Category Archives: Signalling

Imagine this…an Acton Eagle who at age fourteen….

Imagine this…an Acton Eagle middle schooler who at age fourteen:

  • Simultaneously and successfully is taking online courses in Udacity; Coursera and EdX from universities like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, while serving as a consultant for her prestigious local university and some Silicon Valley venture capitalists  on distance education.
  • Recently gave a TEDX talk on the future of education.
  • Just a few months ago became the youngest person ever to attend billionaire to Peter Thiel’s “20 under 20” conference for the best and brightest youth in the world.
  • Most importantly – imagine this Acton Eagle is convinced that even Khan Academy is “like putting PDF’s of the Encyclopedia Britannica online” because the teacher still determines and sequences the lessons.  This Eagle believes that a Wikipedia revolution is coming where individual students will source, curate and sequence videos, problems, simulations, projects, real world challenges and other learning experiences, with each student finding the pattern that works best for them, for a particular knowledge area or skill.

Her analogy is DNA.  Sequencing chunks of educational material is like sequencing genes; each individual has a unique sequence that works best, but you can learn a great deal from sharing and  studying the similarities and differences in the patterns, and how they vary between different people.  She already has designed a website where students are sharing and comparing different sequences for different topics and is in discussions with venture capitalists to fund an expansion.

There’s no need to imagine Maria Teresa, because she’s a real person, a fourteen year old Eagle at our Acton Academy sister school in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Maria Teresa - Founder of Makeducation

Yesterday, I introduced our Austin Eagles to Maria Teresa’s story at morning launch.  At the end of the day wrap, I asked our Eagles what Maria Teresa has that they don’t, and one by one, individually challenged them to a Hero’s Journey as inspirational as hers by age fourteen.

I have faith that each and every one of our Eagles will do just that.

You can read more about Maria Teresa at 

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.

Perspective, Energy and Rhythms

The first task in any new school is establishing a healthy learning culture:  this requires paying attention to perspective, energy and rhythms.

Perspective means giving Eagles a map showing where we are heading as a group, and how it connects to their personal journey.  The map should display the final goals; important  mileposts and include the most important questions we will ask.  A map helps us to pause occasionally; mark where we are in the journey; reflect on where we have been and foreshadow where we are going next.

Included with this map should be an easy to read list of projects and mini-projects for the session and a weekly schedule to shows at a glance when we will be in Core Skills; Art; PE; History or Project time.

The more uncertainty you can remove by providing a road map and schedule, the more energy that goes into discovery and deep learning.

Monitoring energy is important too.  We want the class humming with excitement.  We want our Eagles engaged, in flow, laser focused, losing themselves in the learning. But such engagement can only be sustained for so long before you need a break.  And points of reflection are needed to synthesize ideas and let important lessons soak in.

That’s why we carefully think about the flow of energy during a six week session, and include exhibitions to add excitement, as well as times of reflection to recharge.  We take a similar approach to energy management when designing the weekly  and daily schedules and when planning Socratic Discussions.

One student even came up with an idea we adopted: color coding the peaks and valleys in energy.  A “red” rectangle posted on the wall mans we are fully focused in Socratic mode – it’s like the “red light” in recording studios  – in our case signaling that serious learning is taking place. Discussion “rules of engagement” are in force, so no squirming in your seat; no getting up for the bathroom or a snack.

The “yellow” sign means collaborative rules are in effect: Eagles can move around or talk quietly with others, as long as they aren’t disturbing anyone else.  A “green” sign means free time.

Intense, high energy “red” periods can only be maintained for brief periods, usually no more than fifteen to twenty minutes; “yellow” collaborative time for an hour to two hours, particularly if individuals are shifting between projects and skills;  “green” periods need to be no longer than fifteen minutes, but are critical to blowing off excess energy or mentally recharging.

Within discussions, forcing students to take a stand and defend it raises classroom energy.  So does asking concrete A/B choice questions.  So does asking for specific examples and evidence to back up a point or conclusion.  Conceptual questions drain energy.  Conceptual questions may be needed for synthesis or deep learning, but must be used judiciously:  like a pilot, a Socratic Guide only has so much energy to burn before the conversation stalls.

Perspective, energy and rhythms – if we manage these well, deep learning is sure to follow.

Pitching your film idea

Core Skills time featured lots of work on Khan Academy, as well as the Eagles  pitching their script ideas to the class. Later in the day, the Eagles voted to turn Charlie, James and Mason’s scripts into real films over the next few months

Later in the afternoon, Ms Anna continued to work with the Pope, Galileo’s team and our panel of judges to prepare for Friday’s trial, and Jasper’s dad David Herman came to give his Hero’s story about working in Hollywood, as well as sharing some tips on acting and directing.

We also implemented Pace’s idea of signalling what mode the class was in: Red for discussion time, with all Rules of Engagement in force; Yellow for collaborative time when students can mill around freely, as long as no one who is focused on work is being disturbed; and Green for free time.  Interestingly, we calculated that in the average day Eagles spend 1-1.5 hours in Red (discussion) mode; 1.5 hours in Green (free) mode (including the 30 minutes before class officially starts); and 4-4.5 hours in Yellow (collaborative) mode.

Spending 5.5 to 6 hours intensely “on task” every day is the reason we can pack so much discovery and learning into a single day.