Brightworks: An Educational Refuge

Today’s article is from our friends at Art Practical, where Dominic Willsdon considers Brightworks, a newly opened K-12 private school in San Francisco designed around an alternative educational model guided by tenets typically associated with artistic practices.

Brightworks' opening ceremony, April 2011, San Francisco. Photo: Bryan Welch.

Brightworks is a new, unaccredited K–12 private school co-created by Gever Tulley and Bryan Welch somewhat in the tradition of anarchist-leaning Free Schools. The opening ceremony, held at the end of April at their large, ex-industrial space at Bryant and Mariposa streets in San Francisco, was part gallery opening (paintings, wine, and adult hors d’oeuvres) and part school open house (prospective parents, hands-on activities, and a school band). Brightworks styles itself as “an extraordinary school” and seems set up to provide a unique educational experience, one that is bound to appeal to many artists, curators, and others interested in alternative educational models. While not an art project, it is informed by a certain idea of art practice: unscripted inquiry, guidance by example, learning by making, individual paths, intensity of experience, and self-expression. It could be called an education conducted as if it was art. Undoubtedly an adventurous initiative designed with great care, thoughtfulness, and evident passion, there is nevertheless something troubling—and politically dubious—about what it proposes, at least as it is currently articulated.

For Tulley and Welch, the best way to express the essence of Brightworks is to get out some butcher paper and Sharpies and draw a diagram of “The Arc,” the school’s signature three-phase curriculum structure. The Arc consists of “Exploration” of a theme (the “curated” phase), followed by “Expression” (collaborative creation), and finally, “Exposition” (public presentation, discussion). A child’s schooling will consist of four to six arcs per year, forty to seventy overall. There are no standards and no tests. The arcs could cover a great range of things. The example activities tend toward making, but not exclusively so. The suggested themes (such as “The Wind”) tend toward the poetic-scientific, but not necessarily. A child may not work with the same collaborators across successive arcs, so that each child will experience a unique course of study.

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