December 7, 2020

Agency Over Compliance: How Red Bridge is Reinventing School

When California announced its shelter in place orders last spring, Orly Friedman was at a crossroads. She wondered, “Does the world need a new school model at this moment?  Isn’t the most important thing physical safety? How can one possibly open a new school in the fall when people can’t leave their homes?” 

“After a few depressed days,” Orly remembers, she came to an a-ha: The school that she and her team were developing was precisely what this pandemic moment demands, a model grounded in cultivating learner agency, which she defines as “the ability to set meaningful goals and have the will and skill to achieve them.” 

Orly’s observation reflects a profound insight: The traditional model of learning buckled this spring not just because of logistical and operational burdens (though these were significant), but also because the model itself has long failed to cultivate the kind of learner motivation and agency that remote learning requires. When children aren’t contained in a room, receiving every direction from an adult, how do they magically become self-guided in a remote setting? 

Orly founded Red Bridge after spending a year as an Innovator in Residence at Transcend, but she had been designing and testing these ideas for years. The school’s learning model aims to develop agency within all young people. It is an independent school (ages 5-7) with an individualized tuition model that assigns proportional tuition rates to families, this year between $500 – $34,000. Intentional diversity is an explicit part of the school’s deep focus on agency: they believe that setting meaningful goals requires an accurate understanding of the world around you, which includes developing relationships that are economically and racially diverse. Red Bridge aims to build a student body that is reflective of San Francisco’s diversity. So far they are off to a strong start, with young people who are English Language Learners, neurodiverse, racially diverse, and from all kinds of family models. 

“In the biggest picture,” Orly says, “All the systems and procedures of the traditional school model reward compliance. In today’s world that is a hindrance.” Red Bridge departs from rewarding compliance and instead rewards agency. One of the model’s most radical shifts is moving away from grouping young people by “grade levels” to grouping by “autonomy levels.” These autonomy groupings are determined by student work habits such as time management, focus, organization, initiative, and goal achievement. Grouping students by work habits changes the focus of what’s important in school. In order to move from one autonomy level to the next, which they must self-advocate to do, children must demonstrate consistency with a set of work habits. “You can’t level up in our school without becoming really good at the act of learning itself. It changes the mindset, by shifting the structure.” At this early stage, children set goals for character and communication. A character goal might be, “Ask someone for help,” and a communication goal might be, “Write someone a nice note.” Children keep a goal tracker as they progress and reflect meaningfully along the way. In time, with higher levels of autonomy, children can make more choices around the goals they set and how they pursue learning to accomplish them. 

This approach of decoupling age and grade in favor of autonomy means that young people can progress in more “jagged,” customized ways. A seven-year old learner arrived at the beginning of the year unable to read. In a traditional setting, they would have likely been assigned a grade-level below their chronological age. This often presents tension for young people who must navigate the social experience of difference between their chronological and developmental ages. At Red Bridge, this child would be able to be grouped in a higher autonomy level reflective of their skill and developmental age, while working on reading at the appropriate level. In 10 short weeks, they have gone from not knowing sounds to reading short picture books. Without artificial grade levels, the culture feels more asset-based, where everyone is coming with strengths and weaknesses. These habits are carrying over to home life too: one child has recreated all the systems and structures of school to aid in his nighttime routine.  As the family prepares to move later this year, his mother reflects, “It will be hard to find something that lives up to his expectations. He absolutely loves Red Bridge school… we can tell by what he brings home, his stories, and how he’s repeating and practicing what he has learned!”

For Orly, who has long worked in education innovation, the pandemic helped solidify an unexpected point of view — that in-person learning is unreplicable and essential, especially in the primary years. She was intent on opening the school safely and in-person this fall so that the school could provide great human-to-human interaction, which is so essential for the highly sensorial learning needs of 5-7 year olds. The bubble blast activity, where children learn self-control and discipline by resisting the urge to pop bubbles, and doing so only with their pinky fingers, is quite difficult to replicate remotely – not just the instructions or the activity, but the shared physical movement and sheer joy that it generates. Orly firmly believes that “the best of online learning can’t touch the best of in-person education.” 

To me, Red Bridge reflects a road to reinventing grounded at the level of learner experience, making tremendous Leaps in Active Self-Direction, Customization, Connection & Community. This school is one of the most intentional examples of matching the theory of “developing life-long learners” with the actual, lived experiences students have in practice. How many of us have been or taught in schools that aspire (at least rhetorically) to develop such self-determination and agency, but are stuck within the design constraints of the industrial model? Grouping students by autonomy versus artificial grade levels is a brilliant restructuring of the student experience that – I believe – is likely to produce the kinds of habits, deeply rooted motivation, and self knowledge required for young people to truly learn Anytime, Anywhere. When the present and future are unpredictable, unequitable, and volatile, these skills are paramount. Our children’s learning may be disrupted again by an environmental or public health crisis. I deeply believe that remote learning has proven to be such a painful adjustment because our traditional learning models rarely create experiences for young people that foster purpose, autonomy, and mastery – the pillars of motivation. 

If this pandemic has shown me anything, it’s that we can’t afford to continue propping up a system that rewards compliance. We need models that reward the skills necessary to confront our most adaptive and entrenched challenges. Red Bridge shows us one way towards that future. 

WHAT RED BRIDGE IS TEACHING US ABOUT ROADS TO REINVENTING: 

  • The science of learning and development supports grouping learners by autonomy levels versus grade levels, which allows for children to progress in ways that honor their jagged profiles; this has a positive impact on individual children and impact on the school’s culture and social dynamics at large. 
  • To learn “anytime, anywhere,” children need an underlying bank of skills, habits, and mindsets which are developed through experiences.
  • If made accessible to many more families (e.g., via sliding-scale tuition schemes) out-of-system options can provide families with additional models of learning to choose from in their contexts. 
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