Skip to content Skip to navigation

Remembering Professor Edwin Bridges

Edwin Bridges
Edwin Bridges

Remembering Professor Edwin Bridges

Bridges, who was 85 when he died, was a pioneer in the use of problem-based learning in the field of educational administration.

Edwin M. Bridges, retired professor of education best known for applying problem-based learning to the training of educational leaders, has died. He was 85.

Bridges died March 7 at his home on the Stanford campus.

Bridges came to Stanford Graduate School of Education in 1974. He founded the school’s Prospective Principals’ Program, which for roughly a decade used realistic simulations to help future leaders build management and organizational skills.

Himself a former principal, Bridges worked to strengthen what he saw as a weak link in K-12 education: supervisors resourceful and resilient enough to help teachers grow. 

The program attracted a broad range of education faculty to provide an integrated approach of academic studies and work experience, said Michael Kirst, emeritus professor of education.

“It applied his extensive scholarship on project-based learning to the real world of education administration. The Prospective Principals Program has inspired revisions in administrator preparation around the world,” Kirst said.

Today, the GSE builds on Bridges’ legacy with the Principal Fellows Program and a soon-to-launch professional development program for superintendents.

“Ed was a man of seminal ideas and of an unassailably independent mind,” said his colleague Hans Weiler, professor emeritus of education and of political science at Stanford.

“He showed me how to relate research to practice, something I have been striving to do ever since,” added Associate Professor David Brazer, PhD ’88. “Putting aside academic pursuits, it is Ed’s humanity that leaves me feeling diminished with his passing.”

Bridges’ research included teacher performance and teacher tenure. In the 1980s, he raised eyebrows by suggesting that the tenure hurdle be raised for K-12 teachers and by positing a correlation between discipline of so-called incompetent teachers and student performance.

Edwin Bridges at the 2012 GSE Commencement ceremony.

Edwin Bridges at the 2012 GSE Commencement ceremony.

Deeply interested in students’ welfare, Bridges and his wife, Marjorie, in 1989 held a garage sale at their campus home to benefit a visiting Chinese high-school student who wanted to attend a U.S. community college but was being asked for a financial guarantee.

“If he saw a student who needed help, he’d think of a way to help, and also a way to publicize the situation,” Marjorie said.

Bridges said in 1991: “At the heart of teaching are views about the conditions under which students learn best. My own views lead me to emphasize the importance of creating a supportive classroom environment in which mistakes are regarded as learning opportunities and the instructor models the practices and philosophy that he espouses.

“I continually strive to infuse my teaching with these ideals.”

Before coming to Stanford, Bridges taught at Washington University, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include The Incompetent Teacher (1986) and Problem Based Learning for Administrators (1992). He retired in 1999.

In 2010, the University Council for Educational Administration honored Bridges’ lifetime accomplishments by instituting its Edwin M. Bridges Award to recognize contributions to pre-service preparation as well as continuing professional development aimed at school leaders.

Bridges was born Jan. 1, 1934 in Hannibal, Missouri. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Missouri, and earned a PhD in educational administration from the University of Chicago.

“To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a gandy dancer [railroad laborer], an occupation immortalized in a song titled ‘The Gandy Dancers Ball,’” Bridges said in his 2012 address at GSE Commencement.

“Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in box cars on a railroad siding.”

After graduation, Bridges taught high school English, then moved into educational administration. His early jobs taught him that “everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen.”

At the 2012 commencement, he shared the story of a cab driver who urged him to prioritize what was important in life. This was, to Bridges: “1. My family. 2. My students, including teaching and advising. 3. My research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy.”

Thanks to the cabbie’s advice, Bridges said then, “I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. ...

“I can enter the checkout line when my time comes with few regrets.”

Bridges is survived by his wife, Marjorie; his sons Bruce and Brian; his daughter Rebecca Altman; and four grandchildren. His oldest son, Richard, predeceased him.

A memorial will be held Friday, May 10 at 2 p.m. at Menlo Church, 950 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park.


Everyone is welcome to attend my dad’s Celebration of Life on May 10th. If you are interested in attending, please email me at so I can send you an evite. We would like to track RSVPs. Thank you!

Ed Bridges was such a memorable, caring person. I was a staff member in GSE during his Principals' Program that provided so much for those in the trenches. His winning smile and true caring for his students and colleagues was something to behold. Long after I left GSE and the Bay Area, I returned for a luncheon visit. There he was -- all smiles and genuinely happy to see me. He was so real. He and I had several conversations over coffee in the last few years. He was ailing. But, he kept that smile and interest in life. What an incredibly wonderful person. He will be missed.

Ed was a mentor and a great inspiration to me and served on my dissertation committee in higher education, with Lew Mayhew and Jim March. I always enjoyed my conversations with Ed and the independent study course I completed with him on grantsmanship. He was a true scholar/practitioner, whom I tried to emulate in my own career. May he rest in peace.

Best. Professor. Ever. Thanks for making me believe in higher education and the whole PhD process. You were my savior! And thanks for all those bag lunches on your porch!

One of the great joys of my life was knowing and working with Ed Bridges. He was my mentor during the writing of my dissertation and he was always just a good friend. Ed was as good a friend and as good a person of any who walked this earth. I will miss him but in so many ways he is still with me.

Ed served on my dissertation committee. He asked me for a one-on-one discussion a few days before my defense. In the kindest possible way, he peppered me with questions for over an hour about my methods, which were all qualitative and likely somewhat suspect to an avowed positivist. In the moment, he made me feel special, even though I'm sure he was taking the opportunity to test my mettle and form an opinion about what stance he would take in the formal defense. His questions certainly gave me an extra rehearsal. At the end, he gave me his broad smile and told me I had satisfied his questions. He tossed nothing but softballs during my defense. It was one of the more powerful learning experiences of my time at Stanford: a perfect blend of kindness, high standards and expectations, and generosity in devoting time and attention to support student learning.

What an inspiring professor, leader, and human being. I still use his texts, quotes, and lessons in my practice. I know how many he inspired and am so grateful to be in that group of scholars and leaders. Thank you, Ed.

Ed was a towering icon. He taught me what a professor in a school of education needed to become. His passion for anything that he got involved in - in my case it was Problem Based Learning - was infectious. He framed how I would eventually create problem sets for my online courses for California teachers and leaders through multiple generations (all the way to our present-day MOOCs). He was a quiet leader who influence so many of us. Thank you Ed, your legacy will live on and on. - Kenji

I didn't know Professor Bridges personally. I "met" him in his post-retirement book, published in 2010: The Prudent Professor: Planning and Saving for a Worry-Free Retirement from Academe (with his son Brian Bridges). I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I first read it and found it useful as I approached my own "retirement from academe." I still refer to it regularly. Most of all, even though the book is about finance, Professor Bridges' personality comes through in the writing. He includes pithy observations about living well in retirement, and he addresses readers directly, offering friendly advice that is detailed, thoroughly researched, and collegial. One of his book's appendices gives a concise and highly perceptive analysis of TIAA's strengths and weaknesses and ends by offering several points of advice for how the company could improve its services. So while I only know Professor Bridges via his book, he seems very much like the sort of smart and kind colleague I would have like to have known in person.

What can I say? I had a 45 minute coaching session with Ed every Monday morning from 2000 -to week before his passing. And that was more than 15 years after I had graduated from Stanford in 1983! Ed's interest in others, his curiosity and compassion were what I will recall. I see him in my own teaching and research every day. I will always miss Ed.

Philip Hallinger EdD '83

Get the Educator

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Back to the Top