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Timely teaching

"Timely teaching" Continued...

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

One message to Acton MBA students: Don't worry about getting your noses bloodied. Be willing to experiment. Following unproductive practices unthinkingly: There is no time for that. Getting caught up in ego and image-burnishing: There is no time for that. The world is such an interesting place that our eyes should be looking outward and upward.

Strikingly, that's also the message to much younger students at the Acton Academy, a private elementary school-this fall expanding to middle school as well-founded by Sandefer and his wife, Laura. That's where students first learn a statement on one wall of the Acton complex that displays Sandefer's sense of how education, and life, ought to be pursued: "I am on a hero's journey."

Comfortable with failure

By Susan Olasky

Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman/WPN

The Acton Academy's building is next to the Acton MBA's. Both inhabit a beautiful site, with a panoramic view of downtown Austin. In good weather, students take blankets and sit on the hillside, backdropped by trees and the city skyline.

Natural light pours through the windows of the spacious elementary classroom. Colorful rugs create islands on which groupings of desks sit. The room has a Montessori aesthetic: Light wooden pegs hold backpacks. Nets slung over chair-backs corral folders. Red and gold beanbags invite kids to curl up with a book. Only a dark suit of armor seems out of place.

In one corner, 30 students-first through fifth grade-form a semi-circle. Their teacher, Anna Blabey Smith, leads them in a Socratic discussion based on two short video clips. In one, John Sealy Brown explains how people learn real problem-solving skills by figuring out how to fix things. He peppers his talk with phrases about innovation, thinking outside the box, and improvisation. In the other, Zig Engellman extols the benefits of teaching directly, offering students new information in small bites, guaranteeing success.

"I want to ask if you agree or disagree with that," Smith says. "Raise your hand if you agree. ... Why do you agree with that?" Smith calls on one student and lets him call on the next. Students politely disagree with each other: "That's a good point, Charlie, but ..." After more questions and more discussion, the teacher asks, "Would you rather go to a school run by John Seely Brown or Zig Engelmann?"

The kids mostly agree that Engelmann's school "wouldn't be much of a challenge. It might be boring too." "It might be helping you in school, but hurting you in life." Smith then brings the discussion down to a practical choice. She holds up a small paperclip machine and asks, "Do you want to make it by reading and following instructions?" Or by "tinkering, playing around with it, and trying to figure it out yourself?"

More than half raise their hand to show they want to tinker and figure out how to make the paper clip machine. They line up to receive wire cutters and a paper clip bending jig, a wooden base, and a handful of paper clips. Spontaneous groups form around the room. Some children bend their paper clips right away, as though speed were the object. Others carefully study their tools and the model before starting. Teacher Smith tells those who wanted to follow written instructions where to find them on the internet. She tells both groups they can change their minds anytime.

Lead teacher Kaylie Dienelt Reed describes one of Acton Academy's unusual attributes: "We think it's important that our students become comfortable with failure. If you ask them what that means, most of them will say there's no such thing as failure." Projects like the paper clip machine grow out of that philosophy: "Built into every project are opportunities not to succeed. That's part of life when you're trying things."

The kids embrace the idea. One child disagreed with Engelmann's definition of success: "If it's that easy to succeed, when you put them in the real world, where they have to grow a business or have to be an employee, they'll think, 'There's no way I can lose. There's no way I can lose money. No way I can go bankrupt. I'm just going to win, win, win, like I did at school.'"

That may sound precocious coming from a fifth-grader, but it reflects the school's risk-taking ethos. Reed says parents choose Acton because they want a school where children learn how to teach themselves: "From the beginning the children understand that they are on a hero's journey, and they will change the world. They're not just coming to learn information but they are coming to learn how to do things."

Beyond that, Acton wants each child to see himself on a hero's journey, where a person of character uses his unique gifts and passions and discovers, with the help of guides and fellow-travelers, that area of need in the world where he can make a difference.

Daily projects, Socratic dialogues, and independent work on core subjects-reading, writing, and math-help students discover their talents and passions. So does art and PE, and visits by successful entrepreneurs.

Students do well when they come from families where they've already had lots of freedom and responsibility: "If they have direct instruction at home, they won't be able to adjust. It's so different from what is happening here," Reed said.

Acton Academy uses the term "zone" to describe the sweet spot where maximum learning takes place. Picture a donut. The hole represents the comfort zone, where kids might retreat to rest and regroup. It's a fine place to visit but not to camp. The donut itself represents the challenge zone, where most learning occurs. By stretching, it can grow. Most of the school day should be spent in that challenge zone, but sometimes kids undertake a challenge that's a bit too big. They can hit the panic zone (outside the donut).

Reed says the projects provide "a great opportunity to get to that border between challenge and panic." And talking about zones gives students the vocabulary to describe their inner state when they go from learning to frustrated overload.

Acton is not a Christian school, but its goals and purposes express a commitment to "cherish the arts, the wonders of the physical world and the mystery of life." It's committed to "economic, political, and religious freedom." Its website states without embarrassment: "We believe that the American Experiment, with all its faults, is the best hope on earth for protecting human liberty."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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