10 Things That Will Surprise You If You Put Kids In Charge

Personalized Learning

10 Things That Will Surprise You If You Put Kids In Charge

Acton Academy co-founder shares the lessons he's learned

By Jeff Sandefer     May 23, 2014

10 Things That Will Surprise You If You Put Kids In Charge

This article is part of the guide: From School to Shining School: 52 Stories from Educators Across the U.S.

At the Acton Academy in Austin, TX, we are experimenting with a "Learner Driven Community," a disruptive approach led by self-directed learners, in a community tightly bound by personal covenants and contracts, using the full power of the internet to craft a transformative, personalized learning path.

Inspired by the work of Sugata Mitra and his Hole in the Wall experiments, where children in some of the poorest villages in Africa and Asia, armed only with an internet terminal (and no teacher) have outperformed the top private schools in their countries, Acton learners are taking charge of their education. We use multi-age classrooms; the latest game-based adaptive computer programs; and quest-like adventures for deeper integrative learning, in a studio increasingly run by our young learners.

The driving force for the learning experience is the narrative of the Hero’s Journey, where each student is passionately discovering his or her gifts in order to find a calling that will change the world.

While we are in the early stages of refining the model, I believe schools like ours can deliver a transformative learning experience for less than $2,000 annually per student.

So far, the experiment has created a number of surprises, presented below in reverse order of importance:

Surprise #10: Teaching and learning may be inversely correlated.

The more adults in the room, the less learning occurs. Having 40 Acton Eagles learning from one another is far more powerful than having a traditional teacher in the room.

For example, we haven’t taught any math. Not one minute. Instead we have relied on a collection of game-based adaptive math programs such as Khan Academy. Despite having many Eagles who entered with low test scores, all but one of our Eagles is now on an advanced high school math track. One 13-year old has mastered virtually all of grade-school mathematics--including pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and trigonometry--in less than nine months.

Surprise #9: While there are real and serious learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD are mostly nonsense.

My guess is that over half of our young heroes would have been diagnosed as ADD or ADHD in a traditional school, yet they are thriving in a learner-driven environment.

Difficult, self-paced challenges, explicit relational contracts between learners, and clear rules of engagement help our Eagles focus intently during long periods of personal work time and during Socratic discussions. The freedom to walk around and schedule their own work time allows excess energy to be channeled in productive ways.

Boredom is a great motivator for creativity and taking on new challenges. It should never be numbed by video games or medication just to make institutionalized education more manageable for adults.

Surprise #8: Most of our fears as parents and educators say more about us than our young heroes.

Young people are far tougher and more resilient than adults believe. They deserve to learn to fail, and to have the chance to pick themselves up and try again. They also deserve the experience of receiving authentic feedback and learning how to give it. That’s why at Acton one of the most treasured lessons is the importance of failing early, cheaply and often.

Surprise #7: Video and computer simulations can be far more powerful than the written word.

I am a bibliophile--I love books--so this lesson was hard to accept. But watching our Eagles, it’s clear that the best YouTube videos, serious documentaries and computer simulations often are far more powerful than text.

Reading books always will have an important place, especially when it comes to inspiration and understanding human nature. That said, I predict one of the big surprises of 21st Century education will be the power of video and simulations to accelerate and deepen learning.

Surprise #6: Most young people care more about belonging than learning.

Many educators, including myself, believe young people should love to learn. But that's because we are autodidacts. That said, autodidacts are rare. We may believe everyone should care about learning but that doesn’t mean they do.

We’ve discovered that if we make the community a fun place to belong and forge strong bonds of group identity and explicit requirements and boundaries for members, our Eagles will work very hard to pay the price of inclusion. Perhaps a love of learning later arises from the habit of learning, but in the early stages, the habit of learning comes from wanting to belong.

One caution: all human groups are dysfunctional, be it a family, a non-profit or a leading company. Learner Driven Communities ebb and flow between the extremes of dictatorship and anarchy, before being able to spend more and more time in self directed “flow.” Learning to manage and limit dysfunctional behavior delivers some of the most valuable lessons in leadership but it does try the patience of adults.

Surprise #5: Freely chosen covenants, contracts, consequences and celebrations are far more powerful than rules, grades and standardized tests.

Our young heroes create and negotiate written relational contracts and “rules of engagement” for Socratic discussions. Quality of work is based on a personal pledge that it is your “best work,” which is confirmed by a Running Partner (a fellow learner as coach); peer critique and ranking; plus comparison to world class examples. Ultimately, most projects are judged in public Exhibitions.

We have found that these real world yardsticks are a powerful motivator that deliver rigor and excellence far better than the artificial, arbitrary and limited standards set by traditional educators.

Surprise #4: The power of apprenticeships

At as early an age as possible, we want our Eagles in serious apprenticeships, real world experiments designed to help them find a calling in life.

Our young heroes email, call and pitch in person to secure their apprenticeships and there is such great energy, anticipation and excitement for the spring program that this year three Eagles secured apprenticeships during the autumn on their own initiative.

Perhaps my favorite email came from a young Eagle informing me that her apprenticeship was “changing the world” so she would be absent on Monday because of an important meeting but would “try to check in sometime during the week.” Given that this young woman was several years ahead in her schoolwork, missing a week in the studio to learn more in the outside world thrilled her parents and us.

Surprise #3: In the 21st Century, 'Learning to Do' and 'Learning to Be' are ten times more important than 'Learning to Know.'

In an age of Google, it makes little sense to memorize and regurgitate facts. Knowledge is focused on the past; for our young heroes, the present and future are even more important.

In Learner Driven Communities, the focus is on difficult real world challenges, where “Learning to Do” develops the processes, habits and pattern recognition to make better decisions in the present. Even more important, making tough decisions develops the courage, grit and perseverance that forge character, or “Learning to Be.” We have found that if we focus on difficult challenges, our young heroes can absorb and retain knowledge far more rapidly than in traditional education, because the information matters to them.

Surprise #2: If you are a traditional educator, no matter how much you love children, your days are numbered and will be more stressful and less fun tomorrow than today.

Our traditional educational system seems to be crumbling, costing more each year and delivering less. I doubt that larger government handouts or well-intentioned reforms will save it, because it is based on false pretenses and a fundamental lie, namely that the institution cares more about children than its own preservation.

Not only do Learner Driven Communities deliver a far more powerful education, but given our experiments, I predict they soon will be able to do so for less than $2,000 per student annually. If that's true, then the work of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christenson suggests that this disruptive combination of superior performance and lower cost could lead to millions fleeing traditional educational institutions, and a collapse as rapid and unexpected as the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

If you love children and are trapped inside one of these failing bureaucracies, my call to you is to flee as soon as possible--not only to save yourself, but because your hard work is all that is propping up a phony regime. Launch and nurture a Learner Driven Community.It’s a lot more fun and far more rewarding.

Surprise #1: The hero’s journey is powerful.

We believe our young heroes are going to change the world in a profound way. They have no interest in a just a job or even a career. They will be satisfied with nothing less than a calling--literally, a Hero’s Journey in life.

A job is what you do to make money to survive. Few of us would want this future for our children or our grandchildren. A career is a series of jobs, each moving up the corporate ladder, to a higher level of responsibility, money and power. In the 1950s and 1960s, participating in such a rat race like made sense; you were comforted by a promise of security even when you found yourself stuck in a bureaucratic morass, somewhere around the vice presidential level.

That’s no longer true. Layoffs and pension defaults have broken the old social contracts between corporations and workers. Today’s youth know that they will be more like free agents. That’s why finding a calling in life, always important, is today even more critical.

So what is a calling? That’s our specialty at Acton. It means discovering your greatest gifts, finding a way to use them that brings great joy, so you can solve a deep burning need in the world.

An education that prepares you for a career not only appeals to prestige, but teaches you to obey the rules; to respect authority; to seek uniformity. To seek answers, not questions. It is not an accident that our educational institutions are lumbering, dysfunctional bureaucracies.

In an age that showcases rapid technological and societal change, these are exactly the wrong lessons. Questions are far more important than answers; failing early, cheaply and often more important than seeking security; knowing who you are and how you can serve, rather than letting someone else define you, is the secret to a successful, satisfying and fulfilling life.

That’s why at both our Acton MBA program and Acton Academy, our most deeply held belief is that every student and every parent who enters our doors is a genius, a Hero on a Hero’s Journey, who is destined to change the world. A genius is not necessarily someone with a 180 IQ, but “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.”

Our current experiments with Learner Driven Communities and the thousands of similar experiments being launched by educational disruptors are only a beginning. Many missteps and lessons lie ahead.

But even the early experiments show it’s time for parents and disruptors to embrace these emerging models, multiply them and spread them across the land, because no matter how imperfect, even in a nascent form, they are a vast improvement over the educational status quo.

Millions of young heroes are depending on us, to inspire and equip them to go out and change the world. We adults cannot let them down.

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative.

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