Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Letter to Future Acton Academy Founders


Dear Acton Academy Founder,

Here are some words of caution, learned the hard way.

Your job is to provide the tools for young heroes to build a Learner Driven Community and to continually champion the beliefs that allow such a community to flourish.

It is an Eagle’s decision when to learn and at what pace. You must respect this right. It is a parent’s right and responsibility to encourage, set limits and offer encouragement (and yes, occasionally extrinsic rewards!)

You must insist on due process in the studio, and that accomplishments and setbacks are transmitted honestly and transparently to Eagles, and through Eagles to their parents. When an Eagle receives low scores from peers or doesn’t advance as quickly as hoped, there may be push back from parents. Seeing your child in pain is difficult for any parent, and it’s hard to resist the impulse to intervene, especially when a child claims to be been treated unfairly.

No matter how well-meaning parent intervention may be, you must insist that an Eagle be allowed to experience the natural consequences of a poor decision. In other words, as long as due process has been followed, you must back up Council when an Eagle violates the norms of the group and is held accountable by his or her peers. This is one of the key principles of the Hero’s Journey and a cornerstone of a Learner Driven Community.

Life is unfair, and sometimes life in the studio will be unfair too. But it is important for Eagles to learn to deal with failure on their own – and yes occasionally to deal with unfairness – especially when it’s in a caring, nurturing community that’s almost always more fair than the real world.

Do not allow yourself to be drawn into the web of family dynamics between parents or between a parent and an Eagle. When a parent wants advice about an Eagle’s behavior in the studio, do not give into temptation. This is especially true if you are being asked for advice as a “model parent” or expert.

If you offer such advice, you are stepping into a minefield where you do not belong – take it from us as Acton Founders. You are not a financial advisor, marriage counselor or psychologist for your families. Nor are you an Uber-Teacher who should resolve disputes between parents, Eagles and Guides.

How do you set up healthy channels of communication between Eagles and parents, and parents and the community? Here’s our current plan:

1. Insist that Eagles mark their progress in an honest and transparent way.

In our case, Eagles report how hard they are working (Weekly Points); Leadership Development (360 Peer Reviews) and the delivery of excellent work (Badges.) With permission from an Eagle, a parent can use the Points Tracker to monitor progress and set more explicit short term goals, if necessary.

 2. Ask that all communication concerning Eagles and parents though a common email address so all necessary Guides and Owners are informed.

It is important that all communications are out in the open and are preserved. This way, you can note long term patterns of behavior.

3. Equip Eagles to solve their own problems.

Ask parents who want to intervene for an Eagle or who request a Parent-Guide-Owner conference to instead ask their Eagle to submit such concerns to Council, in writing. Ask Council to reply in writing. This preserves a record of all communications.

 4. Refer continuing family issues to an open forum.

If the issue isn’t resolved satisfactorily, a parent may request an open meeting between the Eagle, Council and any other involved parties, where parents may listen but not participate. In other words, an Eagle must address issues openly with peers.

5. Involve longtime Acton Parents.

Create a panel of longtime Acton parents, and involve them as early as possible when a family is struggling. If a family has concerns that cannot be addressed by a Family Badge, a Parent Running Partner or an open Parent Meeting, the panel of longtime parents can make recommendations to Owners as to what actions need to be taken, including asking a family to leave the community.   Make sure all parties will understand that confidentiality will be waived in most circumstances, so the community can be informed of the reasons a family is asked to leave.

Bottom line, your job as an Acton Academy Founder is to provide the tools for young heroes to build a Learner Driven Community, ensure that due process is followed and champion the beliefs that allow such a community to flourish. You should refrain from becoming involved in family matters that are beyond your expertise.

Our Eagles are learning how to build healthy families and communities. There’s no better way to help them than to draw clear boundaries for yourself, to provide opportunities for them to fail and learn.


Acton Academy Austin

Freedom Levels: A Ticket to Soar


Our Eagles are self-directed, lifelong learners who want to change the world. But learning to use freedom wisely takes time and practice. So how can an Eagle prove she is ready to advance?

Our solution: providing a series of well-defined steps, called Freedom Levels, that mark an Eagle’s progress all the way from “joining the tribe” to “launching into the real world.”  As soon as you prove you can handle more freedom and responsibility,  you receive it.

Our Acton Academy Freedom Levels replace the arbitrary grades and grade levels of a traditional school.  After all, why should a young hero be held back by a calendar?

Freedom Levels measure progress in three ways:

  1. Weekly Points measure how many hours of intense work an Eagle invests each week, through Reading, Writing. Math, Civilization and Quests. Every hour of intense work equals approximately 20 points;
  2. 360 Peer Review Scores and comments provide a holistic view of character development and leadership skills on a 1 to 5 scale;
  3. Badges showcase accomplishments, showing apprenticeship employers, college admissions officers and investors the excellent work an Eagle can deliver.

Work hard; show evidence of a strong character and deliver excellent work  — and you gain more freedom and responsibility.  It’s that simple.

Below is a summary of the Freedom Levels for Middle School and Launchpad (Elementary Eagles have their own set of Freedom Levels.)


Freedom Levels also mark when an Eagle proves she is ready to advance to a new studio, which can happen at the beginning of any session.

Yes, some of us may have difficulty giving up grades, grade levels and annual promotions. But institutional familiarity seems a small price to pay for allowing Eagles the freedom to develop skills, habits and character at their own pace, until they are ready to soar.

The Wisdom of the Tribe


Have you received 360 Survey results from subordinates and peers? If so, you know direct feedback can sting. At times, comments seem unfair or hurtful.  After all, we all like to believe the best about ourselves.

Yet, it is difficult to become a better leader without frank, honest feedback.

At Acton Academy, we believe in the wisdom of the Tribe.  We believe 360 Surveys are invaluable when properly gathered and delivered.  In fact, we think peer feedback provides a more complete picture of leadership growth in an Eagle than the observations of an adult Guide, who has fewer personal interactions and comes with his or her own blind spots.

Are Acton Academy 360 Surveys perfect?  Absolutely not.  Any tool, whether a screwdriver, a computer or a peer review must be used correctly.  we need to equip Eagles to provide more accurate ratings and more encouraging comments. And we must continue to offer leadership tools and dispute resolution processes to build and strengthen authentic relationships.

Despite occasional missteps, we are committed to honesty and transparency, even when it stings.  We see peer review as the first step towards better communication, more tolerance and stronger bonds, even in a Tribe with fiercely held individual beliefs.

We believe conflicts are a part of being human, and far better dealt with in the open.  We want each Eagle see himself or herself as others see them, not to encourage conformity, but to make measured choices about words and actions. And while 360 Survey results are confidential, we encourage Eagles to share peer feedback with parents,

Guides never answer questions. So don’t be surprised when you ask “How is my Eagle doing?” you are referred back to a 360 Survey.    You see, we trust the wisdom of the Tribe – especially when it is a closely knit tribe of young heroes who are destined to change the world.

Measuring Progress in a Learner Driven Community


So how does a Learner Driven Community measure progress, without dampening the joy of self-directed learning? Not an easy task.

Traditional grades and report cards have no place in a Learner Driven Community:

  • Each Eagle needs to advance at his or her own pace, discovering individual gifts and exploring passions instead of being marched lockstep through grade levels;
  • World class work cannot be measured by arbitrary letter grades or standardized tests that place little value on 21st Century Skills;
  • Young heroes need to be encouraged and held accountable by peers and parents, not judged by an institutional framework.

At Acton Academy, we focus on three simple numbers that celebrate hard work, leadership and real accomplishments:

Weekly Points measure how many hours of intense work an Eagle dedicated last week to Core Skills and Quests. Every hour of intense work equals 20 points.

360 Peer Reviews and comments show how an Eagle is forging his or her character and developing as a leader;

Number of Badges Earned showcasing real world accomplishments and peer reviewed against rigorous standards of excellence.

Eagles set goals in each of these areas, and measure progress. Parents use our online Points Tracker to dig more deeply into specific areas, giving Eagles the freedom to fail, learn and recover, while reserving the right to offer consequences, rewards and encouragement that fit with a family’s value..

Three simple numbers. Measuring hard work, character and high quality work. Turning control back to Eagles and parents.  Trusting each Eagle to advance at his or her own pace.

Surely a much better system than a report card and standardized tests.

Must a Hero conquer fear to find true love and understanding?

Creating  Overarching Questions is difficult.

The Overarching Question must raise an important philosophical question; resonate with each Eagle’s Hero’s Journey and bring together a year’s worth of learning for Elementary, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles.

After much discussion and debate with Eagles and Guides, our 2015-16 Overarching Question will be:

“Must a Hero conquer fear to find true love and understanding?”

What does “true love” mean?   Which true love matters most – love of self or Tribe? How do I cultivate a love of Science; Reading or Math that will last a lifetime?  Which fears must I conquer first?  How can I courageously speak of them and still feel safe and supported?

It will be a challenging year, on so many levels.

Wrapping Up: “When should a Hero submit to authority?”

Last week, we celebrated the end of the 2014-15 year with a Ranch Trip and Mini-Exhibition for Session Seven.

ranch 2ranch 6 ranch 5

At the ranch, Eagles competed on the obstacle course, had a long swim at the swimming hole, an unforgettable finish to the Embracing Life: Facing Death Quest with Iba’s Goat Ceremony and a sunrise celebration.

ex 2 ex 1 ex 5

On Friday, we returned for a Mini-Exhibition of SOLEs, DIY (Do-it-Yourself) projects and EdX course presentations. Do-it-yourself electric bikes; SOLEs about black holes and this review of an EdX course: ““Yes, my Python programming course from MIT is ‘pretty challenging.’”

We ended the day with lessons learned, focusing on “embracing life and facing death;” the trials and tribulations of self-guided learning and deep reflections on this year’s Overarching Question: “When should a Hero submit to authority?”

Whew!  So much learning to celebrate, in so little time.

Higher Mathematics at Acton Academy


A University of Texas PhD who is considered one of the country’s shining stars in Inquiry Based STEM Learning (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) just completed a review of our Eagle’s progress in math.

The verdict? All Eagles are “doing well” – and many exceptionally well. For example, several Launchpadders have mastered over 700 Khan skills and are well on their way to completing all Khan math, through advanced Differential Calculus.

Even those who seem frustrated were deemed to be in the top 25% of all math learners their age, which is consistent with the progress we’ve seen on the SAT10 tests. A remarkable result since we haven’t taught any math since Acton Academy started.

Still, some Eagles are having more trouble with Khan Academy than others, for the following reasons:

  •  Difficulties with Khan Academy itself: choosing the best strategies; bored with the videos or concerned that the videos don’t cover all necessary topics.
  •  Khan Academy’s definition of mastery may be more rigorous than traditional schools, suggesting that the Eagles’ skills may be even stronger than the comparisons suggest;
  •  Difficulty moving from a teacher directed classroom to the self-paced, largely independent, learning environment at Acton Academy.
  •  An overall low interest in mathematics in a few Eagles.

The report concludes that “Acton Academy, because of its unique model, fiercely dedicated staff, and committed Eagles and parents, is in a position to….develop a comprehensive mathematics learning system that addresses:

  1.  Appropriate credentials for college admissions,
  2.  Internalization and application of mathematical thinking;
  3. Relationships between mathematics and other courses of study. “


The report calls this the “brass ring of math education” and goes on to recommend Acton Academy:

  • Inform parents and Eagles of Acton Academy’s math badge system;
  • Continue leveraging Khan Academy as a tool;
  • Allow high quality online courses from providers like EdX (Harvard-MIT) as a substitute for Khan Academy in upper level courses;
  • Create comprehensive math quests of varying levels of intensity;
  • Incorporate mathematics or mathematics history into other subject areas;
  • Create systems to promote strong peer communication and collaboration in mathematics;
  • Continue to take exams like Stanford 10 for comparison and college readiness reasons;
  • Encourage Eagles to seek expert content knowledge from parents, peers or other experts to supplement their learning.

The following graduation standards were proposed for Eagles who want to apply to competitive universities:

Math Credentials

  • Algebra I;
  • Geometry;
  • Algebra II;
  • statistics and probability;
  • introduction to proofs;
  • mathematical modeling;
  • Differential calculus;
  • Integral calculus

  • Algebra I;
  • Geometry;
  • Algebra II;
  • statistics and probability;
  • mathematical modeling


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the following best practices for Khan Academy success were recommended:

  •  Have a plan: determine the number of skills per week you need to complete a mission by a certain date.
  • Consistency counts: the most commonly referenced strategy was practicing skills on Monday/Tuesday and level up or do mastery challenges Wednesday – Friday. Other similar strategies work as well.
  • When pursuing skills in order, use the skills list on the left hand of the screen, red square (image 1) as opposed to the queue on the right hand side.
  • Understand your own signals for “being stuck”. Have strategies for breaking up the situation. See “Being Stuck” later in this paper for examples.
  • Work the mathematics on paper in a deliberate, organized manner and make this a requirement for badges.
  • Have alternate sources of mathematical information handy. See Alternate Learning Sources later in this report.

Bottom line, we still have a lot to learn about math in Learner Driven Communities, but the Eagles are doing quite well.