Category Archives: Testing

The pros and cons of adaptability

Standardized tests for highly unique individuals?  Hmm.  Data gathering is interesting, and Eagles, parents and guides share curiosity as to how the learning that happens at Acton translates when compared to schools that “teach to the test”.  The Eagles underwent zero prep for these tests, and are not used to working with a timer ticking down the seconds.  “Is the point to understand the material, or to check a box before the timer runs out?”  one Eagle wondered aloud.  The vibe in the learning studio Monday morning was icky with stress.Image

Tuesday morning was better.  A fun Othello craze swept the room during free time.  Venting during debriefing discussions seemed to help. One Eagle who’d been in tears on Monday wore a relaxed smile on Tuesday.


But adaptability can be bittersweet.  A Krishnamurti quote comes to mind: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  A bit dramatic for these circumstances perhaps, but the worst part of the testing process from a cultural standpoint has naught to do with the tests themselves and everything to do with the disintegration  of the disciplined independence the Eagles have so carefully cultivated over the course of the year.  Heroes in charge of their own destiny reverting to asking permission to use the restroom?  Alas.  But one morning of testing was all it took (and we’ve got three).  Fortunately, the days come fortified with afternoons as well- stay tuned for a more upbeat report on what’s been happening during the less robotic part of the week (hint:  speaking of independence…).

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.

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.

Ending week four

“Is this really the end of the fourth week?” asked one Eagle as we packed up for the day.

“Yes, hard to believe,” I replied. “Did time go by this quickly at your old school?”

“Gosh no.  School days just seemed to drag on forever.”

I remembered the words of one student, the first week of class: “Fun and hard don’t have to be opposites.”  No, they don’t.  Our Eagles have proved that fun and hard work can go hand and hand, when you hand the freedom and responsibility over to a class.

Our Eagles spent most of Friday finishing the last of the standardized tests, working on their MyHJ ‘Stars and Steppingstones” interview preparation and finishing up their scientific paradigm videos and time lines.

Below is a picture of the beginnings of their Paradigm timeline, which captures the fourteen paradigm shifts they’ve independently researched.

Eagles also – entirely on their own – made a list of thank you notes to write, assigned authors, and completed the letters.

Next week we begin to slow the learning rhythm in anticipation of the end of the session, launching the Galileo Trial Debate experience on Monday and continuing core skills, but otherwise beginning to synthesize the learning portfolios for Friday’s exhibition and celebration.

You see, a learning community isn’t like a factory.  It’s more like a living organism, with energy lows and highs and patterns, a combination of the individual learning paths of our young flesh and blood heroes in the making.  There are times to work hard, and times to slow and reflect.

As a Guide, you can lightly touch with an encouraging word and shape around the edges, but mainly you are along for a glorious ride.  The sooner we Guides realize this, the better.

Lights, Camera, Eagles

Eagles are juggling up to five personal priorities/goals at the moment; some using the leadership rubrics we discussed, others struggling.  Together, the class exceeded its goals of 140 Khan math skills added this week, but two Eagles failed to reach their minimum of 20 skills, so they did not earn the privilege of free time.

At Acton Academy, just like the real world, failure happens often, and is celebrated if it’s early and inexpensive, and leads to valuable lessons.

Friday we continued with our series of standardized reading and math tests, that we hope to wrap up soon (we consider these tests a necessary evil.)

On a positive note, Abigail introduced the new film project, our major writing and communication core skills challenge for the fall, which will involve pitching; story boarding, writing and shooting a film, the be show at the AAMS film festival in December.

Eagles watched trailers from the Toronto Film Festival and as they thought about their films and discussed:  What is a film?  What is a story? Is your life a story?  What makes a good story? They explored the beginning, middle, end of a story and turning points, before dividing into groups to share ideas to compare and contrast various films.

Charlie, Ellie, Jack were elected to the first Governing Council, in a close contest, where all candidates were asked to read selections from The Prince warning about flattery. Next week – to the ranch, to apply science and math to the real world, in search of new paradigms!

Finishing strong – week one

Today marked an important turning point for our Eagles.

During the morning, Eagles worked on the ERB standardized tests.  While necessary, the teacher directed nature of the tests soon had our self directed heroes reverting to a teacher driven paradigm: they stopped thinking for themselves, started treating Guides as teachers and began asking the most minute questions – asking at every step to be told what to do next.

Add to this a messy classroom and a rowdy outburst after “free time” that approached Lord of the Flies level chaos, and you would have thought it was time for the adults in the room to re-establish some order.

Hayes approached a Guide and asked if some discipline could be imposed.  When informed that this was the role of class leaders, and that Guides would not intervene, an important transformation took place:

Hayes called an impromptu meeting of the leaders of the school (everyone immediately volunteered.)  In just a few minutes, order was reestablished by the Eagles themselves, and they soon had a self organized system for keeping the classroom clean and tidy – with no intervention by the Guides.

What’s this have to do with learning reading, writing and math?  Everything.  Near the end of the day, I heard one of our Eagles say to another: “I’m upset the weekend is coming up. I never believed I could miss being in school.”

Now that our Eagles realize that learning is their responsibility, get ready for them to soar.

Above: Anna leads a discussion on the “Student Covenants” and “Rules of Engagement” that will be used to self govern the class.