Category Archives: Guides

Five Rules for Would-be-Guides

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How we equip and inspire Guides at Acton Academy?

Becoming a Guide is difficult, but it’s not complicated.  Here are five simple principles to follow:

1.  Make a deep and personal covenant with each Eagle.

Eagles must know you care about them.  That’s why a Guide’s first task is to memorize each Eagle’s name, face and personal history before stepping into the studio.

The second task is a five to ten minute one-on-one meeting to listen to each Eagle’s dreams and set the learning contract.  the message is: “If you pledge to live up to your promises to try hard and never give up and practice intentionality, I’ll be by your side as you work to make your dream a reality.”

2.  Praise effort.

Praising results – for example, saying “great job” – may seem innocent enough, but it sends the message: “I’ll be grading your work.”  Instead, praise hard work and demonstrations of character, and the quality of the work will soar, with far less stress for you and the Eagles.

3.   Never answer a question.

Never.  Ever. Not for any reason.  Not one. And when you do, admit the mistake publicly, apologize, analyze what went wrong and find ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

4.  Offer questions, choices, natural consequences and processes to try.

Instead of answers, offer a deeper question.  Or a choice of actions, with natural consequences described by you (or even better, an Eagle.)   Or offer a choice of processes that will lead to the acquisition of a new skill, a character trait, or both.

5. Count slowly to 100 before intervening. Then count to 100 again.

This is the most difficult task of all.  When the studio slips into chaos, it is natural to want to step in and restore order.  It feels like torture to let the bedlam continue.  But just wait; count to 100 and then count to 100 again, if necessary, before intervening.  With enough patience, leaders will emerge to restore order.  Do not rob these young heroes of the opportunity to lead their Learning Communities and practice self governance just because of your ego or need for control.

Being a Guide is hard, but not complicated.  Just like being a parent.

But I Want to Do Your Homework


It hurts to watch your child struggle, whether it is with a math problem, a poorly written story, or even worse, a social issue or that first crush.

So we offer a little assistance; perhaps even a tutor.  Before long, the parental ego kicks in.

Empathy is a skill we all need to model as parents; no child should feel alone or without emotional support.  So we need to acknowledge struggles and frustrations.

But in a world where the best tutors and teachers are only a click away, and with our Eagles surrounded by a caring culture of peer collaboration, direct help is no longer a necessity; perhaps even harmful for heroes in the long run.

So next time you are tempted to intervene, pull up Judith Newman’s New York Times piece But I Want to Do Your Homework.  If nothing else, you’ll have a good laugh.

Please, can it be my turn to pick up the trash?

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What to do? Strong spring winds and lots of Eagle play spread small pieces of trash across the campus.

Should Guides pick it up?  Surely not, because the campus belongs to the Eagles.

Should we order the Eagles to police the area?  That wouldn’t be very Acton-like.

Instead, the Middle School Eagles were treated to a challenge.   Tom Sawyer convinced a friend that fence painting was a special honor.  Could they concoct a scheme to inspire Elementary Eagles to pick up the trash?

The MS Eagles went to work.  A game was created. Roles set. Rewards invented.

Soon eager cries were heard downstairs.  Before long, bags full of trash appeared and the campus was pristine.

Let’s just call it a double-Tom Sawyer moment.

Two more governance experiments

Yes, everyone dislikes Eagle Bucks and those who ask for them.  Few people have warm and fuzzy feelings about petty regulations or overzealous Mall Cops on Segways.  Plus governance disputes seem to eat up far too much time.

Yet without a few simple rules and small fines, what would happen to a society?  Would peer pressure alone prevent people from driving at dangerous speeds or rolling through stop signs?

We have just finished Part One of a two part experiment by abolishing Eagle Bucks for up to two weeks, starting last Monday.  Bottom line, we only made it eight days.  The vote to reinstate Eagle Bucks was nearly unanimous, and even some of the harshest Eagle Bucks critics have changed their minds.

Once we digest the lessons from this experiment, we may try one in the opposite direction – arming Guides with Red Cards.  During this experiment, if a Guide sees an Eagle violating a rule adopted by the community, the perpetrator and his or her Running Partner will each owe double the normal penalty.  And Guides will reserve the right to prospectively raise the fines for certain violations that keep occurring.

The idea here is that Eagles will have an excuse for asking for legitimate Eagle Bucks.  Either I ask you, or both of us risk owing a double fine if a Guide has to intervene.  This way, it becomes easier for someone who doesn’t care about popularity to draw crisp boundaries on certain types of disruptive behavior.

If this experiment proves valuable, eventually the Guide’s Red Card prerogative would be transferred to an older Launchpad Eagle, removing adults (but not authority) from the governance structure.

Broken Windows at Acton


In the late 1980s, New York City was a mess.  Trash filled many streets; aggressive “squeegee men” stopped cars, ostensibly washing windows, but really shaking down motorists for a protection payment; murder rates rose to all time highs.

A new Police Chief took over, and instituted a policy of “no broken windows,” a theory proposed by economist James Q Wilson that predicted that focusing on minor transgressions would lead to a reduction in more serious crimes.

The police cracked down on the squeegee men, subway toll jumpers and graffiti artists; before long violent crime began to recede too, a trend that eventually made New York City one of the safest large cities in America.

Last week we faced a “broken windows” moment at Acton Academy Middle School, when it came to light that several Eagles had been turning in “less than best work,” playing computer games during school and a host of other violations in the honor code.  A rude response when being asked for an Eagle Buck had become the norm for some.

This lead to a morning launch discussing:

  • The Tragedy of the Commons – Common spaces not defended by private property rights or law will soon be abused.
  • The Rule of Law – Everyone should be treated the same under the law, no matter how popular, rich or powerful.
  • Broken Windows – Attending to small transgressions discourages larger problems later on; and
  • Logrolling – How a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” approach to lowering standards can have a devastating long term impact.

Yet even after this launch, standards continued to slip even more noticeably.

Eagles asked for a 360 Review, an anonymous survey designed to provide frank feedback to every member of the studio – from the Eagles to the Eagles.  From the results – posted in a way that protected the identity of each person but allowed you to know your own scores – it became clear that there was a real problem with some.

What could we do about this as Guides?  Our only right under our covenant with Eagles is to point out a slippage in standards, and ask them to remedy the problem.  We tried that, but some of the leaders in the class had become so fed up with the transgressing group that they chose to  focus on their own work instead of trying to lift up the community.

A few of the Eagles who tried to hold the line were treated more and more rudely by some.

Yes, in some ways this was normal adolescent behavior in America.   A “whatever” attitude and being “too cool for school” and mailing in work are a natural defense again the sting of failure.  Plus, everyone makes mistakes.

But Acton Academy is supposed to be different.  A place where high standards and best work are celebrated; where a warm community cares enough to tell you the truth; where failing and making mistakes is celebrated – if you admit them and honestly try to improve.

The transgressions so far had been fairly minor, though several Eagles had begun to practice deceit and dishonesty on an all too regular basis.  It was a reminder that here’s no such thing as perfect person, only people who make mistakes and admit them and those who keep making the same mistakes until they turn into more serious problems.

Because we thought this was a serious matter of principle and a turning point for the community, the Guides went on strike.  We left the studio and promised to return once Eagles had put their house in order (while watching from a few hundred feet away, using our new video system to make sure everyone remained safe.)

The Eagle leaders leaped into action: designing a new Honor Code, Eagle Buck fines and clear due process and ultimate consequences clear for those who continued to violate community standards.


There would be a “reconciliation moment ,” inspired by Post Apartheid South Africa.  Anyone who admitted a serious honor code violation, in detail, and offered an apology would immediately be forgiven and have the slate wiped clean.

The due process for someone who kept choosing to act outside the contract was made crystal clear.  A serious honor code violation, if not immediately disclosed or later cleared by an appeal, would result in an Eagle being sent home for a minimum of one day.  Repeated smaller transgressions that resulted in someone being in a negative Eagle Buck position for longer than three weeks would count the same as one honor code violation.

After the third serious honor code violation and third time being sent home, an Eagle would not be invited back (for every eighteen months of a clean record, one past honor code violation would be erased, giving each Eagle the chance to earn back a clean slate.)

None of us like to hear that our children have done something wrong.  But just like adults, they will make mistakes all the time, some of them ethical mistakes.  It’s by learning from the natural consequences of these mistakes, and asking for forgiveness, that a strong character is forged.

Honesty;  transparency and caring enough not to let a friend get away with a lie, even if it is a small one.  Then genuinely forgiving others when they stray, as we hope they’ll forgive us. These are the building blocks that make for a strong community.

We will continue to hold the Eagles to their promises and the high standards they set.  And we will celebrate when our children’s friends hold them accountable for small transgressions, before sex, alcohol, drugs and driving make the consequences far more severe.







Exhibitions and Eagles: “May I please do more work?”

This week our Eagles will host an exhibition, including each performing a “Four Minute Speech in the Shoes of a Scientific Hero” in front of a roomful of adults.

Recently several Eagles requested to change the speech criteria to “no less than four minutes and up to eight minutes.”  Quite a few had done so much research that they wanted more time to tell their hero’s story.

So what did we do? After all, Guides don’t answer questions.

We decided to turn the organization of the entire exhibition to the Eagles.  The only two constraints:

(1) The total time could not exceed one hour, out of  respect for our guests, and

(2) Speeches will be judged on “value per minute,” to encourage conciseness.

Speak up. Get more responsibility. Just like the real world.


How many questions should a Guide answer in a perfect day?

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We recently held a reception at Acton Academy for  The over one hundred Disruptors and Educators who attended were treated to a Quest: a scavenger hunt to discover the answers to a series of provocative questions about Acton.

At one point in the presentation, the Eagles took over answering questions from the crowd. In a word, they were “brilliant.” Or as one parent put it: “It was magical.”

There were some humorous moments too.

One visitor couldn’t believe the Eagle’s answers were spontaneous.  He kept asking: “How did you stage that so perfectly?” (Answer: We trusted them.)

Later, a traditional educator, seeking to answer a question on the scavenger hunt list, turned to an Elementary Studio Guide: “So how many questions does a Guide answer in a perfect day”

In perfect Socratic Guide mode, he replied: “How many do you think a Guide answers in a perfect day?”

“At least 200,” she said.

Her companion disagreed: “At least 400. Maybe 500.”

The Acton Guide provided a clue: “We’ve been having a contest that records how many questions we answer in a week.  You can see the results in the Elementary studio.”

On a whiteboard in the Elementary studio was the answer: “Ms. Terri  2.  Ms. Samantha 1. Mr Brian 11.” (Eagles had been trying to trick Mr. Brian all week by catching him off guard with personal questions.)

The two traditional teachers were heard saying: “I just don’t understand how this place works.”

Neither do we.  We just know that it does.

Finding Apprentice Guides Who Will Change the World

It is not easy to become an Apprentice Guide at Acton Academy, because it’s our most valuable position.

All Apprentice Guides go through the following eight step Hiring Funnel:

Step One.  Submit a resume, cover letter and answer three questions

Step Two.  An Email interview requiring extensive research about Acton Academy and answering six questions

Step Three.   A twenty minute phone interview with a Lead Guide

Step Four.  Read the Message to Garcia note about taking initiative and answer, “When have you been like Colonel Rowan?”

Step Five.  An on campus interview with the Head of School.

Step Six.  An Eagle panel interview and presentation of a Pathbrite portfolio and a personal Hero’s Story.

Step Seven.  A final interview with three guides.

Step Eight.  The Decision.

Why so much effort?  Because we only hire superstars who we believe will launch their own Acton Academy, after a three to four year apprenticeship.

In other words, our Apprentice Guides are not here to train Eagles, they are here to be prepared by Eagles to go out and change the world.

Which is the most telling step in the hiring process?  Step Eight, where the applicant must face a panel of Eagles.  Young people have an uncanny sense when an adult is “posing” and doesn’t really believe that each and every Eagle is a genius, who deserves a calling that will change the world.

In the last round of hiring, we started with 79 applicants.  Only three made it to Step Five.  Only one made it to Step Eight and received an offer.

Even the best companies are successful in hiring only thirty percent of the time.  So all of our Apprentice Guides go through a 180 trial period.   We hire slowly and carefully and remove someone quickly if it’s not a good fit.

Just one more lesson for our Eagles, as they prepare to assemble, lead and serve on teams of superstars themselves.

Protecting Intentionality During Quiet Core Skills Time

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Silent Core Skills time at Acton Academy means exactly that – a time of deep individual work that isn’t distracted by noise or activity in the studio.  How do we protect such times of “flow,” when the right challenge can lead to deep learning at a rapid clip?

Of course, all intentionality in the studio begins with the Eagle to Eagle covenants and an Eagle Buck system that lets Eagles set and uphold the standards. Without a serious buy-in by all, there is no spontaneous order.

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But even with this, protecting individual work time during Silent Core Skills isn’t easy.  During Silent Core Skills time, you can hear a pen drop in the studio – literally.  So even the smallest creak becomes a distraction.  So we have “white noise machines” that help to block out distractions.

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Sometimes minor distractions can build, until all intentionality breaks down.  Here, the Yacker Tracker – a listening device that can be set to trigger an alarm when a pre-set decibel level is breached – is a big help.  The decibel level is at a whisper for Silent Core Skills and slightly higher for Collaboration time; if the alarm goes off, the person who triggered it owes an Eagle Buck.

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Finally, when all intentionality is lost, we can depend on our Elementary Eagle neighbors below to deliver a Red Card, meaning we’ve disturbed the rights of the Elementary Eagles to learn without being distracted.  A Red Card costs the Middle School community 24 Eagle Bucks.

Layers of habit, protocol and individual and community rights, developed by Eagles, with a little help from technology.  It’s one set of secrets as to why Eagles can learn at a 10X rate when engaged and in flow.

Gamifying motivation.

What do Guides  at Acton Academy actually do, if we never teach or respond to questions?

The answer – we’re Game Makers.  We describe an exciting end goal, design the incentives, suggest a few boundaries or rules, provide a list of tools and process —  and then get out of the way.  Our goal is to inspire  Eagles to pack as much learning into the day as possible.

Take for example, this session’s Creator Speech Quest.  First, each Eagle chooses a Scientific Explorer of Ideas (a paradigm buster); Innovator or Inventor.   Five weeks from now, at the public exhibition, each will deliver an original four minute “hero’s journey” speech from the shoes of their Creator and unveil a Rube Goldberg device that celebrates the scientific contributions of their hero.

Here’s the catch –  a maximum of eight Creators per category will be allowed to speak.  So who determines which Eagle qualifies for which spot?  The Eagles themselves.

1. First, all Eagles in a category deliver a two minute pitch displaying their research and mind map, asking  to be “green lighted” (approved.)  Everyone in the group rates each pitch and provides warm and cool critiques.

2. The top rated 2/3 of the group (a maximum of five) are elected to be the Excellence Committee for that group.  The Excellence Committee decides whether those receiving a lower rating should be admitted immediately (up to a maximum of eight) or asked to do more research and polishing and then pitch again.

3.  What keeps the Excellence Committee from quickly approving more members and filling the group?  The final ratings, from customers at the exhibition, will be based on the average rating per person.  So you do not want any slackers on the team to bring down your average score.

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Today was pitch day.  Nine Eagles pitched for Inventors; nine for Innovators; three for Creators.  Five were admitted to the first  and second groups; two to the third group.  Standards were high. Many Eagles were asked to do additional work and pitch again.

The result:

1. A high level of energy and enthusiasm, because each Eagle chose a hero who appealed to his or her calling.

2. Standards were set by Eagles and kept high.  If you hadn’t turned in first rate work, there was no shame, but you got the chance to try again.  Plus you received a great deal of encouragement and coaching.

3. Along the way, there was much work and learning around the processes for research, mind mapping, pitching and how to compete for scarce resources – all with an eye toward rigor.

4.  Eagles learned a lot about the lives of twenty four different scientific heroes, and what motivated them.

Examples of the criteria Eagles developed to judge “productive research:”

  • Quality and credibility of sources;
  • Number and variety of sources;
  • At least one serious biography selected.
  • Facts; opinions and stories.
  • Clearly organized and present with enthusiasm.
  • Tells a Hero’s Story.

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Some of the questions asked during grilling:

  1. How much time will you be able to work on this? What will you sacrifice to make room for this effort?
  2. What progress have you made so far on your Rube Goldberg device?
  3. How will your Rube Goldberg device reflect your hero’s contributions?
  4. Are you going to spend more time or less time and effort on this project than you did on the rocket project?  Do you promise?
  5. Will you spend more time and effort on your hero’s speech or your Rube Goldberg device?
  6. How much research have you done and how much more will you promise to do?

Self organizing learning; making research fun; adding a competitive edge to encourage rigor and excellence – not a bad day’s work for a Guide, especially since we didn’t do much at all.




We should never take this for granted….

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Yesterday, with no outside prodding, Eagles assembled to elect a new Council.

Six candidates were nominated.  Six passionate speeches.  A close election with three winners.  A peaceful transition of power.

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Today, as the Council’s first difficult assignment, a heated debate about the qualifications needed to serve as a Clean Up Champion.  In other words, Eagles arguing for the right to work on behalf of the group.

Self governance.  No adult intervention.   We should never take this for granted, because it is a privilege to watch unfold.

Session Five: Creative Motivation and a Rube Goldberg Celebration


What inspired Einstein to imagine himself  straddling a beam of light?  Why did  Edison toil  night after night in his Menlo Park lab?  What led Ford to pay the highest wages in the land?

For the next five weeks our Eagles will dig deeply into what motivated the creative geniuses who changed the world through ideas, inventions and innovations.

Then on Thursday, March 27th, each Eagle will stand before an audience and deliver a four minute “Hero’s Journey” speech as a famous Creator, exploring this year’s Overarching Question: “What motivates a hero?”

Once the speeches are finished, guests will be able to roam the studio and investigate twenty four different Rube Goldberg devices, each handmade by an Eagle to honor the contributions of their Creator, and each with a thirty second video introduction.  (If you are interested in clearing your home of unused electricity and chemistry kits, just send them to the studio and we promise not to return them!)

Finally, after a suitable build up, the first Rube Goldberg contraption will be launched, leading to twenty four sequential celebrations of creation, as one Rube Goldberg device after another is triggered.

During the session we’ll continue to forge ahead on Khan and Learning Badges while engulfed in this frenzy of scientific and economic creation.  And in Civilization, Eagles will watch college level DVD lectures on the Science of Innovation, followed each week by student designed and led Socratic Discussions.

Stay tuned for a lot of creative grit and sweat these next five weeks!


Zombie Tag Distraction

Building a self sustaining learning community is difficult.

Everyone begins with good intentions, but like entropy,intentionality  almost always moves towards disorder.  All will be diligently working, and then one bored studio-mate begins to amble about, distracting others.  Like a game of Zombie-Tag, each person who is infected infects others, and attention and work ethic quickly crumble.

How do we reverse this entropy of learning potential without becoming controlling teachers?  By clarifying rights and privileges, for Guides are allowed to insist that the covenants set by Eagles should be respected.

Eagles have the right to work individually and quietly on Core Skills, to meditate or even rest.    Soon, however, most hit a flat spot with individual work.  The going gets tough; an individual becomes tired or bored.  He or she soon seeks the company of others.

Chance social interaction is like a quick sugar high, a cheap boost of energy.  And while Eagles have the right to work hard individually or even to be bored, they do not have the right to distract others.

Middle Schoolers live for community.  In fact, the love of community is far more motivating than the love of learning.    That means that the privilege of collaborating can be used to encourage serious work.

Yet collaboration, poorly defined, becomes little more than hanging out with friends and frittering away time.  Frittering away time is not a habit for heroes who want to change the world.   So collaboration must be tightly defined as individuals, working toward a specific measurable goal, for a set period of time.  Added to this antidote to bolster intentionality are weekly SMART goals and Long Term goals that cannot be adjusted on a whim.

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we have created a new system to encourage and support these habits.

A Green Card means you have earned morning and afternoon breaks by being current with SMART goals (set and checked) and have reached your weekly Core Skills goals (reading, writing and math.)   A  Yellow Card means you have been respecting the rights of others to work without being distracted, and thus can collaborate with others if your are doing so in a SMART way.

Will this new approach work?  Likely, only for a while.  Yet it seems every step towards transparency and accountability more deeply imbeds the habits of grit and perseverance that will serve our young heroes well, and prepare them to create even more powerful systems themselves.


What’s the impact of “Bell Lab level” intentionality?

Discoveries, inventions and innovations from Bell Labs shaped the modern world.

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Today a test of scientific intentionality: Eagles were asked to imagine that the cameras in the studio were turned on, and that scientists from Bell Labs were watching.  Could we achieve a “Bell level” of intentionality all afternoon?  If so, how much more work could be accomplished than on an average day?

Those who didn’t want to take the challenge were asked to work outside, in silent Core Skills.

By the end of the day, a survey was taken.  Eagles believed they accomplished 50% more work than on a normal day.

What’s the cumulative value of a 50% increase in output, if each day of learning builds on the last?  In a week you would have learned 17.5 times as much.

Surely overstated, but consider for a moment people who are committed to a cause.  Don’t they get far more done than the average person?

Grit, perseverance and intentionality trump IQ, every time.  Just one of the many reasons the Hero’s Journey is so important – especially for world changing scientists.

Lord of the Flies Returns

Today was complete chaos in the studio; Lord of the Flies; a lack of intentionality.

It was cold and wet Eagles couldn’t burn off energy outside. We were coming off the difficult American Revolution experience; Colonists had lost and there was lots of “bad energy” in the classroom. Even worse, a group had earned the right to another “roll of the Revolutionary Die” by doing extra work, and had lost a second time.  Emotions were  high, the Eagles on edge.

On Eagle failed to turn in an assignment on time and a Council member intervened on her behalf, pleading for leniency because of a computer glitch.  Several Eagles protested that an exception would be lowering the standards; the vote was close to protect the standards.

The Intentionality Champion tried to reign in the Eagles but was ignored, partly because he equivocated and rambled.  The studio become noisier and more chaotic.  One Guide stepped over the line by refusing to show a visitor around the studio, because the chaos was embarrassing.

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Then something miraculous happened.  The Eagles began to self-reorganize.  A new curtain was used to separate the room (one Eagle compared it to the Berlin wall.)  Eagles, having found during the Revolutionary War that desks separated from each other seemed to lead to more intentionality.  Individuals began moving desks into private clusters.

Eagles got back to work; the noise level dropped to a whisper.  One group later requested to be allowed to leave for the High School to establish an even more intentional space.

The lessons? Almost too many to count:

  1. Hard cases make for bad law.  An unfair case, especially one that makes you want to bend the rules as a leader, can lead to a conflict between Justice (treat everyone the same) and Virtue (do what is right). A real world example of the Moral Frameworks we discussed last week.
  2. Leaders must be clear, tough and uncompromising; but this is hard to do when you have to make rulings about your friends.
  3. State’s Rights versus Federal Rights.  Exactly what we have saw in the Civil War.  Having small groups experiment leads to new discoveries, but risks fraying the principles that hold our Eagles together.
  4. Above all, self rule by the Eagles may be the most important learning experience of all, if a Guide can ask the questions that lead to deeper lessons.

What should a Guide do?  This is where being a Guide becomes an art.

  1. Praise in private.  Praise the leaders who took tough stands. Applaud their courage in holding the line. Encourage them to step up even more.
  2. Constructively criticize to unveil the principles at stake in private.  The Eagle who wanted to bend the rules for a friend needs to understand where this could head.  The Eagle Champion who equivocated and rambled needs to understand how this affects his power.
  3. Encourage Eagles to return to their frameworks and contracts when in doubt.  Appeal to identity.
  4. Set forth the historical examples above, and ask Eagles to describe the parallels in the studio.  But don’t push too hard.  Ask questions that demand difficult choices; don’t give answers.
  5. Point out the power – and the danger – of separate communities.  Encourage Eagles to protect the individual rights of the group without diluting the principles that make them a powerful learning community.

Tomorrow should be a day of deep discovery.  Because being willing to endure chaos led to even more self rule, which will lead to more powerful revelations that a Hero can use. The Eagles earned their lessons.

Eagle Buddies and the Power of Feedback

Each middle schooler who has earned an Independent Learner badge has can serve as an Eagle Buddy, guiding a team of elementary school Eagles in setting and delivering on their weekly SMART goals.

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Being an Eagle Buddy is an honor, it must be earned.

Each Eagle Buddy leader has negotiated a relational covenant with his or her group, setting forth clear expectations and consequences.  This covenant was signed with great ceremony.

If an elementary school Eagle is not keeping his or her part of the bargain, the Eagle may be asked to leave the group.

Every week, the elementary Eagles rate the effectiveness of their Eagle Buddy leader, using Survey Monkey to provide feedback.  One low score means probation for the leader; the second low score means the leader must resign.

A worthy task. Serious promises.  Clear feedback loops. Reasonable consequences, quickly enforced.

We’re well on the way to equipping and inspiring Eagles to run the school.



A 360 Review: Is my self-image aligned with how others see me?

Last week we experimented with 360 reviews, a community building tool used at some of America’s top companies, like Apple and Google.

First, each Eagle was given the survey below and asked to rate every classmate’s Tough- mindedness (a measure of how they hold themselves and others accountable) and Warmheartedness (a measure of how encouraging they are to others) on a 1 (low) to 5 (high) score.

The purpose of this survey is to provide anonymous feedback to your fellow Eagles to help them become more “tough minded without being hardhearted” Level 5 Leaders.

 Below you will be asked to rate each of your classmates on their “tough mindedness” and “warmheartedness,” each on a 1-5 scale.

Level Five Leaders are toughminded and warmhearted. They are encouraging,  draw boundaries, set consequences  and keep promises to themselves and others, while remaining cheerful and friendly.

Policeman hold firm boundaries but tend to focus on criticizing mistakes and individuals rather than praising behavior and progress.

Pushovers praise often but are afraid to hold people accountable; because of a lack of courage they do not help their friends grow.

Snarks make the poorest choices of all.  They criticize and tear people down AND fail to hold themselves and others accountable.”

We collected the surveys, then summarized and plotted  results on a 2×2 matrix (low to high Tough-mindedness versus low to high Warmheartedness)  and made the output  anonymous by substituting a number for each Eagle’s name.

Each Eagle then was asked to (silently) assess and write down where they thought their classmates had ranked them, before each learned his or her actual position on the graph (results were privately distributed to avoid any embarrassment.)

In most cases, Eagles accurately assessed where they would be ranked.  Those in the lowest quadrant were the most accurate, while those in the higher quadrants tended to be more modest about their studio-mates’ opinions.

The effects on motivation?  We don’t know yet.  But at least each Eagle now has areas where they can improve, and a clearer sense of how their classmates view their contributions.

What is a Friday Adventure?

Friday Adventures are special events tied to the weekly Quests.  For example, last week’s Friday adventure was to go to the Bookpeople bookstore, and do rapid prototyping research to see how Eagles could improve the cover, title or organization of their Bestselling Books.

While Eagles may love the “adventure” – being able to go somewhere with their studio-mates, each outing also delivers a serious entrepreneurial lesson.

In order to qualify for a Friday adventure, you must self certify that you have completed the  fundamental challenges from the weekly Challenge Envelope, and delivered your “best work.”  If you miss earning a Friday adventure, the outings can be completed later with a classmate or friend – you just miss out on the fun of going with the group.

What is this week’s adventure?  We can’t tell you, because this week’s Friday Adventure won’t be announced until later this morning, adding more intrigue and (hopefully) motivation.

One hint: It will involve the question: “Is that the best you can do?”

Stay tuned.

Freedom and Accountability Part II

James Madison wrote in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Our middle schoolers are no angels, at least not all the time.  But they are an impressive group of young men and women, learning to govern each other with a grace and dignity that few adults could match.

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Today we had a model Town Hall meeting: the choices well framed; each welcomed to speak; the rules of engagement enforced.

Starting next week, we’ll experiment with another self-accountability experiment, and see how it affects motivation.

First each Eagle will certify which weekly challenges from he or she has completed.  Then the Council randomly will draw one computerized deliverable (like Khan Academy) and another non-computerized deliverable (like a journal entry.) Each Eagle will be asked to publicly post his or her results for these deliverables and self rank whether the contribution was in the lower, middle or bottom part of the class.

There is no penalty for choosing not to complete a challenge, except the loss of points towards Eagle Bucks, and possibly missing the weekly adventure, if that specific deliverable was required to qualify.

The penalty for certifying you have completed a deliverable and done “your best work” if it’s obvious you haven’t, will be being sent home, no questions asked, since this is a serious violation of the community honor code.

Next week we elect a new Council, as other Eagles earn a chance to lead.  This Council will be missed.

Self-Reporting and Accountability

We trust our Eagles to report whether or not they have completed a challenge and done their “best work.”  Human beings, however, are fallible, especially when given too much to do, in too little time, with special adventures being offered for delivering everything on time.

Last week we decided to focus on the importance of self reporting, and accidentally created a firestorm of confusion.

We paid special attention last week to self reporting in Socratic discussions, stressing the importance of reporting accurately and turning in “the best work you can do.”  On Friday, when it came time to qualify for this week’s special adventure, we read the checklist of deliverables item by item, asking Eagles to sit if they had missed an item.  Many Eagles sat down, acknowledging that they hadn’t completed one task or another, understandable, given the workload they’ve been under.  By the end, fifteen or so Eagles had certified that they had completed all the items.

Afterwards, a Guide checked the No Red Ink program and noticed that five of those who reported they had scored a 90 or above on this week’s quiz had not achieved this goal, according to the program’s dashboard.

A Council meeting was called, and the Council agreed that the misreporting was serious enough that the five Eagles would be asked to remain home on Monday, and decided to inform each privately to avoid embarrassment.

After the Eagles were informed, one Eagle showed one Guide a screen shot that showed he/she had scored a 100 and the dashboard had not accurately captured his/her score.  Another Eagle swore that he/she had finished with a 90, but the dashboard showed otherwise.  A third Eagle claimed to have accidentally done the wrong test and the dashboard confirmed that the Eagle had scored a 100, but on the wrong quiz.   The last two Eagles, as far as we know, did not lodge an immediate appeal.  Later, one would report that he/she had scored a 90.

At this point, with only a few minutes before Friday’s field trip adventure would begin, there was mass confusion.  It is important to note that there were several categories of errors: (1) An apparent technical glitch in the program; (2) A possible error in submitting a final score, either by the program or an Eagle not hitting “submit;” (3) An Eagle who had done the wrong test but accurately reported his/her score;  (4) An Eagle who reported a 90 but had no independent verification; and (5) One Eagle who said he/she just failed to listen/read carefully enough.

Which of these were “the dog ate my homework” errors; which were forgivable and which were more serious lapses?

Because of all the confusion and ambiguity, the Council voted over the weekend that all Eagles will be invited back to campus on Monday, and this incident will be put behind us.

Further investigation this weekend suggests that while some Eagles may have been genuinely confused, the computer program appears likely to have been accurately reporting scores all along, and that there is a high likelihood that several of the Eagles did not score a 90 or above.

As you can imagine, still lots of confusion and some hard feelings, which we will sort out this week, being careful to separate the personal issues from the governance issues and to prevent long term hard feelings or factions. Those with a personal issue with another Eagle will be encouraged to address the person openly and directly with a facilitated process, either in private or publicly.   Governance issues and strengthening due process in the studio will be addressed in a Town Hall meeting.

As parents, we’ve learned at Acton to listen empathetically; equip our Eagles with the right words, and then send them back into the fray to sort things out for themselves.  It’s hard to do, but the best way to learn to cope and stay healthy in the real world, in high pressure situations.

Human communities are messy, but the Eagles (and Guides) are learning lots of important lessons, especially about self governance in an Eagle led learning community.

Subject: Freedom and Accountability Part I

How do we provide Eagles with freedom and accountability?

We started the year with Evidence Tickets, individual examples of work Eagles were asked to publicly post to earn specified privileges.   High quality work was praised by Running Partners, who also identified places where more effort was needed.

While this system encouraged accountability, having Evidence Tickets arrive unexpectedly made it feel to Eagles that they weren’t in control of their own schedules.

Now we’ve shifted to Challenge Envelopes, providing a week’s worth of deliverables at a time, allowing Eagles more control over their schedules (a suggested weekly schedule is provided, for reference, but Eagles can disregard this and tackle objectives in any order they want.)

Challenge Envelopes ask Eagles to check their long term Personal Learning Plans to set weekly goals for reading and Newsela (critical reading and critical thinking skills); journaling and No Red Ink (grammar) for writing and Khan Academy for math and learning badges for 21st century skills. Also included are a series of Quest related goals for “writing a bestselling book” and “entrepreneurial skills to help sell the book” once it’s written.

But how do we make sure that Eagles are doing “the best you can do” without reading and grading every assignment?  That’s the subject of the next post.


Sometimes it’s helpful to realize just how much work our Eagles get done in an average day and a week.

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As one of the Eagles said recently: “It’s hard to explain to friends that I get a lot more work done than they do, even though we don’t have any homework.”

So here’s a sample from today:

  1.  Check your Personal Learning Plan and SMART goals to make sure you are on pace with your Khan math, reading and Learning Badge plan for the year.
  2. Finish No Red Ink grammar lessons 3&4 and make a 90 or above on the quiz.
  3.  Read the Newsela article on Massive Open Online Courses, score a 90 or above on the critical thinking test and participate in a Socratic discussion. A sample question: “In many countries, cell phones were such new innovation that they “leapfrogged” the old landline technology.  If other countries go to “new type schools” while America clings to old style schools, could that be a threat to America?aa ms 10.31 2aa ms 10.31 3
  4. Do independent research on Darwin; Evolution and Natural Selection and bring a great Socratic question as your entry ticket.  While completing an Art lesson in how to draw with the “right side of your brain,” listen to a college level lecture on Darwin.  afterwards, participate in a Socratic discussion. A sample question:                         “What exactly was the “turning point” about Darwin’s theory that made it so
  •  Man is not the center of the universe;
  • Creatures evolve and change over time or
  • Those with the best characteristics survive?”

5.   Answer the journal question: A rare bird is set to disappear in West Austin because of real estate developments.  Given Darwin’s theories, should we pass a law to curtail development and protect this species from going extinct?

6.  Write enough in your bestselling book to deliver a minimum of 50% of your rough draft by Friday.

7.  Role play how to deliver warm praise and make time to go to the Elementary School and provide “warm praise” to your individual group members.

8.  Be sure to clean the studio at the end of the day, since we don’t have a janitor.

Whew!  No wonder the day seems to go by so fast!

Eagle Buddies to the Rescue

Today marked an important turning point for Acton Academy.

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Ten Middle School Eagles began guiding in the Elementary School, helping the ES Eagles set and record daily SMART goals.  Each SMART goal group will have a learning contract and every Eagle will work hard to remain in Socratic mode and respect the Rules of Engagement.

Most importantly – no adults involved.  Eagles guiding Eagles.

Newsflash: A Guide is About to Answer a Question!

But first, a congratulatory shout out to the nine Eagles who earned their Independent Learner Badges over the past month.  We celebrated them in a special school-wide ceremony Friday morning.  There are only 7 pictured below because two were pursuing dreams off-campus that day; Eagles lead busy lives!

Though there will never be homework assigned at Acton, completing the missions and challenges to earn the Badge involved making time at home for things like baking bread and doing research to pitch a trip, garden or new pet to their family.  These Eagles have proven their ability to work independently, analyze information, solve problems by themselves, and follow instructions carefully.


These nine now join seven other Middle School Eagles (and one in the ES!)  in working towards earning the next badge in the series, the Running Partner Badge.  They will learn how to help others set goals and identify and reach for their greatest dreams; they will learn how to have difficult conversations, how to set a relational covenant, and much more.  Some of this work will be done while guiding younger Eagles in the elementary school, an exciting development for our student-centric community.  The Badges are a crucial part of the work Eagles do at Acton.  If you haven’t, consider asking your child which badge challenge they’re currently working on, which has been their favorite, which has been the hardest.  The standard for “passing” each challenge is that the Eagle certifies they’ve done their very best work.

Okay, so about that question mentioned in the title.  In the middle school you’ll hear, “Guides don’t answer questions,” sometimes many times each day.  A bit sassy perhaps, but never meant to be discouraging or indifferent.  The polar opposite, in fact:  it’s a gesture of deep respect.  In the studio on Friday, Eagles discussed the role of Guides.  One offered that the most important thing a Guide can do is “to set up guidelines then sit back and let the classroom function on its own”.  Another wrote that Guides should “ready us so we can turn the classroom into a student-run studio”.  Many thought that for Guides to keep their promises to the Acton students and parents was the most important thing.

One promise we make to the families is that we believe each child is a genius capable of changing the world in their won unique way.  But answering a question says that we don’t trust them to be able to come up with their own best answer, to engage in the potent thinking, research and analysis we believe each of them are capable of, or to learn from their mistakes.

Eagles, the number one reason WHY Guides won’t answer your question is…. drum roll, please…. we absolutely positively 100 percent completely respect your intelligence.

( Okay Gage, you got me.  I answered that one.  But never again!)

Slouching towards intentionality

Don’t let anyone kid you that building a self governing learning community is easy – for adults or middle school Eagles.

We’re still struggling with intentionality, and the Eagles not living up to the promises they made to each other.

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Finally, noise became such a problem that it started distracting the elementary Eagles below, so we gave our neighbors the right to take 24 Eagle Bucks and a Mason Break/Charlie Break away anytime they are disturbed.

Yesterday, a “red card” signalling a violation was deliver on two occasions. 48 Eagle Bucks – ouch! We’ll see if these natural consequences from violating a neighbor’s property rights will help.

We also realized it was a mistake to make it too easy to earn Eagle Bucks, which takes away the sting of losing one for poor choices.  So we’re making Eagle Bucks harder to earn in the future and asking anyone with more than ten Eagle Bucks to cash them in ( one Eagles Buck = $1) to buy something fun for their classmates.

Despite our struggles, lots of powerful learning taking place:

After hearing that we’re draining Eagle Buck liquidity from the financial system, one Eagle, remembering the “inflation game” from last year, asked: “Will this cause an Eagle Buck Great Depression?”

A parent sent this:”Last night, <our daughter> told us ‘I have just realized something so interesting and special! Did you know that so far NONE  of the guides have taught me anything … It’s ME, I  am learning everything on my own , all on my own?'”

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Lots of collaboration in preparation for the Personal Learning Plan Exhibition and Debate next week.

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Today we received a gift of some terrific books, and Eagles swarmed around the box, eager for new reading.

 Next step – draft a clear contract between each Guide and each Eagle – something we should have done long ago.



Working ourselves out of a job

At closing, Eagles responded to the question: What’s one thing you want to make sure any observer at Acton takes away, one thing they must keep in mind if they plan to open their own schools?

Several alumni volunteered “Our intentionality when we’re working; we can work hard and focus and get into flow”.  One 6th grader said, “Children must not be underestimated!”.  “They should get a council,” an 8th grader offered, quickly clarifying that he meant that the students should organize their own government immediately, and not that the observers should hire attorneys.  Then a new Eagle spoke up.  The most important take away should be… “Guides are not teachers!” she declared.  So what’s the difference?  “Guides don’t answer questions.”

Really?  Is that the only difference?  Another Eagle added, “Yeah, new Actons shouldn’t even hire Guides.  We can go there and show the students how to make their schools work.”

A show of hands to gauge interest in how many Eagles would be interested in actually doing that, perhaps as a pre-requisite for graduating from middle school or as a project in high school yielded a practically unanimous, very enthusiastic, yet notably serious and almost somber “Yea”.

ImageAfter that, The Eagles played poker to determine who’d get to be the first Acton Ambassador to help open a new school.  Okay…. not; this was during a Charlie Break.  Parents, those are Eagle Bucks, not Benjamins.

Though Guides don’t say much, we do listen, and when we hear, “I see your five and I’ll raise you thirty,”

Life Isn’t Fair

We’ve got a new way to encourage excellence at Acton.

Eagles manage several projects at once, with “Evidence Tickets” and deadlines tracked by various Eagle Champions (Math, Reading, Writing, Projects.)

Today we began asking each individual Eagle to post his or her Evidence Ticket on a board, choosing whether they believed it belonged in the top, middle or lower third of the class in terms of quality. Running Partners then either affirmed this judgment with a “check mark” or used an arrow to indicate whether they believed the work deserved to be ranked higher or lower.

This way, all work is displayed publicly.  There’s no place to hide.  And Running Partner judgments are displayed too.  While it’s acceptable to be in the lower third on an assignment, by tracking such self rankings over a long period of time, a Running Partner can ask classmates for support if his or her partner is struggling.

One new middle school Eagle was near tears when his Evidence Ticket wouldn’t print and he missed the deadline, so his ranking wasn’t recorded on the tracking sheet.

“It’s just not fair,” he complained.  No, it’s not.  Sometimes the dog really does eat your report.  Sometimes you get a flat tire on the way to an important interview.

It would have been easy for a Guide to intervene “just this once” and allow the distraught Eagle to post.  Instead, we shared stories about how sometimes you do get unlucky and life isn’t  fair, but that hard work and perseverance almost always triumph in the end for true heroes.

Real consequences. Even when it’s hard.  Even when unfair.  Because a caring adult won’t always be around to “fix things,” so you need to learn to pick yourself up and try again.

Time for an intervention ?

Friday, not so pretty. Guides are prone to slip, under certain circumstances, into parental mode: almost as if our own parents are about to arrive, and cast judgement upon us.

For one thing, there was rain. What a joy! (Later in the weekend, neighborhood children reported on how their schools went into “lock-down” or that it was an “emergency”… I’m keeping mum on this).

Another thing: on Friday, work that Guides felt should be getting done was not getting done, or more precisely, it was not being logged as accomplished in the ways we expected it should.

So, at Acton, we know that our role as Guides is to very much step back, and hoping that we’ve modeled the standards the Eagles have themselves asked for, give a nod to the Eagles and their huge accomplishment in putting together a set of guidelines for the Studio, and trust that this will all play out in a manner that’s ultimately beneficial to the community.

But Guides are human, and we make mistakes. Mistake number one: neglect to trust. Trust the Eagles, trust yourself.

Mistake number two: don’t rectify mistake number one.

Friday, with concern that the standards of excellence were heading south in a way that would impact the whole Acton community (and affect the plans for the rest of the session), Guides had a quick pow-wow while the Eagles had lunch. Should we re-launch the afternoon and draw some new lines in the sand about what’s necessary and what’s optional? Eagles that hadn’t chosen to set their own goals or deadlines were putting the community at risk, and it might be time for Guides to step in. We should outline the consequences of choosing NOT to to do the work that we’ve asked them to do, and within the time-frame that we’ve created. Right?

Thankfully, wrong.
The intervention needed was actually a guide-to-guide huddle, a quick re-set of the most basic tenets that we adhere to in contract and in spirit, but that can slip without accountability. So after we egged each on to come to the conclusion that it was, surely, time for guides to get parental… we realized that we were suggesting that it’s time for guides to get parental. And the real intervention was Guides using each other as a checkpoint, to make sure that never happens.

Trust, trust, trust.

It will or it won’t be okay, but your best chance to make it work is to TRUST.

Inspiration, Intentionality and Excellence

The high end prep school of the late 1990’s featured a didactic curriculum and a cadre of well trained teachers. Today that seems, well, so “old school.”

Given the resources available on the internet, crafting a world class curriculum today is more about curation than creation.  There’s simply so much great material to choose from, and quite a bit of it is high quality.

Even better, you can equip students to choose challenges for themselves, and order the experiences in a way that appeals to their individual learning styles.

Teacher training is an anachronism too. Peer-to-peer exchanges are far more powerful than having a gaggle of lecturing adults hanging around the teacher’s lounge.

What remains difficult is keeping our Eagles inspired, intentional and aiming for the highest quality work.

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Today we tried something different.  Taking volunteer Champions, Eagles who would take responsibility for different parts of the studio and learning areas.

Just another experiment in helping young heroes take control of their education.

These are times that try Guide’s souls…

To steal a line from Thomas Paine: “these are the times that try Guide’s souls.”

The early euphoria of the first week is wearing off.  Some students are working hard; others are not.  Some are too noisy.  The studio is messy, getting messier and beginning to have a slight, unidentifiable, yet sour smell.

If only an adult would step in and bring some order.  We need an expert to teach. Eagles  need some direction.

Eagles long for such authority, especially the new ones who keep pestering Guides with questions, even if  reply is always the same: “Sorry, I’m a Guide, I don’t answer questions. I bet you can figure that out yourself.”

Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Barely correlated most days. Learning requires struggle.  And failure.  Even when it’s hard to be patient.

A Guide has four important tasks:

1. Applaud great effort;

2. Hold others accountable for their promises; and

3.  Design challenges that are difficult and fun, including world class examples and the rules of the game.

The fourth task?  That’s the most important one of all.  To transfer the first three tasks to Eagles.  If we step in as experts or answer questions or solve problems, we destroy the chance for Eagles to learn their own lessons.

Today we’re going to call for Champions, Eagles who are willing to step up and assume a leadership role.

Stay tuned.


Apprentice Guide – Our Most Important Role

Next to the Eagles themselves, our Apprentice Guides are the most important people at Acton Academy – far more important than the Lead Guide or Head of School role.

Why?  Because we expect each and every Apprentice Guide will run an Acton Academy or a similar school someday soon.  So we only hire superstars who believe that each Eagle is going to change the world in a profound way.

Ms Abigail, the Apprentice Guide in the Middle School, has been an oasis of calm in many storms – unflappable, and determined to deflect any question that comes her way, no matter how cunningly crafted.  We joke at times about how little Guides do at Acton, but it’s incredibly hard to stay in a pure Socratic mode.

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So how do you know when you’ve found the right person?  You ask the Eagles.

Humility; vulnerability; a willingness to work extremely hard; a deep caring for people and respect for each and every journey – Eagles can spot these traits far more reliably than adults.

Yesterday our Eagles interviewed a potential Apprentice Guide by listening to his hero story, asking questions and filling out a detailed questionaire afterwards.

Honest customer feedback and involvement.  Something all too often lacking in the world of education.

Syllabi versus Quests

A battle is raging over the Common Core curriculum, a nationwide effort to deliver a standardized syllabus to every teacher in America.

Yesterday, I asked our middle school Eagles how soon they would be comfortable designing their own Learning Quests, the series of real world challenges, set in a compelling narrative, that Acton Eagles use to acquire world skills and “learn to be” lessons.

“Probably a year and a half,” replied one, “I need to see a few more examples.”

“More like a year,” answered another, “if we made it a priority.”

“We could do it now,” chirped a third, “it just wouldn’t be our best work.”

Government committees, decreeing standardized lessons, designed to allow teachers in a classroom to deliver facts, at a cost of over $10,000 per student per year.

Aspiring heroes, creating their own personalized quests, full of real world challenges, guiding each other and preparing for paying apprenticeships, at a cost of $1500 per student per year.

Care to wager which approach creates more 21st century leaders?

Why read?

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One of this session’s projects is: “How do I choose what to read next?”

Eagles were asked to select favorite subjects, genres, time periods and heroes that might assist in choosing a “next book,” as well as being introduced to ways to analyze titles, first sentences and table of contents as a guide to style and voice.

Then, silence.  Not much energy.  Little interest.

“Why go to so much trouble,” one Eagle asked, “when you simply can read what you enjoy?”

“What about when you need to learn to do something?”.

“Usually it’s easier to watch a You Tube or try a simulation,” came the reply.

Our Eagles read a lot.  Half the class are voracious readers; the other half just avid readers. So this seemingly lackadaisical approach was puzzling.

“What about the classics?,” a Guide pressed.

“We hate the classics. Those are books that teachers used to make us read, so no one likes them.”  Many heads nod in agreement.

“What about books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird or Frankenstein?”

“Those aren’t classics, those are books we enjoy because they help us on our Hero’s Journey.”

Enjoy.  A word like “flow.”  It doesn’t mean easy, it means to be delighted or pleased.  Like when you love to learn, even if learning is sometimes hard.

Software Frustrations

Google Earth crashed today for one Eagle, wiping out his carefully recorded tour just before it was ready to post.

Frustrating.  Maddening.  Makes you want to scream.

As a Guide, you want to swoop in and fix these types of technical problems, because they interfere with learning.  But of course, they are part of the messy practice of learning to learn: learning to create back ups; learning to read the directions — and sometimes learning the hardest lesson of all – that life sometimes isn’t fair.

Eagles Taking Control

Yesterday, we had some important visitors who wanted to see Acton Academy in Action (we now average three to five visiting groups each week.)

After the morning launch, one of our Eagles asked for a moment to propose changes in the way Running Partners collaborate during Silent Core Skills time.  Here’s a report from an observer on what happened next:

“An Eagle stepped up to facilitate. He grabbed a white board and refocused the group by reintroducing the topic- Collaboration Requests. He asked for suggestions, listened intently, and wrote them down. When more than one person began talking, he reminded them of the Socratic Rules of Engagement.  After a few minutes of discussion, he read the list of suggestions and took a vote.  He kept the discussion on topic and was mindful of time. The class came to a unanimous decision in seven minutes.”

A group of middle school students.  Recognizing a need to make changes in the way they govern the classroom.  Taking control; mindfully discussing; coming to a conclusion and implementing the changes in seven minutes.

Without any help from an adult.

An Acton Academy Riddle

In the last few months, we’ve heard from a dozen or more entrepreneurs and educators who want to open an Acton Academy.

This fall we’ll host a contest/tournament to select between five and ten education-entrepreneurs to open an Acton Academies (or a generic version that doesn’t use the Acton name.)

If you are interested, here’s a riddle that captures the spirit of what we’ll be trying to do.

How can both the following statements be true?

1.  Acton Academy is open to all students; and

2. Acton Academy only serves gifted students.

If the answer to the riddle is obvious, you’d make a great Acton parent, Eagle or education-entrepreneur.

Take me to your leader. (Beeeeepp…. Does not compute?)

If a Martian had shown up on campus today and presented that demand, the outcome would vary depending on the moment.  Core skills?  An elementary school guide who came in to verify the Friday pizza order was amazed at the intensity of the Eagles’ focus.  Who led that?

The Socratic discussions during Civilization learning?  Well, it depends on which question was put to the group.  If it was “If you were a noble during the French Revolution, would you have joined the fight or stayed loyal to the Second Estate?” it would have been Sarah, who came up with the question, which was deemed by her peers to be worthy of discussion. Different question, different student leader.

If our otherworldly visitor had shown up during the journal reflection contest, it would have sought out Claire, who MC’ed the event (after a guide misguidedly tried to tap a student to MC only to be told indignantly that “we’ve already decided who’s doing it”).

Any Mars native who floated in at 2:45 would have been certain that the go-to guy was Crayton, who assembled the troops and set them to task with the surety of General Patton, the notable figure he’s delivering a powerful speech in the shoes of in just a couple more weeks.

And if the Martian had come during Game Time, it would have been certain that the committee of  four guests from the elementary school (in the MS to guide our Eagles in learning a rhythm game) was where the power dwells.   Happy Friday, and here’s to all the leaders of tomorrow!


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.

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.

The inspiration that comes from guiding others

The word “inspire” means to “to breathe life into.”

Our Middle School Eagles are full of life already, but have been even more inspired lately by earning the chance to guide Acton Elementary School Eagles in Math and Reading.

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It’s important to note the word “guide” versus “teach.”  We believe the deepest and most powerful learning comes from having a Socratic Guide as your partner, rather than suffering a lecturing adult teacher posing as an expert.

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Our MS Eagles earn the right to guide an elementary school Eagle by completing a Learning Badge challenge.  Each Learning Badge challenge earns the right to 30 minutes of guiding time, which comes with a learning covenant and feedback on the Guide’s performance.  Complete a dozen or challenges and you earn a Learning Badge.

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Our MS Eagles consider it a privilege worth working hard to earn, and are lining up to do so.

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All Eagles will move from the Independent Learner badge to Running Partner to Socratic Guide to Project Guide to Curriculum Creator, until by high school each Eagle is capable of running a school (or company or non-profit) on their own.

Think of it.  An army of bright young people guiding each other, delivering “learn to do” and “learn to be” skills and lessons better, faster and far less expensive than adults.

You might even call it a revolutionary idea.

Tragedy of the Commons – Part II

Want to take on an impossible task? Try transferring janitorial duties to a group of middle schoolers.

At Acton Academy it’s our Eagles responsibility to clean the sink, mop the floors and empty the trash – every day.  With no help or intervention from Guides.

At first this took a great deal of patience.  The room looked (and at times smelled) like a college dorm.  But finally the Eagles rallied to form a cleaning crew and spruce up their new home.

Sadly, after a while enthusiasm waned and we slipped back into bad habits.  That is, until the Acton elementary students wrote a series of letters complaining about the trash and how it was damaging the Acton brand.  There was talk of an intra-school suit for damages, perhaps a Chapter 11 bankruptcy with elementary students as overseers.

The middle schoolers rallied again. But a few weeks later slipped back into slothful habits.

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Then, a novel idea.  We divide the room in half and separate the Eagles into two teams.  At the end of clean up, the an elementary student serves as referee, with one of two choices:

  • Declare one side the winner.  Winners go outside the next day during free time.
  • Declare the entire classroom “pristine,” which means both sides can go outside (Hasn’t happened yet!)

As shown above, the Elementary Eagles take great pride in their new responsibilities, and the room has never been cleaner.

We set the rules; Eagles decide whether or not to play.  Even when it comes to cleaning the bathrooms!

The Power of Role Models

One of the most powerful parts of Acton Academy is having Eagles of different ages in the same classroom.

In the Elementary School, five year olds guide ten year olds; in the Middle School, fourteen year olds find they can still learn from someone who is eleven.  Most importantly,  we find that age differences quickly disappear for Eagles and Guides, as the special talents of each Eagle become far more important than age differences.

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And yet, Elementary School Eagles still look up to Middle Schoolers. Recently, the ES’ers requested to have their lunch time adjusted, just so they could watch the Middle School Eagles play sports.

This powerful attraction of older role models is why we are giving Middle School Eagles  a chance to earn the right to serve as temporary Guides to the Elementary School Eagles, by earning one Learning Badge a week.

Our belief is that we’ll find Eagles can curate, create and deliver educational challenges more powerfully than adults.  If anything, our most revolutionary idea so far.

How do people learn?

How do people learn?  An important question, and a reminder that “teaching” and “learning” are only loosely connected.

The article below summarizes some of the most recent discoveries about how people learn:

Here’s what we’ve found at Acton Academy:

1.  Deep learning requires context.  This means having a clear visual  “journey map” and milestones ON THE WALL  that our Eagles can track. (“You are here; Here’s where we have been; Here’s where we are going and WHY it matters”); plus a diagnostic Framework (“Below are some questions you can ask to decide what to do next.”)

2.  Every launch must put students “in the shoes of a protagonist” facing a decision that will matter in their lives, and somehow will shape their identity and determine their destiny.  Otherwise, who cares?

3.  Our primary job is to set the rules and incentives so as to shape the learning environment.  Then let the students learn through “learning to do.”  Experiential learning is best; Socratic discussion next best.  Experts/lectures are allowed, but Eagles can access this information on their own.

If we deliver:

1.  End goals that add richness to our Eagle’s Hero’s Journeys;

2.  Maps and milestones.

3. Frameworks; and

4.  Enticing rules and incentives;

then great learning happens.

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Here’s a photo of this morning’s launch. Below an example of a Mind Map for the upcoming Apprenticeships – Eagles learning to create their own visuals.

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Of course, the ultimate goal is to equip students to create learning journeys, frameworks and incentive systems for themselves and others,  so the “learning to learn” becomes a deeply imbedded habit, and one that spreads exponentially.

Inspiration, learning and storytelling

One of the biggest surprises about guiding Eagles has been the realization that people learn at a 10X rate when they are inspired, and hardly at all when simply instructed to do so.

Of course, this isn’t surprising when you think about your own learning.  Who cares about learning something simply because you are ordered to do so?  It also explains why most corporate training fails.  Training is for guinea pigs; human beings want to be free to accept or reject challenges, not to be trained..

As Guides, much of our energy goes into creating challenges that matter to Eagles. Difficult, meaningful – and yes, fun challenges.  Our goal is to “inspire,” a word whose root means “to breathe life into.”

Long lasting inspiration requires an important quest or journey – a clear path to a worthy Grail.   We need an end that matters to our Eagles and a map we can continually refer to update our progress as a group, as in “you are here” and “here’s where we are going together.”

Below is an example of such a map from this section of the gaming quest.

In the gaming project, Eagles have entered design mode.  To unlock the final challenge of designing a game for the Game Expo, this week students are working through a series of mini game creation challenges.

Yesterday they designed simple, single-player games of luck, and then manipulated the rules to make their games easier or harder to win.  Today they designed games of skill, then added an element of luck to these games to see which version playtesters enjoyed more.


Tomorrow Eagles will get a taste of online game design on Gamestar Mechanic.  Next week, students will choose whether they want to design an online or offline game for the Game Expo at the end of the session, at which they will pitch their games to parents and fellow eagles.

Is creating games a trivial skill?  Not in the 21st century.  Arguably, being able to weave a compelling story and keep people engaged may be one of the most important 21st century skills of all.

In storytelling, images can be even more important than text.  And in the Hero’s Journey story, dragons are not only possible, but to be expected.  That’s why Eagles have been working in Art on drawing dragons.  As they create, Eagles have been listening to “A Tale of Two Cities,” immersed in images drawn with words, as they create visual metaphors of the challenges each will face on their hero’s journey.

Here’s a sample of dragons in the making.


Inspiration, storytelling and maps – keys to learning in the 21st century.

Integration and Accountability

Many people ask how we integrate the disparate parts of a day into a single narrative.

Here’s an example:

We launched our morning huddle with a video clip of Susan Boyle, the surprising singer who bravely overwhelmed skeptics with her powerful voice on the 2009 version of Britain’s.  The point?  That following your dream requires perseverance and courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Each Eagle then contributed an “imagine this” scenario, playing the part of the hero in his or her special moment (like winning the Super Bowl or debuting on Broadway.)

Next we focused on SMART goals for the morning in Core Skills; listened to Ms. Samantha’s “trial and error” hero story; finished self portraits in Art and continued with the Game Lab 3D work on probabilities and decision trees.

Ms. Samantha’s Hero Story.

At the final huddle, all this was wrapped into a discussion about using probabilities and decision trees, the need to adjust (but not abandon) our dreams as life happens – for example, a severe knee injury might require you to become an NFL team owner instead of an NFL quarterback  — and how our work with SMART goals in Core Skills not only imbed perseverance as a habit, but provides basic skills to fall back on when life throws us a curve.

All of this served  as a reminder that our Eagles need to be weighing what type of Apprenticeship they want to test in the spring.

Above, the decision tree used at day;s end that links an Eagles gifts, joy and opportunities to his or her dreams for tomorrow, providing a visual map of how life can force us to adapt.

Finally, we are adding even more accountability and consequences to the mix, so be prepared to hear some squawks.

Above – a more obvious signalling device to help students understand which “discussion mode is in effect: “red” is full focus; “yellow” collaboration; “green” free time.

The first five weeks we focused on building the community – making it a gathering no one ever wants to miss.  Then we added SMART and Excellence goals to encourage the habit of hard work.  Soon the few students who are still struggling with committing completely to day to day work will find themselves increasingly removed — literally hell for middle schoolers – until they find the focus needed to excel.

Because at Acton Academy, we are very serious about the learning covenants that our Eagles and Guides signed.

How do you inspire deep learning?

How do you inspire deep learning?

This is perhaps the most difficult question in education, and I must admit, still a bit of black magic.  If we remove incarceration – our outmoded educational system’s preferred for of persuasion – what will inspire students to learn?

So far, we’ve found a mix of tactics.  First, make it fun, particularly to do something in a group.  Make it clear that the work will be shown to others; preferably to the public.  Stage a debate.

Provide clear standards of excellence; a great piece of writing; great art; a beautiful bridge; then ask students to develop a rubric to measure the differences between their work and the higher standard.

Don’t criticize.  Simply inquire: Is this your best work?  If not, invite them to try again. Or ask: what would you do differently next time? Even better, invite a peer to become a Running Partner, trained to give positive critiques.

Don’t be afraid of using gamification.  Competition works. So do game techniques, particularly for easily measured skills like math.

Be patient.  Our Eagles want to do great work.  But you have to give them the freedom to discover this from within.

“Mom, I miss school.”

What’s the best measure of customer satisfaction?  At our school, it’s the fact that our Eagles want to be here. To us, being a great school isn’t about standardized test scores, perfect SAT’s or straight A’s, but simply having a place where Eagles love to gather, share and learn.

At Acton, we run on an (almost) year round schedule, with five to seven week sprints, followed by a week off from school.  The Guides aren’t on vacation this week, but hard at work  preparing the next sequence of experiences and adventures.  So I thought I’d use these next few days to record some “lessons learned” from the first session, to help others who might be considering opening a school like ours.

We’ve succeeded in creating a sense of excitement and belonging.  There was great energy as we asked students questions about themselves, their hero’s journey and how they would change the world.  Eagles drafted and ratified their own “rules of engagement” and governance system. We’ve worked hard AND had a lot of fun.

Once you’ve got a place where young people want to belong, you have the magic raw materials of energy and commitment that will lead to excellence and transformational learning.   Without this, it’s just another institution run by grown ups.

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.