Available March 28, 2023
Orly Friedman was in the fifth grade when she read the book that changed her life. The story, about a child who floundered in traditional school environments but thrived in an unconventional setting, inspired Orly to dream of opening her own non-traditional school one day. In this episode, she shares her successful journey as the founder of Red Bridge School, an innovative educational setting for young learners that centers around student agency and autonomy.
Orly sits down with host Tim Fish to talk about her lifelong passion, and the hard work and vision that led to creating Red Bridge. Based on the research of the late professor Albert Bandura, Orly and her team conceived of an elementary school model that’s wildly different from the traditional system. Decoupling academic ability and level from “autonomy level”—a student’s readiness to set and achieve goals, demonstrate accountability, and evaluate their own learning and work habits—has helped create a school where progress is about much more than passing a unit test or aging up to the next grade.
Pointing out that in traditional schools, promotion to the next grade is generally age-based and not always fully indicative of a student’s real mastery of the content, Orly explains that the Red Bridge model removes age-based grade levels in favor of grouping students by content level and autonomy level. Twice a year, students have the ability to request a promotion to the next autonomy level, based on their demonstrated work habits; but, Orly stresses, a lack of readiness to move up in autonomy never holds a child back from progressing in academics. The system at Red Bridge allows children who are both academically advanced and struggling with time management or organizational skills to be appropriately placed for both areas of need. In the same way, a child who’s struggling with an academic area but able to demonstrate strong work habits can be served in the way that best suits them as a learner.
Within a school where young learners are explicitly working toward developing agency and groupings are attuned to individual needs, the role of the teacher takes on new significance. Again rejecting traditional “one size fits all” models, Orly points out that teachers generally are expected to be many things at once: content specialists, classroom managers, mentors, role models, relationship experts, assessment gurus, and more. Especially within an elementary setting, where teachers must be content experts in almost all areas rather than just one subject, the burden can be too great for any one person to successfully fulfill all parts of the role. To serve the specialized model at Red Bridge, Orly and her team rely on differentiated roles among the staff, including learning guides who supervise student autonomy and content specialists who handle academic subject areas. Excellent collaboration and communication are a must, Orly stresses, both among the staff themselves and between the school and parents. But she sees evidence that the school, launched during the pandemic in Fall 2020, is achieving its goals.
Relating a story about a day when the school unexpectedly had to close, Orly recalls receiving emails from separate families who shared similar news. Their children, home from school for the day, had taken the initiative to map out their own schedules and goals, just as they would have at Red Bridge. Their enthusiasm for showing their parents their newly gained autonomy demonstrated not only that the system works, but that the school has succeeded by the metric that’s most important to Orly: student happiness. “My hope,” she says, “is that students all get to go to schools that they love being at, and feel a sense of ownership over their work.”
Some of the key questions Tim and Orly explore in this episode include:
- What does it look like to live out your mission statement as a school each day? How do you put mission into daily practice?
- At Red Bridge, students are grouped not by grade level, but by autonomy level. What is an autonomy level and how does that structure work?
- What does teaching look like in a setting like Red Bridge, where groups are clustered by autonomy level rather than academic level? How do content delivery, assessment, and communication work?
- Red Bridge students are young learners, which differs from many other school models built around student agency. How important is structure for developing agency in young learners, and how do you create that structure without removing students’ autonomy?
- “If you think about traditional grade levels, they are very passive for the student. So you sit in a seat for 180 days and you move on to the next grade level when you show up in September and there's basically nothing you have to do to make that happen, other than have good attendance. It doesn't even really matter if you've learned everything you need to learn, you move on to the next grade, you can move on with a D. Very few students are retained. It really is more about obedience and being present. And so if you want to flip that and turn it into a system that supports agency, then you need to put the promotion process in the hands of the students.” (11:49)
- “We are really teaching students how to know themselves well enough and develop the habits of self-advocacy to be successful in any environment. … And so I don't worry who their teacher will be in the future or what happens if they go to another school, because they know themselves well enough and they have enough experience going through that learning cycle and setting goals for themselves and making a plan and working through it that they're going to be successful anywhere. And really I think that is the result of what we're doing, that we're creating more flexible learners.” (28:28)
- “I think the thing that is a bit scary also about this kind of a model is, if you are going to give students agency over their success and ownership over their success, you also have to be willing to do that for their failures. And so sometimes you have to give students enough space for them not to be successful.” (36:24)
- Learn more about Red Bridge School
- Find out more about professor Albert Bandura and his research on agency, referenced by Orly in this episode
- Read The Power of Giving Away Power by Matthew Barzun, which Tim refers to in this episode
- Read the full transcript here.
- Episode 23: Designing Schools for Self-Directed Learning
- Episode 21: How to Create a Generation of Super Collaborators
- Episode 15: Inspiring Wonder and Community in Schools
- Episode 13: Giving Away Power for More Authentic Leadership
- Episode 3: Schools and the Science of Thriving
About Our Guest
Orly Friedman is the founder and head at Red Bridge School in San Francisco, CA. Before launching Red Bridge, Orly was an entrepreneur-in-residence with Transcend. She spent a year creating a blueprint for a new model of education designed to foster a sense of agency in students. Prior to that, she spent four years as the head of lower school and a member of the founding team of Khan Lab School in Mountain View, CA. She taught elementary school for five years in Washington, DC, where she was a Teach for America corps member. She has spoken around the world on the topic of student agency, and her writing has been published in Education Week and EducationNext.