Category Archives: Detective Quest

Making Waffles, Planning Parties and Standardized Tests

Today the Middle School Eagles had a self organized Waffle Party – each bringing recipes, supplies and equipment.

photo (212)

photo (209)

Yes, we had Core Skills today. Yes, we practiced how to pitch for an apprenticeship. Yes, we reviewed “lessons learned” from the Detective Quest.

We even had an inspiring Hero Talk from our Acton Academy Guatemala Guide Daniel, who challenged our Eagles to concert their dreams into reality – today!

photo (211)

Life is short.  Our Eagles worked hard these last six weeks. So as we near the end of this six week “sprint,” celebrating achievements — and learning about cooking waffles and party planning — is well within the Acton curriculum.  Even if it never shows up on a standardized test.

Mystery Solved; Suspect Arrested

So who had abducted Detective Anna?  The Acton campus was in an uproar, as Detectives-in-Training fanned out to collect evidence and interview suspects, using all of the tools and skills they had earned during the Detective Quest:

photo (203)

  • Documenting the crime scene;
  • Fingerprint analysis
  • Footprint analysis
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Deductive ability
  • Decomposition
  • Life cycle of flies
  • Microbes
  • Tooth impressions
  • DNA and genetics; and
  • Facial reconstruction.

photo (202)

Detective Anna’s first cousin “Dora” appeared to help as a lab assistant.

photo (204)

Evidence was carefully analyzed and weighed.

photo (205)

The prime suspect was relentlessly questioned until she finally broke down and confessed.

photo (206)

A grateful Detective Anna was rescued, and the Eagles shared their top “lessons learned” about the scientific method and forensic analysis:

  • You have to get it exactly right, because an innocent person might go to jail if you make a mistake;
  • This means that details matter; and
  • What you do impacts others; so
  • You most go slow, and work hard to uncover evidence and clues far beyond what’s given; and
  • Be careful to cross check your team’s work for accuracy.

A pretty good checklist for any scientific project that’s going to change to world.

Whodunnit: An Acton Guide Goes Missing

For six weeks Acton Eagles have been learning forensic skills during the Detective Quest – everything from fingerprint analysis to microbe decomposition to how to detect when someone is telling a lie.

Yesterday, these skills became a blessing when Detective Anna failed to show up for class.  Eagles soon realized that Detective Anna had been kidnapped!  Quickly they self-organized; marked off the crime scene and began their own investigation.

photo (200)photo (201)

Who to suspect?  The other Guides, of course.  For days there had been dark hints: Mr. Jeff’s interest in Detective Anna’s job; Ms. Laura’s grumpiness about Detective Anna’s performance; Ms. Kaylie’s frustration with Detective Anna using her school supplies.  It seems that every Guide had a motive.

Interrogations began immediately and are ongoing.

“Being around others who are better than I am makes me want to do my best work”.

Given the choice between five motivators to rank, based on this TED talk by Dan Pink,, many Eagles gave top billing to other options of their own invention.  Beyond reward, pride, praise, mastery and autonomy they spoke matter-of-factly of deadlines, competition, and for one student, “Getting good at this will help me in the long run”.

Monday, with two weeks to go until the end of the session, Eagles recommitted to excellence in all their work, which on this day included tracking bacteria growth (excellence in keeping their lunches down)photo

carrying out science experiments of their own design (excellence in interrogation techniques)


And of course, excellence in Poppy

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 

What’s the Connection?

Shift gears overmuch?  Your transmission will suffer.

So what’s the connection between a rotten banana and correct usage of the past progressive*?  What about a link between precise language, kindness, and a rather annoying buzzer?
Scattered and smothered are fine at the Waffle House but less than optimal for the pursuit of excellence.  At Acton, we strive toward holistic cohesion in our curriculum, though juggling many tasks is a real-world skill that also comes into play in our classroom.  Ironically from a guide’s standpoint, the task juggling unfolds quite naturally, while the cohesion requires a bit more forethought.
To connect the above dots: Eagles are working as Detectives-in-Training, learning valuable science as they pursue the skills they’ll need to not only solve crimes but also make a persuasive case against a suspect before a jury.  At the same time, they are creating their own mystery crime stories, using logic, artistry and their fabulous imaginations to pursue excellence as writers.  (* and brushing up on their grammar along the way- though a quick survey of adults on campus suggests that while it’s incredibly important to be able to use tenses effectively, no one actually cares what the tenses are called).

Underlying the “Learning to Know” and the vital “Learning to Do” is the even more essential “Learning to Be”, and a focus on character building and discussion skills permeates every “know/do” quest.  In today’s launch, we went over the new student-generated community standards and honor code with a careful focus on defining any potentially vague terms.  Terms like “scapegoat”, “cheat” and “bully” were hashed out to a unanimous understanding by the community.  Students circled the discussion back to the positive by brainstorming what steps to take to prevent negative situations from beginning/escalating.  At the end of the day, we introduced a new reward for our daily Kindness Hero, challenging all to channel their detective skills toward looking for evidence of kindness in their peers.
Throughout all of this, Eagles passed around a buzzer, to hold themselves accountable for accidental use of the verbotten “um”s and “like”s.  Hooray for excellence in discussion skills, but here’s one vote for Buzzer-Free Fridays starting, um, now.

“Ummm…I mean like…ummm…like”

Have you ever been driven half crazy by Valley Speak, that teenage compulsion to pause every millisecond to insert “ummm” or “like” into the conversation?

If so, you might find our Eagles’ latest middle school experiment interesting.

In an attempt to improve the quality of discussions, Eagles now “buzz” during a Socratic discussion whenever the work “ummm” or “like” is used.  A “buzz” means your comment is over, and you’ve lost your turn to speak.

At first, eight out of ten comments were “buzzed”.  The conversation moved forward in fits and starts, seemingly engulfed in an angry beehive.  Many speakers were shocked at how often and how much they relied on filler words.

Now, after only two days, the use of filler words has dropped eighty percent or more.

The surprise?  Discussions are now full of purposeful silence.  Listeners lean into the conversation, engaged, instead of tuning out.

As a parent, this may be Acton Academy’s greatest gift to humanity, at least for our family.

A telling detail; a piece of moldy bread, an awkward pause….

What do a telling detail; a piece of moldy bread and an awkward pause have in common?  The are all part of a day of learning at Acton Academy.

Yesterday the Eagles were hard at work completing the first draft of their mystery stories.  We even suspended journalling for most of the week, to allow for more time to add plenty of the telling details that make for excellent writing.

Then came project time, where the science of decomposition (moldy bread) and lie detection (an awkward pause) were two new skills Eagles needed to be investigate, practice and perfect as part of solving the “whodunnit” in our Detective Quest.

photo (183) photo (184) photo (185)

Learning to communicate and persuade in ways that matter in the lives of our Eagles.  Putting science into action by practicing skills that not only help solve a quest, but will be used in real life for decades to come.

That’s the difference between “learning to do” and “learning to be” for our Eagles — and the monotony of  regurgitating “learn to know” facts that soon will be forgotten.

Friday’s Lessons Learned

At day’s end, Eagles reflected back to lessons learned from the morning’s weekly wrap-up, discussing the amount of effort they’d put into their work vs. the amount of payoff they received in terms of personal achievement and our classroom points-tracking system.  In Core Skills they determined individually which work to focus on to best reach the goals they’d set for themselves on Monday.

ImageWhile all journaled in hopes of winning the weekly writing contest (congratulations, Kenzie!), some focused on Khan skills, others on their Mystery Fiction writing, others on their Apprenticeship Quest work including some beautifully rendered Mind Maps.


Looking for tools to increase focus and help in their pursuit excellence, some students experimented with making their own “Claire Boxes”, named for the Eagle who first had the idea of creating a sensory-deprivation space to block out distraction and help her dive deeply into her independent work.ImageImageLater in the History Yurt, all Eagles were able to enjoy special personal space with our new eye pillows; Eagles lay back with the lavendar-scented pillows weighing pleasantly against their eyelids and listened to stories from 17th Century England, including the military and political strategies of Oliver Cromwell during and after the English Civil War, and a look at daily London life through the diaries of Samuel Pepys.  We learned that one of our Eagles’ ancestors was likely the actual executioner of King Charles!   All students are working towards learning about their ancestry as part of their ongoing series of History Challenges.

Enjoy the three-day weekend and have a Happy MLK Day, see everyone on Tuesday!

“Dr. Watson, I presume?”

Our Detective Quest entered a new phase today.

Eagles added handwriting analysis and lie detection to their list of investigative tools.

photo (179)

And began to piece together all the clues, and to narrow in on a prime suspect.

photo (180)

Discussing and voting on the most important piece of advice offered by Sherlock Holmes.

photo (181)

Earlier Eagles met in small groups to critique the first drafts of their mystery stories, the best of these to be published in a collection at the end of the session.

Learning to do, in real world projects, where the end result matters.

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.

photo (174)

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.

photo (176)

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.

Learn Math; Forget Math; Learn Math Again

Learn math; forget math; learn math again.

Most of us learned math in school for a test; forgot the math; and learned it again when we had to use it in the real world.

Our first efforts weren’t wasted.  Modern neuroscience suggests our early work was  laying down pathways that made math easier to learn the second time.

Our experiences at Acton Academy are crystal clear on one count: there’s no more need for traditional math teachers.  With game based adaptive programs like Khan Academy; Dreambox; ST Math and Manga High, students can learn math on their own and teach it to each other much more efficiently and effectively than with a traditional math teacher. Plus, Eagles can move at their own pace and have a lot more fun.

Perhaps even more importantly, a 70% score isn’t “passing;” in fact, even a 90% score won’t do.  You have to work on a math subject until you master it, before moving on.

But let’s not kid ourselves,  In time, this mastery will fade unless the skill is used repeatedly in the real world, in a way that matters.  Only those neurological pathways will remain, waiting to be reactivated.

At Acton Academy, we try to put math skills to use as soon as possible.  Today, Eagles worked to gather measurements from shoe impressions from a crime scene; sample the heights and shoe sizes of classmates; and use probabilities and ratios to predict the height of a possible suspect in the Detective Quest. In doing so, they had to create their own approaches and formulas – some admittedly a little complex and convoluted, but in the end all coming to the same answer.

photo (172)

photo (173)

photo (171)

Will our Eagles forget this math too? Surely.  But they are less likely to forget the logic, reasoning and teamwork that was required to use the math to solve a real world problem.

This means our Eagles will want to learn more and more math and to put it to use, every repetition preparing another neural pathway, until the habits of math and science are deeply imbedded.

Writing their own stories, in every way…

Do what you say you’ll do, or follow your conscience?  Do you have the courage to be honest about your choices?  In this morning’s huddle, Eagles discussed adding a West Point-style honor code to their governance documents.  At issue in particular is internet use during free time.  While exploring the repercussions of offering our bodies junk or nourishment, and to what degree the level of tidiness reflects the learning space as a “landfill” or a Studio of Excellence, this age group is facing decisions re drawing boundaries for their interaction with the Web.  Student-generated guidelines will be introduced tomorrow after a town hall-style debate, and the decision is firmly the students’ to make.  Guides and parents stand together watching this important process, reinforcing the message that this is serious, the community is involved, and we absolutely trust you to argue with each other until you create an agreement that’s right for you.

Today saw the launch of Thursday morning Writers’ Workshops.  First project, tying in with the afternoon hands-on Detective Science quest: write a great detective mystery.  Eagles brainstormed about elements crucial to a great crime story, listened together to a classic Sherlock Holmes short, then revised their megalist to create their own rubric of excellence in crime/mystery fiction.  Agreeing that a detective (whether casual or pro) is a crucial character, they used StoryMatic to jump start ideas for character generation.  Until they didn’t.  Whoops- a Guide set a guideline without thinking it through all the way to make sure there’s an ultimate WHY.  Naturally many students rebelled; they can smell bogus a mile away.  In this case, the students were set free to use StoryMatic, or not.  Ask your Eagle which they chose.  The MS’ers take this seriously at least in part because they know that what they do matters, and that they, as brave and thoughtful adventurers, are creating a path for others to follow.

New path in PE: after an invigorating awards ceremony with certificates for Olympic Champions (whoever exceeded their previous best by largest percentage increase) and trophies for Best Sportsmanship (congratulations Ellie and Pace!), down to the field for….. Wiffle Ball!

Ms. Anna and Ms. Terri challenged the D.I.T.s (that’s Detectives in Training) to learn the science behind fingerprinting and analyzing data from footprints left at a crime scene.   Also a great lesson in following directions, as it turned out, and in cleaning as you go.
Tomorrow, a look at goal tracking for the week, a Town Hall meeting, the journal reflection contest, history in the yurt and a more meaningful version of (offline) Game Time.

Back in the Flow

The first day back from break almost always is a challenge.  The second day, better.

We opened with a clip from Whodunnit – a wonderful test of our Eagle’s observational powers.  Attention to detail matters. It matters for a writer who uses crisp details to hook you into a story; it matters to a cook who needs “everything in its place;” it matters to a detective at a crime scene.

We also are tightening the focus on goals – long term goals for the session; weekly SMART goals; daily goal check ins with Running Partners.

After setting ambitious goals for all three, Eagles were back at work in Khan for math; were introduced to our new Mystery Writing challenge by Ms Abigail; and continued on their Detective Quest with hands on work collecting fingerprints and documenting a crime scene.

photo (167)

photo (165)

photo (166)

In Pursuit of Excellence

How do you encourage a learning community to strive for excellence?  That was today’s challenge, with a roomful of energetic Eagles back from Christmas Break.

We opened the day debating whether our overarching goal this session should be Excellence or Mastery?  Excellence won the day, based on the Eagle’s logic that the practice of Excellence must precede Mastery.

So Excellence became the “word of the session,” with signatures as a sign of commitment.

photo (162)

We continued with a review of the spring session, which will include a Crime Solving project and a reenactment of the Salem Witch Trial.

Silent Core Skills time began with Eagles setting long term Khan goals, including mastering the last of the basic math skill sets, before individual Eagles will be asked to choose whether to dive deeply into Algebra, Geometry or Trigonometry in a few weeks.

We followed with a Socratic Discussion about how you decide what book to read next.  Should the decision be based on ”fun” or some other criteria?  Fiction or non-fiction? Genre? A focus on the time period we’ll cover in History this spring (1600 to 1776); a scientific subject we’ll explore in projects like DNA or genetics or psychology?  Improving a skill like writing or speech making?  Or perhaps going deep into a biography of a hero.

Eagles get to choose what they read, but we want them to choose wisely.

Just before lunch we unveiled this spring’s plan for securing an apprenticeship in April, and how Mind Maps might encourage some new paths or people who can help.

Then after lunch, the launch of our newest project, using science to solve crimes, complete with a real crime scene.

photo (164)

photo (163)

How do you encourage a learning community to strive for excellence?   Paint a vision of an exciting journey. Offer choices.  Insist on clarity.

No guarantees, but a good start.