Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Messiness of Trial and Error Learning, Self Government, and Spontaneous Order

The Acton Academy curriculum would be so much simpler if the adults would just take charge of the teaching: lessons could be planned and delivered; classrooms would be free from disruptions and students could move forward in a lockstep curriculum.

The Acton Academy studio would be much neater if adults were in control: food could be prohibited; janitors could be hired and free time would be quieter and less raucous.

Parents would be much easier to manage in a more well ordered school too, especially if we didn’t consider having families of lifelong learners so important or would stop conducting those pesky weekly surveys of customer satisfaction.

Trial and error learning, self government and spontaneous order are just so messy.  Especially when we are trying to craft a model for 21st century learning.

Those of us who guide in the school make mistakes. Early on, we made it clear that standardized testing wasn’t important – building a curriculum and school around standardized testing stifled curiosity and ingenuity; being “smart” was better than the alternative, but not nearly as important as having character and perseverance.

Yet we wanted to make sure students weren’t too far behind in the basics, so we tested how Eagles were doing in reading, writing and math.  The results were astounding, so suddenly we began touting the rapid advances in learning that we could easily measure, forgetting the far more important “messy” lessons that were being earned and learned.

At one point, a third or so of our older elementary students had maxed out the SAT10 test, so it was inevitable that the rapid advancement in grade levels would slow, as many Eagles approached the limits of the tests, some focused more on one subject than another and others went through natural changes in development and cognitive growth.

Yet now we had to explain to a few anxious parents that even the brightest and most motivated Eagles can’t advance multiple grade levels every year, not if you want the far more important and messy lessons of self government, learning how to learn and apprenticeships to take hold.

Yes, real learning is messy.  So are genuine learning communities.  So are parents and lifelong learners like us trying to find our way.

Yet we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Your Hero’s Journey

Every Eagle at Acton knows that he or she is on a Hero’s Journey that will change the world, in a profound way.

We learn the most as Guides, when we ask important questions.  Today we asked which experiences in the last seven months havebeen the most valuable for each Eagle’s individual Hero’s Journey.

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The results surprised us:

  • First Place:  My Apprenticeship
  • Second Place: Setting and Achieving My Own Goals
  • Third Place: Exhibiting My Work in Published Exhibitions.

The lessons for us:

  1. The real world is far more important than any classroom.
  2. “Learn to Do” and “Learn to Be” trump “Learn to Know” in the 21st century; and
  3. Incentives matter but grades do not.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium…

“If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” is an old movie about a nine country, eighteen day bus trip from London to Rome.

These days, Acton Academy feels a little like the whirlwind tour in the movie, as Eagles are using Google Earth, Tripadvisor, Expedia and other tools to virtually visit and plan trips to England, New Zealand, France, Angola and other countries to prepare to give a world changing speech, in the shoes of a historical figure, at a particular place, at a pivotal time in history.

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Acton Academy – a school where you can visit nine countries in the morning, and still make it back to Austin in time for a 3 PM Socratic Discussion.

Be Amazed

We expect far too little of our young people. Really.  Even when we know they are geniuses-in-the-making.

Our Middle School Eagles just published a Mystery Anthology, and presented two copies to the Elementary Eagles, who have been competing to see who can devour it first.  Today we received this email from on of the ES students:

Hi Ms.Abigail,

I have a blog called Read This! and I recently reviewed your                                 storybook   on there. I am sending you the link so if you would like to read it you can. The link is



This afternoon, we found out a Middle School Eagle will have an editorial published in the Austin paper next week, as a result of her apprenticeship.

Finally, and most powerfully, today we asked our MS Eagles to “stand in the box” as they read the rough draft of their hero speeches.  We even invited in a flock of Elementary Eagles as an audience, to increase the pressure.

Frankly, I didn’t expect much. It was a first draft of a difficult speech, performed by two of our more reserved Eagles, who had struggled with the assignment.  The goal simply was to get them in front of an audience.

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Then the first Eagle began to read, and we were all mesmerized by her words.  And the the second Eagle delivered a powerful plea to save his homeland from invaders.  In both cases, I promise you that anyone within earshot would have answered the calls.

Later, as I was describing the impact of the performances, one of my high powered MBA’s said: “It’s so good that you are teaching them such a critical life skill.”

But you see, we didn’t teach them anything.  Each Eagle knew all along how to write and deliver a moving speech, in an original voice.

An eight year old with a blog, writing book reviews.

A twelve year old publishing an editorial in a major metropolitan newspaper.

Two moving speeches – each from a first draft.

Today, as most days, I didn’t teach at all. I learned something new.

Be amazed.

The Alchemists

Being on a Hero’s Journey is not easy at any age.  Heroes face challenges, they fail and get up again, they take risks, they show vulnerability.  And they use their natural gifts and the tools they’ve developed along the way to guide themselves forward.

Changing the world is hard work, as is writing a speech that you’ll soon deliver in public.  Planning a trip for the first time can be a tremendous challenge, but even if you’ve done it before, troubleshooting all the potential pitfalls and organizing myriad details is hard work.  And can be extremely…. stressful.

Some say young people should be protected from stress; others say they should “learn to deal with it”.  Maybe there’s some truth in both approaches, but the Eagles have found a third way.  Drawing upon the work they did finding and understanding their own “shadow selves”, and then finding the gold in those shadows, Eagles are teaching themselves and each other to find the gold in the stress and transform those negative feelings into tools they can use to increase their focus and commitment to the tasks at hand.   Alchemize stress into productivity, using their gifts and the tools they’ve aquired along their journey so far? If anyone can do it, it’s the Eagles.  Foremost among those tools:  friendship.


Why do we care so much about the education of children?

Why do adults care so much about the education of children?

  • Do we want to build a better society?
  • Or are we more interested in showcasing our children or disciples, to make ourselves look better?
  • Or perhaps we seek to relive our own childhoods, to right old wrongs.

None of these are legitimate reasons.  Children are not raw material for social architects or props for a “parent of the year” contest or tools for middle aged psychodramas. Children are precious beings, each a genius, with an individual hero’s journey.

It is surprisingly easy to forget this, but children can sense when the motives of a teacher, coach or parent shift, and they move from being curious and joyful in learning to suspicious and guarded.

Better to leave them to explore on their own than to try and mold them for the wrong reasons.

Our class journey into History became 3-dimensional for the Eagles on Friday, when they left campus for an expedition to the Alamo.  For an hour and a half, the Middle Schoolers explored the Alamo with an audio tour tool to use as they wished.  This was a terrific opportunity for them to exercise their skills as independent learners, sometimes exploring in pairs or clusters, sometimes going off alone to study details that grabbed only their attention. Some spent more time in the shrine, some became absorbed in the museum displays… and quite a few were captivated by the Koi.

At a given time, we all rejoined for a guided Alamo Battlefield tour filled with stories of early Texas history and details about the battle.  As always, Eagles came up with probing and creative questions that took the group deeper into the lives of the heroes and bystanders whose lives were changed by the events and decisions made.

Then a well-earned lunch on the Riverwalk, in a restaurant chosen by the winners of our series of History Challenges.  The two winners also had the privilege of choosing a streamlined menu with options within our budget, and the responsibility of navigating the group to the chosen establishment.  (Yes, we made it!).

The ride home gave all a chance to reflect and share surprises and take-aways from the Alamo.  Oh, and (at least in one car) to listen to music at exceptional volume.  Who says hard work and fun can’t go hand in hand?

Learning to communicate

How do you learn to write a powerful speech?  To use your ideas and words to change the world?

Many schools focus on grammar, making sure every apostrophe and comma is in the right place.  Certainly we want our Eagles to be able to write and speak in correct English, but we care even more ideas and having an original voice.

So how does one learn to write and speak in a way that changes the world?

First, we believe by seeking out,  experiencing and critiquing world class examples, in the case of a speech, The Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

That’s why we are drawing inspiration from Corbett Harrison, a teacher who has developed a terrific set of modular tools that students can use alone or with peers to polish their ideas and words.

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We’ll break down these critiques into six areas:

Idea – How original and powerful is the idea?

Structure/Organization – Are the ideas are sequenced and arranged in a way that is easy to follow?


  • Voice – Does the author’s style make you want to read more?
  • Sentence Fluency – Are there interesting sentences of different lengths?
  • Word choice – Are the words vivid and memorable?
  • Convention – Is the grammar correct?

Eagles will practice force ranking, discussing and providing evidence of these traits not only for Mentor Texts – great works that are provided or found, but also applying them in their own pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing – all with the goal of publishing a powerful piece or giving a world changing speech.

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In the revision stage, Eagles will learn to self critique, and solicit and deliver peer reviews and expert critiques.

Writing, speaking and communicating through the visual arts are all skills that are “learned by doing,” in deep relationship with others, while referencing great works of the past.

Note that this requires learners with the courage to think, draft, revise, edit and perform – but not a teacher, at least in the traditional sense.

The Speech Quest

At the end of this six week session, our Eagles will deliver a world changing speech: standing in the shoes of a historical figure, at a particular time, in a particular place.

Learning to move people, to call them to action, is an important skill for a hero.  But the Speech Quest is about more than writing, polishing and delivering a powerful speech.

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Eagles also will be required to use Expedia, Trip Advisor and other travel related sites to create an itinerary and budget for a multi-day trip to visit the city where their speech will be delivered, including touring historical sites, museums and other point of interest.

While planning the trip, Eagles will make a “bare bones,” “luxury” and “actual” budget, so they can learn to make the difficult trade offs in time, money, breadth, depth and comfort that traveling requires.

Also included in the Speech Quest is the requirement to create a Google Earth guided tour of the city, including street level views of the sites to be visited, including pictures, images and historical commentary (if you haven’t tried Google Earth – it’s an amazing tool.)

Even the introduction to these tools and the various adventures and expositions has raised important questions, like:

“Why do we travel?”

“Is it for new adventures and new experiences or to learn deeply about a culture?”

“Is it better to spend a little time in many places, staying in hotels, or to spend an entire week or month living with one local family?”

Learning to ask questions is as important as the final product.  So is making difficult tradeoffs between time, money and goals. So is learning new cutting edge tools.

All a part of becoming a hero in the 21st century.

Changing the world through a speech

“I have a dream…”

“Four score and seven years ago…”

“Ask not what you your country can do for you…”

There’s only one reason to give a speech: You want to change the world.

No photos from your latest family vacation; no boring PowerPoint slides to control your audience’s attention; no droning lectures to put people to sleep.  Simply a moving speech that moves people to action.

Six weeks from now, each Eagle will deliver a world changing speech, as a historical figure, at a pivotal point in time, on a subject he or she feels passionate about.  It will be an original speech, drafted, revised and crafted over a six week period.

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Today several Eagles were called forward to stand “in the box” for ten minutes to speak on something they care passionately about.  The lesson: giving a great speech takes passion AND serious preparation.  You cannot just “wing it.”

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Next came two hours of Improv training and practice.  Because giving a world changing speech means letting go of your fears and saying “yes” to being comfortable being yourself on stage.

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At the end of the day, our Eagles went to the Elementary School to present a gift of two copies of last session’s Mystery Anthology, and give each author a chance to pitch his or her story by reading a few lines.

How do you learn to give a world changing speech?  You start by having the courage to get into the arena.

Welcome back – at least to a few

Today was our first day back from a two week Spring Break, at least for a few Eagles.

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As you’ll see from the photo above, we had quite a few “no shows” this morning. Sleeping in? Spring Fever?  A flu epidemic?

Not hardly.

You see, many of our Eagles are working at their apprenticeships.  For some, what was meant to be a four day experiment has turned into a two week (or longer) assignment.

One Eagle emailed last night about her apprenticeship:

“I’m glad to say that  things have been great!  I’m learning about all of the positions and roles in the communication department, sitting in on meetings and learning SO much.  Everybody here is so kind and it’s inspiring how they’re doing something meaningful.

In fact, tomorrow I will be working so I won’t be able to come to school.  Hopefully, for the rest of the week I’ll be able to come for at least part of the school day.”

Later I heard from her mother that this Eagle hated to miss the first day back, but “had a 2 PM meeting that was too important to miss.”

Eleven years old, and already too busy changing the world to rush back to school.

Don’t worry. She’s several years ahead of grade level, so this industrious Eagle — working on the side — is still likely to finish her high school academic requirements while she is still in middle school.