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The Three-Bridges Design for Learning

The 3-Bridges Design for Learning

Our education system is at a crossroads. While innovators advocate for reinvention, traditionalists push a “back-to-basics” approach. There is no shortage of evidence on either side to demonstrate how schools are failing our children. Meanwhile, hard-working teachers and administrators stretch ever-shrinking school budgets, while attempting to meet ever-expanding standards for success.


A Practical Approach to Student-Centered Learning

It’s tempting to imagine a prior golden age of education, but the reality is that schools today face unprecedented challenges. For one, our education system was designed to prepare students for jobs that are fast disappearing. One hundred years ago, a student who could read and diligently repeat a fixed process could make a nice living on an assembly line. Not so today.

There is also an increasing awareness that the “gatekeeper” model of education magnifies inequities. When information was in short supply, it was easy to believe that a teacher’s role was to provide information, and rate students on how well they remember what they’ve been told.

Today, teachers are expected to craft learning experiences that meet the needs of students with differing backgrounds, dispositions, and ways of thinking.

The 3-Bridges Design for Learning is about matching teaching practice with expected outcomes. If our goal is for all students to learn the same content, direct instruction and pacing guides may help. If the goal is to meet individual student needs, these methods are like square pegs in round holes.


Balancing Differentiation with Content Coverage

In many ways, the debate comes down to whether we value uniformity or individuality. Traditionalists argue that without measurable standards, schools will become glorified playgrounds, where teachers hand out trophies to students who can’t read or write. When taken to extremes, this approach creates legitimate cause for concern.

On the other hand, uniformity carries its own risks. If we adhere to strict standards, who determines the standards? If we go “back-to-basics,” how far back do we go? Should all students learn to use a slide rule? Read Greek and Latin? Irrigate a field of sorghum?

As in most areas of life, effective education requires balance. Schools and districts cannot be run effectively without some way to measure progress. At the same time, teachers and students thrive when there is a degree of flexibility both in what is taught and how it is taught.

As a result of 3-Bridges learning, my students are more engaged. They focus on learning and understanding, where before they were just focused on getting a good grade.

Ricky – Middle School Math Teacher, Brooklyn, NY

What Is 3-Bridges Design?

The 3-Bridges Design for Learning balances the need for standards with the needs of individual learners. We recognize that our current system relies on a fixed pace, content coverage approach, but we also know that each student’s needs are unique. Our goal is not to eliminate lectures and textbooks, but to balance traditional and progressive models of instruction.

Imagine being asked to supervise a marathon. Some runners are near the finish line, while others have just begun the race. Many of those who are behind also move at slower paces. One has a broken leg. Another is fit but doesn’t seem terribly interested in running. You’ve been asked to ensure all runners cross the finish line at the same time. Certainly, scaffolding will help, but it will leave many issues unaddressed.



How Does 3-Bridges Learning Work?

In a 3-Bridges classroom, instructional time is divided among the 3-Bridges. Many schools use close to 100% of instructional time for content coverage. For such schools, we advocate setting aside 10-20% of instructional time for personalized learning.

Provided the technology is available, adding personalized learning is relatively straightforward. PL helps schools understand student needs and increase student ownership and motivation. It also introduces teachers to facilitative teaching, but without the complexities of inquiry-based learning.

The next step is to incorporate a weekly inquiry-based learning activity. The exact progression, though, varies by school and teacher. Eventually, the balance may shift to an equal measure of each bridge. Some highly effective 3-Bridges teachers rely only rarely on direct instruction.

When implemented effectively, the 3-Bridges Design for Learning supports student-centered and authentic learning. It allows educators to build upon their current strengths, and acknowledges the day-to-day realities of the classroom. For help bringing 3-Bridges learning to your school, contact us at

Which Bridge Are You Building?

Bridge 1: Content Coverage

Bridge 2: Personalized Learning

Bridge 3: Inquiry-Based Learning