development, Robinson says we must not get sidetracked from the main questions of equality and fairness in education.

“We face a lot of significant problems as a species and will need a lot of smart people to help solve them,” he says. “Helping all children, wherever they are, to become the best versions of themselves . . . has to be the real purpose of education now because — and I like to quote HG Wells on these occasions — ‘civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’.”

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