Category Archives: Socratic

Ethical Dilemmas

According to a recent customer satisfaction survey, our Eagle love to wrestle with ethical dilemmas we often use for morning launches.  Would you like to give one a try?

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Ethical Dilemma One

You take your six year old niece and a friend to the beach.   Suddenly, a scream and you see the girls being swept to sea by a riptide. As you swim out, you realize you can only save one girl at a time.  Your niece is the stronger swimmer, but there’s at best a 50/50 chance she’ll drown if you save her friend first.  Who do you choose to save? Which of the following ethical frameworks would you use to make your decision and why?

  • Utilitarian (cost/benefit)
  • Justice-Fairness (treat everyone the same)
  • Virtue (do the right thing)
  • Judeo-Christian (act out of love, no matter what)


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Ethical Dilemma Two

While taking a high stakes college admissions test, the stranger next to you appears to be cheating.  She is poorly dressed and seems ill.  This may be her only shot at college, and she may have braved great odds to get this far. Do you turn her in or not?

Would it change your answer if you knew the person well and didn’t like them?  If it was your best and only friend, who recently stood by you in difficult times?  If it was your brother?

What consideration, if any, do you owe to every human being?  Do you have a special duty to a family member?  To one of your “tribe?”  To a fellow American?  Do these same duties extend to animals?

Ethical Dilemmas are like airplane simulators: a chance to practice making difficult decisions under pressure, so you can make better decisions in the real world, when lives, fortune and honor are at risk.

At Acton Academy, our educational philosophy is:

  • The right analysis and thinking lead to the right decisions;
  • The right decisions become virtuous habits;
  • Virtuous habits deeply etch the lines of character; and
  • Character determines destiny.

Ethical dilemmas are just one more way our Eagles prepare for the destinies worthy of a hero.

A New Approach to Civilization

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This session there were thirty six college level lectures about the history of inventions we wanted to  discuss in Civilization, but only six weeks in the session.

What did we do?  We held a weekly contest.

Each Eagle chose a hero, watched the associated  DVD and created Socratic questions.  Then once each week, the class came together for six Eagles to pitch their heroes.

A vote followed, the winning DVD was watched by all and a Socratic Discussion debated deep questions about the impact of invention and creation on civilizations.

This way, each Eagle had an opportunity to delve deeply into a hero he or she cared deeply about, everyone learned something about thirty six  world changing inventions and the lives of six heroes were deeply probed by the group. looking for larger themes.

All of this with great energy and enthusiasm.

Besting the Acton MBA’s

The air was electric with intentionality and seriousness.   Fifteen Acton Eagles had earned the right on Friday to prepare an Acton MBA case, and discuss it in the Acton MBA Socratic amphitheater.

Just before the launch, the Eagles learned the session was being taped and would be seen by the incoming MBA class, as a challenge to see who could have the most powerful Socratic Discussion. Game On!

Mason’s opening was crisp and on point.  Claire’s counter equally powerful.  Soon each Eagle was thoughtfully listening, responding, disagreeing or adding evidence.

The deep lessons from the Acton sims:  Robo-rush (bootstrapping); Lemonade stand (customer needs); Cha-Ching (sales funnels); Pricepoint (pricing); Fistful of Dollars (working capital and cash flow) and Galactic Zappers (assembly lines) could be heard in every comment.  So could the impact of the Acton MBA notes our Eagles had read and the entrepreneurship outings in the real world.

“My lemonade stand has a low break even and a rapid payout.”

“Should we price low or high?”

“What other substitutes would satisfy the same customer need?”

“Should we use an artisan production process or an assembly line or the Toyota cell method?”

“How do we defend against competition?”

Any class of Harvard or Acton MBA’s would have been wowed.

But the most impressive comments were those at the end of the day:

“When can we do that again?”

“That was the best adventure so far.  We should earn the right to learn like that again.”

“Can we create a makeshift Socratic amphitheater at Acton Academy?”

“We need to work harder on our own intentionality and Socratic process.  Can we start preparing cases for Civilization.”

“I’ve never had an hour and a half fly by so fast.”

“That was so much FUN!”

Stop and ponder this for a while.  Middle schoolers so excited about thinking and learning that they were begging for more work to do.

It just doesn’t get much better than that.


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,”

Ready for Liftoff

Today was the launch of the new Acton Academy campus, complete with 25 middle school Eagles (of course, counting Ellie, who is on an around-the-world adventure, and will be joining us by Skype.)

So what did we accomplish today?

  • An icebreaking exercise where Eagles quizzed each other, one-on-one about  personal Portfolios and asked their favorite “What motivates a Hero?” question (our overarching question for the year.)
  • A “comfort zone/challenge zone/panic zone” hands-on experience.
  • A  competitive egg tossing contest, complete with complex cost-benefit calculations.

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What, no reading, writing or arithmetic?  Well, as a matter of fact, we did work in some Core Skills practice, including starting to re-evaluate Khan Academy’s new dashboard and some journal writing and “reading aloud” to group members (a brave task for some who had never before read their inner thoughts aloud.)

Plus, we practiced launches and Socratic discussions in groups of 24, 12 and 8, just to test the dynamics.

And finally, Eagles self organized for their first (messy) clean up, since they’ll be responsible for most janitorial services (including scrubbing toilets.)

Lots of work for a first day, but our goal these first few weeks is laser focused: To make Acton Academy so much fun that no one ever wants to leave, while setting sky high standards for being a member of the the learning community.

Because once you get this magic right, the rest is easy.



The last day of the school year

Came too soon!

The morning afforded reflection.


We had one final Socratic discussion: Based on everything you’ve experienced and learned over the past year, does the past determine the future?

Evidence for both side was flung across the floor.   What do you think?  Ask your Eagle.  But give them a day or two to decompress.

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today was only penultimate

…yet kind of hard to top.
This morning we decided to add an additional mile to the Official Summer Session Tues/Thurs 2-mile outing. An extra mile on the water, that is-  paddling around the mysterious island in the wide, easternmost part of Ladybird Lake.

photo-7IMG_0608photo-8Energized by their morning adventure, the Eagles set to making portfolio boards for themselves and their new Running Partners, to help insure that the new Studio will be a welcoming, joyful space to come together in again this September.


Then it was time for a final bit of reckoning- which Eagle had accrued, and maintained, the highest number of Eagle Bucks this school year?  The top three winners got to choose music for the party tomorrow, the flavor of cake we’ll enjoy (thank you, Ellie!) and one other surprise.


This penultimate day of the academic year day ended with a surprisingly rigorous (a guide was surprised, anyway) Socratic discussion about the Hero’s Journey and how best to introduce the concept in a meaningful way to our incoming Eagles in the fall.  This penultimate blog post will end with a less Socratic question: can you tell exactly who is tipping whom into the lake??


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.

de Tocqueville and Civil Society

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A visitor who wants to import the magic of Acton Academy to his school, circled the Eagles to ask the secrets to a strong culture.

Their answers:

1. Strong covenants between students.

2. Eagle Bucks and accountability.

3. A Town Council and Council Meetings that made Eagles, and not adults, responsible for creating and enforcing laws.

4. A belief that “we are all in this together, and not separate tribes like the Stanford Prison experiment.”

5.  Socratic discussions where we hold each other accountable for respecting and upholding the discussion process.

6.  Daily, weekly and session long SMART goals, where we have the freedom and responsibility for our own learning.

7.   Running Partners who are assigned, so you learn to get along with people who are different than you.

8   Faith that we really are heroes, who are going to change the world.

Not only do the Eagles know what makes a strong culture, soon they will be able to build their own, in companies, not-for-profits and community groups.  Exactly the kind of everyday heroes that Alexis-de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America.

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.

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!


We play games.

Clue, Boggle… Alamo Dodgeball, check. But we also use games to inspire and motivate, to gauge comprehension, and to challenge the Eagles to keep striving towards excellence.
Yesterday the Eagles spent the morning doing core skills as usual, with the added twist of acting as members of the clergy, nobility, bourgeoisie or peasantry of late18th-century France (didn’t take long for a revolution to manifest). In the afternoon, they competed in the Anticipate the Questions game, putting their virtual travel itineraries through a series of fun but grueling real-world troubleshoots.

Thanks to the dad of an incoming Eagle for sharing this article about the latest research on the creaky monarchy of the A-F system:
Games, projects and discussions instead of lectures, tests and grades. In the words of King Louis XVI’s advisor, it’s not a revolt, sire, it’s a revolution.

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.

History, and the stories that bind us

Namaste. The light within me recognizes the light within you.  A lovely tradition started by Ms. Laura, the “Namaste” that begins every session of Middle School History brings us together; as a group in the present, and with the cultures that we meet in our collective past.  It gives us a loving foundation from which to separate in lively disagreement, while always maintaining our curiosity and mutual respect.

History holds a special place in the Acton curriculum. In some ways, it stands alone, yet it also encapsulates everything else we do.

We look at History and ask the Eagles to ponder why civilizations rise and fall, and to notice patterns of Hero’s Journey archetypes.  This year, we also ask the overarching question – which happens to be endlessly interesting when looking at human history- of whether the past determines the future.

Sometimes this thinking happens in the form of silent reflection; more often, in the form of Socratic discussion.  We put the Eagles in the shoes of a decision maker, and ask them to grapple with often thankless propositions, just like real leaders, bold or reluctant, must do.

This session, we’ve broken down the question of why civilizations rise and fall into four categories, inspired by Michael Mann’s extensive studies of the Sources of Power.  For every world-changing event the Eagles explore, they analyze whether the effects were economic, political, ideological or military.  They’ve created an ongoing timeline that cross-references the year, the event, and the implication.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question: What is your place in history?  What history will YOU make?
We use History Challenges as a way to immerse students more deeply into the details  of our world.                                                          Some Challenges have been very analog; fill in the names of the countries on this blank map of the Middle East, for example, after learning about the decline of the Ottoman Empire and noticing together that the lines drawn at the end of WWI have grave implications for international relations today. Other History Challenges are digital; one example would be asking Eagles to play an online game that puts them in the shoes of a young person during the early years of the American Revolution.
  But the most profound challenges have been when Eagles are asked to investigate their own family histories. As an article in today’s NY Times points out, understanding your family history is a powerful motivator.  At Acton, we build community in a way that stresses the narrative of our community, and everyone involved understands why this community exists, what it stands for, and why they are are a part of it.  With gratitude for our community, Namaste.


The discussion this morning was terrible.  Low energy. Lethargic.

Even Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address couldn’t penetrate the fog. Uncharacteristically, no one seemed willing to participate.

What to do?  Simple.  Ask the Eagles what was wrong.  So I did.

The answer: “Daylight Savings Time.”  Everyone was tired and grumpy from getting up one hour earlier.

The solution – an unscheduled fifteen minutes outside in the cold air, running and jumping and playing.  Then back to work, with new energy.

It’s one of the secrets to Acton.  When something’s not going well, we ask the Eagles.  And then let them solve the problem.

Making Waffles, Planning Parties and Standardized Tests

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

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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!

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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.

“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

down with unanimity!, except regarding kindness

We do not like unanimity.  Usually, it means we’ve asked a bad question.

This week, Eagles have worked on discussion skills with a sometimes jarring rigor. Their progress has been amazing!  Next step: commenting intentionally to one another rather than filtering through a guide.  Guides’ big work: to trust, and step aside.

When is the last time you’ve printed out an email for your peers to critique before sending, or took a strong stand in a Socratic discussion, arguing against even your most respected friends?  Or shared honest reflections about your efforts through the week, aloud, to a supportive yet competitive team of colleagues?  Or made an impassioned speech in front of a small group?

Our students have done all of this, and just in the past 24 hours.  They’ve set for themselves quite high standards of excellence.  Not always met; five months into this, most of the young adults in our community have experienced failure as defined by their own terms, and every single one has picked themselves back up to try again.  Failure or success both possible, but perseverance non-negotiable. And lessons learned that they will never forget.

Back to unanimity:  Is asking the Eagles to catch a classmate in the act of committing kindness a weak challenge?  Always room for improvement, but it was beautiful to end the day on a chorus of commendations.  Never degrading into chaos, all made their voices heard in support of the kindness of their peers.  Who won?  everyone, of course.

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.

“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.

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

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

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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.


Many schools focus on subjects like math, reading and writing.  At Acton Academy, we expand this list to include Socratic debate, public speaking  and using video and other web based forms of communication.

But these are still just tools and skills.  Our goal is to equip our Eagles to make decisions and persuade others, so they can change the world.

We launched the day by watching some of our previous class debates on Lucy, our new filming system that allows Eagles to critique their Socratic comments.  Watching yourself on film is difficult, but there’s no faster way to improve the crispness and impact of your words.

We continued this theme later in the day with a Socratic discussion on rhetoric – working on persuasion while we practiced it in real time, debating a better system for class clean up at the end of the day.

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Eagles explored how using the past tense in a discussion invites blame (“You should have…”) and the present tense suggests standing on principle (“We need to ____ because it’s the only fair thing to do.”)  Using the past and present tense tends only to make others defensive or to puff up your own ego.

So we experimented with using the future tense – and offering questions to frame choices – as a way to move others to action.  Even after only a few rounds of practice, our Eagles quickly realized the power of being able to frame the debate.

Some important lessons, in the words of our Eagles:

  • Your goal in a debate is to move others to action; not simply to win an argument.
  • Questions are more powerful than statements; and
  • Excellence requires the courage to look at yourself in the mirror (or on film.)

Another good day.

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.

Enlightened trial and error

“You can do it!  You will have many more opportunities.  I will help you if you want help.”

“It’s okay- let’s do it again, so you can get it”, because  I do not want them to go through life thinking , “If I fail, it means I’m not supposed to do this”.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Let’s try again.”

These are some of the words the Eagles wrote in their journals this morning as they considered what to say to a friend who fails to reach a goal.  The question arose: would you rather work with a partner who succeeds when you fail, or who fails with you? Many stated that they’d want to work with someone who succeeds, so they can learn from that person.  Some preferred the idea of learning alongside someone on the same level, making mistakes together, growing together.

“An unstoppable force!” is how one Eagle described a team where one partner’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses, and vice-versa.

At the start of history class, Ms. Laura asked students: what motivates you?  why do you work as hard as you do?  and after collecting responses, did a beautiful job of refreshing everyone’s memory about the meaning of Socratic discussion: Socratic discussion is not a debate, it’s a principled discussion.  There’s no argument to be won; the point is to seek truth, to seek a new perspective.  With these reminders, the Eagles participated in student-led Socratic discovery about exploration before lying down to listen to the story of the rise and fall of Dutch New Amsterdam in the New World.


Teamwork was spotlighted during project time, launched by Ms. Anna with a clip about the product design firm Ideo.  The Eagles were taken with this radical approach to collaboration and remarked about how “constructive rather than destructive chaos” could lead to great things.  They got to put the concept into action by dividing into small teams to critique each others’ games (link to the ideo video: use password:academy), reporting afterwards how helpful the extra brain power was in improving their work, experiencing first hand the Ideo mantra of “Enlightened trial and error”  outpeforming the “planning of a lone genius”.


The school day closed with a revisit to our Hero’s Journey map, as we come close to the end of this first semester at Acton.  The questions of Who am I?  What promises must be made and kept?  Who’s walking with me?  have taken on visceral meaning for these young adults as they’ve looked deep within and asked themselves tough questions, worked hard to fine-tune and adhere to their own systems of self-management, decision making and accountability, and collaborated with running partners and small groups on film and other projects.

But for our Heroes, the learning doesn’t stop at 3:15.  Except for a handful of Eagles whose intense sports commitments preclude it, Thursdays are chess club day.  Carpe Diem!


Intuition, Martian colonies, and expensive scissors

What are the differences between logic, emotion and intuition? Can you imagine circumstances where you’d be wise to use one over the other to make the very best decision?
After pondering these questions in a Socratic discussion, Eagles dove into their core skills work, paying extra attention to their SMART goals tracking as they prepared their end-of-week wrap-ups. Jack won our Friday journal reflection contest, with his response to “What’s the hardest thing you did this week?” (finishing the production leg of The Bandit film; he was lauded by peers for his excellent word choice, details, and dash of humor).

The morning ended with a debate about whether or not humans should colonize Mars, a la Elon Musk’s long-term vision for SpaceX. Eagles implemented terrific discussion skills: “Building on what Mason said, …” “I STRONGLY disagree with Charlie…..”, “I agree with Jack, and I’d like to add….”. One usually vocal student stayed silent until the end: “At first I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, but after listening to the points everyone’s been making, while I really see the value in what Charlie’s saying, I agree with Mason, because…”
It’s inspiring to observe these young men and women listening intently to one another, learning from their peers, and ultimately forming their own opinions.
While most of the Eagles played outdoors during free time, two – then three- then four as the desire to pitch in spread- stayed in to surprise their classmates with a pop-up dance and cupcake party, complete with streamers and helium balloons!
This session’ s theme of celebration seemed to have struck a chord. Special thanks to Ellie and Ana for their thoughtfulness.
After lunch, special guest filmmaker Brandon Dickerson joined us for an editing workshop- not a teacher lecturing to class about how to edit, but a professional bringing in his current project for a hands-on work session.  The Eagles prepared by reading over the bit of screenplay (Scene 41) that corresponded to the footage they were going to watch, and examining a set diagram to imagine how the actors would move through the scene.  After introducing his fancy new editing software while reminding us that all editing tools are basically “expensive scissors”,  Brandon screened his footage.  (Heated, of course) discussion ensued regarding which takes to use and how to cut them together to best tell the story.
Afterwards, during an abbreviated version of our usual Friday game time, a guide became so involved in an intense Boggle match that she forgot to keep an eye on the clock…. fortunately one of our student leaders realized it was five minutes past time to clean up for the weekend, and the Eagles worked together to get the job done.
Cooperation, respectful disagreement, spirited competition, and community celebration made for a fabulous Friday at Acton Academy!


What would you do?

Morning launch is an important time at Acton Academy.

The AA campus opens at 8 AM; the launch of the day begins at 8:30 AM sharp.  Many Eagles arrive at 8 AM and play hard on the play field, but everyone is seated and ready for group no later than 8:29.

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Launches are “brief huddles” – no more than fifteen minutes total —  that set the tone of the day.  Just a few sentences to connect to the last few days; a brief glimpse of one of the maps on the wall to locate “where we are” (the Hero’s Journey; our current Quest or the trajectory of a major project) ; and then a foreshadowing of the immediate challenges ahead.

Almost always the launch is framed in terms of a question; often connecting to the “overarching question” for the year, which for this year is: “Does the Past Determine the Future?”  Sometimes we show a brief video clip; other times we feature a governance question or behavior that’s challenging our community norms; more recently we’ve been focused on difficult ethical dilemmas.

For example, this week we explored the difficult question of how you would decide who lives and who dies, if faced with the choice of a speeding train that you could direct down one track or another.  Either way, someone will be killed, but by changing the scenarios, we explored the value of individual human life and how it differs for each Eagle.

What does this accomplish?  First, a focus on the difficult decisions our young Eagles will face as leaders.  Second, it sharpens their ability to reason and persuade, as we work hard to hone their Socratic process and rhetorical skills.  Often the discussion leader will pause to point out a Socratic technique that Eagles may want to use when they (soon) begin to lead discussions on their own.

Framing the day; putting the week, month and next six week sprint in perspective; reinforcing group learning norms; honing thinking skills; setting the tone for the day.

Quite an important fifteen minutes.

Quick MacGyver, the Secret Code

Terrorists are threatening to attack the City of Austin.  You have to decide whether or not to evacuate the city.  Luckily, you have intercepted a coded message.  If you only you can decipher the code, you have a chance to save the day.

You decipher the code by guessing at the frequency of various letters, and where they occur.  This leads you to a clue, and one chance to draw from a collection of beads – the frequency of blue beads equals the probability of an attack.

Then you realize, the more groups who crack the code, the more draws of the beads, the better probability distribution you can create, the better the odds that you make the correct decision.  But the only way you can help is by asking A/B questions – no direct hints.

Welcome to another day at Acton Academy, preparing the Eagles with the tools to answer:  Does the Past Determine the Future?

PS.  Our Eagles determined that the odds were against an attack – and they were right (this time.)

Football, film and gifts

Reading, writing and arithmetic – critical, fundamental skills, and our Eagles continue to progress faster than most middle schoolers – and thanks to Khan Academy and Shelfari, we have proof of their efforts.

But there’s much more to life, and thus should be much more to learning than the basics.

Like playing sandlot football before school starts.

Or in our morning discussion, exploring the right way to hold a film crew huddle, so you don’t waste your time in meaningless meetings (something I wish I’d learned a long time ago.)

Or as a task preparing Eagles for finding the right spring apprenticeship, having our My Hero’s Guide Mr. Temp inspire them with his drumming gifts as he asks: Are you born with powerful gifts or do you have to develop them?

Or having Allan Staker give his Hero’s story about the entrepreneurial ups and downs of starting a video-game company, a twisting tale about the risks and rewards of believing in yourself.

Yes, there’s far, far more to learning in the 21st century than simply the basics.

Eagles spent much of today in collaboration mode.  They held group discussions on decision making and process vs.result, ran quick meetings among film crews, had an usually competitive PE, and worked with running partners on 3D GameLab Quest projects.

On top of the nuts and bolts learning they foment, these team activities provide inspiration and joy- but character and life skills are in the forefront as students learn for themselves how to manage the occasional frustrations and disagreements of group work.  Balancing their individual needs and desires with those of their team and community proves an exciting challenge, and balances the individual and intensely focused work the students do as they go ever deeper into math, reflection writing, and other core skills.

The day ended with a beautiful surprise note from Ms. Laura, presenting her Gift of the Yurt.  Starting next week, the Eagles will meet for world history stories and discussions in a real yurt (which will move with us to our new campus next September), another way for these young men and women to come together as a meaningful, synergistic community.


Becoming a writer

Students have been writing in their journals every day; some have been writing a lot; others far less.  Today, we made our first major push into more serious writing.

After checking the day’s SMART goals in morning huddle, we dove straight into the writing project.

Eagles started by reading journal entries from four authors chosen by Ms Abigail: J.K. Rowling on inventing the word “horcrux;” Anne Frank’s diary;  a post from an eighteen year old learning a lesson about “eye contact;” and an entry from a college student about his cat. As they read, each student noted the most powerful parts of each selection.

Next, we had a short Socratic discussion on what elements made for strong writing: “being specific;” “describing sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch;” and “connecting with the reader’s emotions” were among the student’s observations. We also discussed “man vs man; man versus nature; and man versus himself/herself” as different ways to describe classic conflicts.

We then adjourned for each student to spend fifteen minutes of solitude considering the question: “At the end of your hero’s journey, which question will be most important to you: (1) Have I contributed something meaningful? (2) Was I a good person? or (3) Who did I love, and who loved me?”

Eagles then had thirty minutes to turn their ideas into a rough draft. As shown below, some wrote at desks; some in bean bag chairs; others outside near the lake.

After the drafts we complete, Eagles broke into groups of three, to read their favorite sentences, and receive affirmation and coaching from their peers, reinforcing the “power elements” they had identified before.

Two and a half hours of a concentrated writing workshop had passed in an instant, with the students making almost all of the discoveries. In the “lessons learned,” a powerful series of ideas surfaced about “how to write” (learn to do); about how writing affects your hero’s journey (learn to be) and about how the process we had used to create and critique writing could be improved.

In the afternoon, Eagles focused on their new MyHJ assignments of finding a Guide and Running Partner, and core skills.

Decisions, decisions

Today, the students got even more into the rhythm of core skills.  One student even remarked: “I never know math could be fun until I tried Khan.  I’ve even got my eight year old brother doing it, an hour each day.”

We’re particularly stressing the importance of setting SMART goals and striving for them.
And students are becoming more and more comfortable with the Socratic Method: listening, building and offering evidence.  One student today even referred to two past comments, weaving them together to make a more powerful point.

In Project Time, Eagles took on three decision making challenges, in the form of Acton sim games: Robo-rush (trial and error); Cha-Ching (a sales funnel) and Galactic Zappers (an assembly line process), contrasting these systematic ways to solve a problem with yesterday’s more “one off” methods.

Eagles now have seven different decision making processes to call on as leaders.  Quite an accomplishment for just one week.

September 4th – Observations

Attached are some photos from the day, starting from the first hero’s walk (notice the first photo of Coach Carpenter on the lower left!

Thank you to Ms. Abigail and Ellie for these observations:

– Ellie took ownership of her new space and acted as a community-minded running buddy by being the first to volunteer to oversee/brainstorm room cleaning tasks

-Jack showed good leadership and listening skills when he volunteered to take a turn moderating the question session.

-Charlie, during art, relayed a story he’d read (about a girl who claimed her eyes were the biggest things in the world because they could contain everything she’s seen) that added dimension to the task at hand.

– Ellie would like to add that Pace was a great Socratic discussion leader during the part of the day when we broke into two groups to ask and answer questions from the question  box