AUSTIN, Texas-Time. In the fine movie Gettysburg (1993), Robert E. Lee is making decisions that will make the difference between life and death for thousands of soldiers and for the future of the Confederacy itself. Meanwhile, cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart is conforming to traditions involving personal honor, and Lee four times has to tell him, with increasing urgency, "There is no time for that!"
Jeff Sandefer, founder of (and master teacher within) the Acton School of Business, tells the same to applicants to his highly rated MBA program in Austin, Texas. When one prospective student asks, "Am I able to work while enrolled in Acton?" Sandefer replies, "There is no time for students to work while attending Acton. Students work 80 to 100 hours or more a week attending class, meeting in peer groups, and preparing cases." The Acton website states, "Time-entrepreneurs don't insult each other by wasting it. ... Here you'll get a transformational experience in less [than] half the time of other business programs-your time's way too valuable to waste."
Sandefer made his first entrepreneurial dollars by seeing undervalued time: After a company hired him to paint storage tanks, he saw paid-by-the-hour painters moving slowly in the west Texas heat and set up his own business that paid by work done. Individuals who worked quickly could earn a lot, so Sandefer (still in high school) was hiring football coaches and their players, and making a lot of money himself. He went on to gain a Harvard MBA and to found Sandefer Offshore (a highly profitable oil and gas company) and Sandefer Capital Partners (a half-billion-dollar energy investment fund).
In recent years he has been influential in Texas policy discussions by zeroing in on students wasting time in college-often taking six or seven years to graduate, when they do, and often showing little or no increase in critical-thinking skills. He wants to zero out college personnel who don't contribute to the education of students. He critiques liberal arts professors paid $150,000 or more to teach three small classes, who waste much of their time writing journal articles on trivial subjects that only a handful of colleagues read.
But Sandefer hasn't set up his own college yet, partly because he believes lots of small, non-distinctive colleges will go out of business over the next decade, and big ones will either change or flounder. We talked near where the University of Texas at Austin is constructing more buildings, a pursuit Sandefer thinks is "insane. The bureaucracy is serving itself. It's like in the Soviet Union, which built walls to protect it from the outside while it was imploding on the inside."
Sandefer taught part-time at UT and helped to build a top entrepreneurship program, but left 10 years ago after the university persisted in emphasizing research over teaching and preferring professors who write journal articles over those who build successful businesses. He didn't back off then and hasn't since in his critique of conventional higher education, noting that it's built on exploiting taxpayers and playing on the sentiments of alumni.
Sandefer then did more than criticize: He created an MBA program that reflects business reality. Grading is on a forced curve, which means the lower-ranked students flunk out. Teaching is on a forced curve as well, with student evaluations of professors taken so seriously that the lowest-ranked loses his job. (The professors are part-timers with business careers of their own, and poor evaluations show a teacher that he should moonlight in a different trade.)
What the survivors get are classes appropriately low on the ladder of abstraction. Sandefer learned the case method approach while getting an MBA from Harvard, and uses it in his school to focus students' minds on business realities rather than abstract theories. At the same time, Acton recognizes that dollar signs can also become one of the abstractions, so statements about "meaning" abound: "We believe in building profitable businesses, but know leading a meaningful life is much more important," and "Learn how to make money. Learn how to live a life of meaning."
Sandefer's "Life of Meaning" course is required for all students, and he says three kinds are common. Some have already survived life-threatening crises and know how to remain unshaken during tough times. (They generally do well.) Some are angry because of "unresolved father issues." (To do well, they need to address their pasts.) Some come from prestige colleges, have had 4.0 grade point averages, have captained football teams. Sandefer says they may be unwilling to risk their successful self-images and need to get their noses bloodied.
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."
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."