Monthly Archives: August 2014

Slouching Towards a Prestigious Degree: Part II

aa ms 7.23.14

Deep learning is a gift we all want for our children.  For some, the right place for deep learning about the world and life can be an elite university, where time to explore and contemplate is a luxury worth the price of tuition.

But Yale Professor William Deresiewicz warns in his newly published Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, as parents we should be wary that assembly line preparation of  young heroes for college admission may have unintended consequences.

Professor Deresiewicz writes of his students:

So extreme are the admission standards now, so ferocious the competition, that kids who manage to get into elite colleges, by definition, never experienced anything but success.  The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them.  The cost of falling short becomes not merely practical but existential.

Of course, the “success” Professor Deresiewicz references is in regurgitating information and acing standardized tests, not success in real world accomplishments.  What is the effect when report cards and credentials become more important than learning and character, particularly learning how to fail and try again?

Deresiewicz continues:

The result is a violent aversion to risk.  You have no margin for error; so you avoid the possibility you will make an error.  This is one of the reasons that elite education has become so inimical to learning.

At Acton Academy our Eagles experiment, explore, discover — and fail.  The main lesson of the Hero’s Journey is that heroes get knocked down, pick themselves up, dust  off, and go back into the arena, as many times as necessary.  Winning or losing isn’t the issue – it’s the grit, persistence and courage to never give up.

How ironic that encouraging Eagles to fail early, cheaply and often isn’t just great training for life, but is becoming such a rare trait that it might impress the admissions committee of an elite university.

Acton Academy: equipping and inspiring heroes.  No sheep allowed; especially excellent ones.


Prestige versus Competence


Two posts ago, we explored the difference between education and learning.

Education is defined as systematic instruction in an institution.

Learning is quite different: the act of a free individual, acquiring skills or knowledge, through practice, experience  study or instruction.

In the last post, we unpacked the title Teacher.  When we use this term, are we speaking of an idealized Educational Unicorn:  a subject matter expert, pedagogical wizard, guide, mentor and role model all rolled into one superhuman?  Or do we mean an obedient  instructor, either acting with all kindness or as a petty tyrant, tasked with stuffing young minds with facts that can be regurgitated onto a standardized test?

Before you answer these last questions, let’s introduce three more terms.

Competence is the ability to do something effectively or efficiently, or both.

Prestige  is the widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.

Politics are the activities associated with governance, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.

So why does all this matter?   Look no further than Hans Christian Andersen, and his fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Politicians and their institutional educational accomplices appeal to prestige and the perception of achievement,  conveyed by hollow  degrees with the primary intent of protecting adult jobs, with a goal of achieving more power for the politician.

Do you notice any mention of learning or young heroes in the paragraph above?  Is it really in the best interest of the politicians or educational institutions to equip and inspire a competent army of young people to change the world? I don’t think so.

Do we have teachers at Acton Academy?  Well, that’s a loaded question.  What we do have are young heroes, learning to engage the experts, mentors, guides, coaches and role models they will need to find a calling that will change the world.  And the focus is on competency and mastery that matter in the real world, not the hollow prestige prized by the chattering classes.

Words do have meanings.  Definitions do matter.  So do the lives of young heroes.  Far more than the attempts of naked Emperors to subdue them by appealing to the fears of parents, false nostalgia or political illusions.

Do we have Teachers at Acton Academy?


Few issues raise as many questions with parents as the topic of teachers at Acton Academy.

As we create a learning community of young heroes,  mastering the 21st Century Skills of self governance, goal setting and time management, we have a strict rule: “Guides (adults) do not answer questions in the studio.  Never.  Not once.”

We took this drastic step as a form of shock therapy, to break the spell of young people accustomed to regurgitating knowledge dispensed by adult power figures, in return for a gold star or an “A” on a report card.   It seemed to be the only way to convince our young heroes to take charge of their own learning and transformation.

The title “Teacher” has many meanings.  With apologies to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, when I hear a traditional educator or politician use the label “Teacher,”  I want to reply: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

In a Utopian world, a Teacher is a subject matter expert, pedagogical wizard, mentor, guide and wise role model all rolled into one.  In other words,  a Teacher is an Educational Unicorn who offers one-on-one care to every student.

Unfortunately, this is asking too much of flesh and blood human beings, who when overtaxed, overwhelmed or poorly selected and equipped by bureaucratic institutions, all too often become autocratic lecturers at best, and mini-tyrants at worst.

Back to the question at hand.  Do our young heroes at Acton Academy have experts, guides, mentors and role models?  Absolutely.   And the ratio isn’t one adult for twenty five students trapped in an assembly line classroom, but an almost infinite supply of guidance and affirmation, customer tailored for the needs of each of the young heroes who employ them.

Let’s go one step deeper.

Do our Eagles have access to subject matter experts?  Absolutely.  In fact, thanks to the internet, we have 24/7/365 access to the top experts in the world, not only through text, but video as well.  And when they are ready, our Eagles enter into apprenticeships where master entrepreneurs, scientists and craftsman transmit critical tacit knowledge that can only be delivered in a hands-on environment.

Do our Eagles have access to pedagogical innovations?  Absolutely.  There continues to be an explosion of game based technology and simulation tools that our Eagles know as well, if not better than the top pedagogical wizards in the world.  If you doubt this, come see them in action.

Do our Eagles have mentors, guides and role models who care about them?  Absolutely.  First, they are surrounded by fellow Eagles of all ages, who learn from each other, bound by individual covenants.   Add to this Guides, parents, coaches and others in a broader real world community — not to mention the heroes of ages past we study and lift up – and there is a rich tapestry of wisdom and advice to  be summoned.

You see, our young heroes are not forced to submit to institutionally hired adults who must conform to bureaucratic edicts until they become pedantic lecturers or petty tyrants, offering no relief to the children imprisoned in their classrooms.

Our young heroes enter into voluntary covenants, strict agreements with clear consequences that bind together a learning community of free individuals, young people of all ages and adults alike, pledged to help each other find a calling that will change the world.

To help them is an army of adults, engaged to serve the best interests of the learner.

Do we have Teachers at Acton Academy?  It all depends on what you mean by that word.


Precision in Language Matters


Summer break is a good time to return to core beliefs and principles.

One of those principles is that when a word has a precise meaning, it is worth investigating, so as to communicate more clearly.  In other words, definitions matter.

Take the words education and learning.  So often we use them interchangeably, but they have different meanings.

Education: the process of systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.

Learning: the activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something.

Education is fundamentally a coercive act, done to someone, by an institution or system.  It is an act of molding or changing a person, as if they were an object, even if done with the best of intentions.

Learning is an individual choice by a free person.  You cannot force someone to learn anymore than you can force someone to love you.  Submitting voluntarily to the authority of an expert (teacher) is only one of four ways to learn.  The other three ways of learning a skill: studying, practicing and experiencing, are equally if not more powerful.

Why does this matter?  Because when some parents ask me how we “educate” our children at Acton Academy,  I am no longer going to accept the premise of the question.  We do not educate; we provide a learning community within which our young heroes are free to explore, practice and experience life.



More on Apprenticeships, from the Front Lines

aa ms 8.7.14

One of our Eagles reports from Austin’s version of a Children’s Museum that she is learning to:

1.   Show up early, stay late and work hard an entire shift;

2.   Be patient and show courtesy to all customers, even when they are frustrated;

3.   Mediate disagreements;

4.   Lead groups; and

5.  That working with young children might be part of a future calling!

Quite different from most teenager’s summers of sleeping late,  watching television, and wasting so many great chances to learn and grow.





She loves working with the kids. Learning to punch in time card, shifts , clean up, help w birthday parties, patient, courtesy to all, show up early and leave late and smile all day long . Thank you to you to send the info to us !