Brightworks School

What if school trusted students to use power tools, exercise their agency, collaborate with adults, make 'mistakes' and 'fail?'

Photo of Cynthia Metcalfe
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

10 years ago, Gever Tulley began Tinkering School, a summer camp that allowed kids to collaborate with adults in decision making, use power tools, and do ‘dangerous’ things. Faced with a provocation from the kids: “Why can’t school be like this?” Gever opened Brightworks School in 2011. Brightworks is dedicated to the axiom: ‘Everything is Interesting.’ Starting with only 19 kids, it has grown to 65 student/collaborators in 2015/2016.


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

San Francisco

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

San Francisco

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

How do we prepare children to succeed in the 21st century where creativity, collaboration and strong agency are more important than the skills traditionally taught in the industrial age?

By trusting children and allowing them to exercise their own agency.   

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • No, not explicitly

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

We embrace all learners and cultivate economic diversity with tuition assistance = 18% of budget.

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

The school is located in a former warehouse in the vibrant Mission District of San Francisco. At 9:15 AM, a rhythmic clap calls everyone to the ‘cork floor’ for an all school circle. At 11:30 the entire student body goes to a nearby park for an hour. At 12:30 they eat lunch together in the dining room. Bands take turns cleaning the dining room after lunch. At 3:30 (2:30 on Wednesdays) school concludes with an ending circle. Aftercare is available until 6:00. Friday afternoons, the whole school meets at 3:00 to do a reset/cleanup of the space. This is practical, as on weekends the space belongs to Tinkering School. But it is also philosophical, giving the kids ownership of and responsibility for the physical space they learn in.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

We are completing our 5th school year at Brightworks. This year, 2015/2016, we had 65 student/collaborators arranged into 8 bands (classes). In the 2016/2017 school year, we anticipate expanding to 77 student/collaborators.

Every year we invite educators to visit and learn about the Brightworks model. In 2015/2016 we hosted over 300 visiting educators including holding our first educator weekend workshop. Our goal for 2016/2017 is to formalize our educator training institute and provide more opportunities for educators to learn about our model.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Our primary source of funds is tuition. We also seek grants from foundations and donations from the parent and extended community.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are many schools who are experimenting with innovative 21st century learning. The staff of Brightworks makes a concerted effort to learn from, share and collaborate with innovative schools worldwide. What makes Brightworks different:
- Learning is organized around Arc topics, with the entire school learning about different aspects of the topic at the same time.
- Experiential, individualized, engagement-based learning
- Small, mixed age, classes and individual attention
- Teachers respectfully collaborate with students
- K-12 access to power tools

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Many of our graduates will go to colleges and universities. We are particularly interested in the changes in these institutions. Including:
- Colleges and universities looking for creative collaborative students. We see:
   - Reduced emphasis on SAT scores and AP classes
   - Greater acceptance of portfolio based admissions.
- Experiential, project-based learning extending into higher learning. For example:
  - Experience Institute
  - Singularity University
  - Former MIT dean, Christine Ortiz’s new research university

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jessie

This is an exciting model for schools and learning!! Great to hear that you are also focusing on economic diversity as well, so more have access to such an innovative and experiential environment.

Photo of Sharon

Hi Cynthia,
I'm very excited to read about your school and would love to see it in person sometime. I have heard about the Tinkering School from my colleagues, who greatly admire Gever Tulley's work. I'm based in the East Bay and I work with two organizations that share your perspective on the value of beneficial risk for children. (e.g. using real tools to gain real skills and develop judgement based on experience) Perhaps we can connect sometime in person? I'd love to come and meet you and your colleagues.  

Sharon Danks
CEO, Green Schoolyards America,
Co-Founder, International School Grounds Alliance,

Photo of Karla

Hi Cynthia, I salute your work as change agent for the children.  This model is quite solid in its delivery. Can you offer more detail about how you measure the impact on wellbeing and soft skill?

Photo of Doug

Hi Cynthia,
Your school looks really interesting, especially the hands-on approach. How are you measuring your impact on sense of self, purpose, and belonging? Best of luck.