Three Ways To Help Your Child find their life calling

At Acton Academy, we believe that each child is a genius who has the potential to change the world. We use the framework of heroes to describe this journey. Here are three concepts you can use in your family to help your child embrace their hero’s journey to find a calling that will change the world.

1. Look for sparks and gifts in your child.
As parents, we often wonder how we can encourage our children to excel and develop talents. Are great athletes and musicians made or are they born that way? Science is indicating that it isn’t simply natural talent that leads to accomplishments but rather it’s the combination of pursuing your talents with grit. Angela Duckworth, a leading expert on developing grit, suggests that “The most successful people in life are both talented and gritty.”

“It starts with a spark,” Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code noted in an interview. Children begin to show interests at a very young age. If your child is passionate about making music, sign them up for piano lessons. If your budding entrepreneur is selling rocks in the driveway to make extra money, consider having them attend the Acton Children’s business fair or local farmers market. When your child continues to explore interests and try new things, this will help them develop important awareness of their strengths. Watching for what sparks your child’s interest and fostering this awareness will help them find their life’s calling.

Children’s personalities and interests fluctuate considerably. With this in mind, parents are encouraged to not overwhelm their child with a particular activity simply because they show an interest. Encouraging diverse activities and experiences will help children have well rounded opportunities to find their talents and interests!

2. Parent with a growth mindset and encourage risk taking.
Carol Dweck professor at Stanford University said, “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.” We want to encourage our children to use their passions and skills to serve the world and encourage them to expect hardship and persevere when challenges come. Life is hard and a sense of entitlement only breeds disappointment. Creating a culture of accepting hard challenges with courage and learning from failures will produce a resilient child who is eager to find their life’s calling. “Your vocation,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “is that place where your deep joy and the world’s deep need meet.”

So what is a growth mindset? Here are three practical tips from author Mesilla Taylor.

“What did you learn to day?”
“What mistake did you make that taught you something?
“What did you try hard at today?”

3. Help your child develop a concern for their community and world while modeling what it means to live a calling yourself.
Children begin to develop a curiosity about their future as they expand their gifts and explore their world. Bryan Dik Ph.D said “For children who are insulated from the world around them, the source of motivation may center around themselves. For those who visit unfamiliar places, build new relationships with peers outside their comfort zone, and experience the plight of those much less fortunate, their motivation will likely better account for the experiences of others.” Parents are encouraged to travel with their children and volunteer for local humanitarian efforts to help connect their children with a sense of awareness of the world.

As parents, our children likely learn more from what we do than what we say. Discussing your own life goals and motivation will help your child connect deeply with the process of working toward your life’s calling. Letting your child see you doing hard things, making mistakes, and rebooting will give them first hand experience with resilience. Its often easy to forget that as parents we too are on a hero’s journey to find a calling to change the world!

Khan Academy Math Works guest post Jeff Sandefer

Khan Academy Math Works!

Khan Academy

Khan Academy (KA) is a website with short videos and adaptive game-based exercises in a wide variety of subjects, most notably math, where it covers from “1+1=2” to advanced Calculus.

We’ve been fans of Sal Khan from the start, personally, as philanthropic investors and professionally, and were delighted to play a small part when he launched Khan Lab School.

If you are an Acton Academy parent, you may have become accustomed to hearing a mild expletive uttered before “Khan” when an Eagle makes a sloppy mistake and sees a mastery challenge disappear.  You may have even heard “Khan doesn’t work for me.”

Well, we finally have enough data to set the record straight:

If your Eagle dedicates 25 minutes a day, every day on Khan Academy math, watches the videos and asks for encouragement when needed, KA is a powerful way to learn math, offering deeper and more comprehensive coverage than the average traditional math class.

We encourage Eagles to do math during silent core skills time, so they can earn their way to higher freedom levels.  If your Eagle is struggling, he or she may need help removing distractions, overcoming resistance or avoiding victimhood – but it is unlikely Khan Academy is the problem.

KA Math in a Nutshell

  1. The secret to KA math? 25 minutes a day, every school day.

KA does work for learning math, and it works extraordinarily well.

An MS Eagle needs to invest 25 minutes each school day, five days each week, for 36 weeks a year will finish Algebra I in middle school.

MS Khan minutes

Minutes of Work to Finish KA MS Subjects

An LP Eagle needs to invest 42 minutes each day, five days each week, to complete all required high school math in Launchpad in 2 years, setting the stage for Pre-Calculus and Calculus.

LP Khan minutes


Minutes of Work to Finish KA LP Subjects

An MS Eagle who comes from another elementary school needs an additional five minutes per day to catch up on the first half of Pre-Algebra we cover during ES.

ES Khan skills

ES-MS Skill Overlap

  1. KA math is deeper and more extensive than a traditional math class.

Mastery of math through KA provides more depth and coverage than a traditional school.  We estimate KA math is between 2-4 times more efficient and effective than the average classroom lecture.

  1. KA math works for Eagles at all levels of intrinsic math ability.

Some Eagles require 20% more time than the averages above; some 20% less.  But when an Eagle decides he or she is serious about completing math, KA works for all levels of math ability.

  1. Some Eagles soar through seven years of traditional math in as little as 18 months.

Eagles who start to love math can rocket ahead or catch up quickly.  We believe most differences in advancement rates are a matter of attitude, not aptitude.  By investing 90 minutes each day – 30 minutes at Acton Academy and an hour at home – an Eagle can finish all of middle school math in nine months.

The difference in time to completion is not a matter of talent, but largely the amount of time invested.

A Few Caveats:

  1. Learning math is hard.

An hour of intense concentration on Khan Academy burns up a lot of brain energy and is draining.  But this is exactly what deep mental work is supposed to do.  So when your Eagle complains: “Math is hard;” the best response is: “It sure is.”

  1. Eagles must watch the KA videos for a specific problem. 

An Eagle absolutely, positively must watch the videos – there is no substitute, unless he or she wants to Google to find different YouTube videos.

  1. Eagles who do KA math every day do far better than those who binge and procrastinate and binge.

One secret to doing well with KA math is to do it every day.  It is very easy on Khan to track when your Eagle is working on math, and whether he or she is truly focusing on videos and problem sets that will help, or wasting time to log minutes.

  1. A subject like Algebra Basics is not the same as a school year of math.

Do not make the mistake of assuming each KA subject area equals a year’s worth of work.  An MS Eagle from our ES should finish Pre-Algebra plus 30 skills in Algebra Basics in the first year of MS and Algebra Basics plus 40% of Algebra I in the second year of MS, to be on track.

  1. Encouragement and companionship can help.

Some Eagles like to sit next to a parent, sibling or friend and collaborate.  As long as the encouragement delivers more learning than distraction, having a coach is helpful.

  1. KA math is not Math Utopia

Everyone would like to have Euclid sit next to him or her to learn Geometry.  And it would be much better to learn all math in a hands-on, real-world way or to dive deeply into Set Theory; real-world risk management, computational math and other areas.

But this Math Utopia doesn’t exist – yet.  If a parent or a college admissions officer wants an Eagle to trudge through a traditional math sequence, KA math is a terrific way to proceed.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line? KA Math works.  If your Eagle is struggling, we hope you’ll follow our lead in the studios, and use Growth Mindset encouragement and focus on incentives and consequences designed to address Resistance; Distraction and Victimhood, until KA math becomes a deeply embedded habit.

106 year old Elizabeth Sullivan shares her hero’s journey

Every once in a while you meet someone who is truly inspiring.  Today I had the privilege of meeting Elizabeth Sullivan who recently moved to Las Cruces.  Elizabeth, known as GaGa by her family, is 106.  She is a retired math teacher, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and wife for 65 years until widowed.  She has lived through wars, times of peace, the Great Depression, the 60’s, and the technology boom.  I asked her what her secret to longevity was.  She replied, “Oh, I don’t know.  I try to help people.”  Her family says that she lives with extreme gratitude for each day and delights in small luxuries like chocolate milk.  Ms. Sullivan reminded me of the hero’s journey we so often speak of at Acton Academy.  She found her calling as a math teacher and still to this day helps her great-grandsons complete math problems.   When I asked her about her marriage and any advice she might have she simply said, “I guess we just loved each other.”  Then with a twinkle in her eye she said, “You know, you can’t watch your husband and your children at the same time.”  Commenting on when their grandson climbed into the alligator exhibit at a local zoo to get his dropped gum under her husband’s supervision.  Her quick wit and charm are contagious.  I asked her if she had any advice for a student who might struggle with math.  She said, “Any child can learn math – it’s easy.”  We have given her an open invitation to come share her love of math at Acton anytime.

I share this story because it so beautifully exhibits what a life well lived looks like.  Elizabeth, even though she was only one of seven women in the university she attended, worked hard to pursue her calling in math.  She found her calling and she made the world a better place.  May her story inspire your family as you pursue your hero’s journey!


Three Traps and a Preventive Posture for Parents Guest post by Laura Sandefer

It’s the beginning of the year and the Eagles are learning the processes and systems that will help them soar for the long haul.  For parents, these early days can feel baffling and stressful. But hold tight. With each day that passes, your child is learning the ropes and will be able to teach you everything you need to know about Freedom Levels, Badges, and Journey Tracker before you can say “Pyramid of Intentionality.”

In the meantime, parents can get geared up to support their Eagles’ journeys by knowing the three trapsalong the road:

  1. Resistance: All Eagles go through the doldrums now and then. But a real resistance to achieving goals becomes a fear-based habit that’s hard to break. The studio systems are built to send up a flare so Eagles don’t get so far down the road of resistance that there’s no easy way back to the path of progress.
  2. Distraction: We embrace a laser-focused purpose for studio life at Acton Academy. It’s literally written on the walls. When an Eagle chooses to push or pull others away from our sacred purpose, the boundary systems kick in quickly. The nips and tugs Eagles experience as they cross boundaries will serve them well in the long run as they learn self-control and intentional decision-making.
  3. Victimhood. Playing the part of a victim is the worst trap of all. Blaming others. Not taking responsibility for personal choices. Criticizing the rules, systems or processes without offering ideas or solutions.  Saying, “It’s not fair.” Punching out angry emails rather than pondering possibilities. Through the Honor Code, studio contract, Eagle Bucks, and conflict resolution processes, our Eagles will learn to pull themselves out of this trap and move beyond it to accept responsibility and grow. That’s what heroes do.

There is a powerful two-part mental posture we parents can hold to help our children from falling into these traps.  (For those of us in the habit of defending on behalf of our children or blaming without questions, this posture will take time to practice – like getting flexible enough to touch our toes.) Practice holding these two things at once:

  • Curiosity
  • Open-mindedness

Rather than getting mad, defensive and blaming the school or others because your child lost an Eagle Buck or got an Honor Code violation or is in a low Freedom level, ask some open-minded questions of your Eagle with a sincerely curious heart: Why do you think that happened? Why is that process in place? What could you have done differently? What can you do to fix this?

And then send them back in the game. It’s the only way they’ll find their way out of the trap.

A few effective words to share as you encourage your Eagle: I’m curious how you are going to deal with this. This is hard and I trust you can do it.  I can’t wait to watch you move forward.  I believe in you. I love you.

What Authority Do Parents Have at Acton Academy? Guest post Laura Sandefer

What is appropriate parental authority?

This is something we’ll explore more deeply with the Eagles in the fall as we circle back around to one of the most powerful Overarching Questions of all: When does a hero submit to authority?

To prime your pump for the coming months, I wanted to share information on parenting styles from the field of psychology and human development.

You’ve probably read about “authoritative” versus “authoritarian” parenting. What are the differences in these styles? And how does Acton relate to one or the other?

Kendra Cherry, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist who has published thousands of articles and authored the book, “Everything Psychology Book” simplifies the definitions:

“Authoritative parenting is a style characterized by reasonable demands and high responsiveness. While authoritative parents might have high expectations for their children, these parents also give their kids the resources and support they need to succeed. Parents who exhibit this style listen to their kids and provide love and warmth in addition to limits and fair discipline. The authoritative parenting style is usually identified as the most effective. Kids raised by authoritative parents have strong self-regulation skills, self-confidence, and happier attitudes.”

Authoritarian parenting, to the contrary, is described by Cherry as “characterized by high demands and low responsiveness. Parents with an authoritarian style have very high expectations of their children, yet provide very little in the way of feedback and nurturance. Mistakes tend to be punished harshly. When feedback does occur, it is often negative. Yelling and corporal punishment are also commonly seen with the authoritarian style.” (From the health and wellness resource website, “VeryWell,” April 24, 2017.)

There is a funny misconception about Acton Academy and it comes to me most often in the form of a question: Do you really believe parents should step back and let the children rule the roost like they drive their learning at school?

Simple answer: No.

We believe parents are parents. Parents are not Socratic Guides even though it’s fun to play one at times.

While many of the methods we use at Acton benefit life at home – writing a family mission statement and tracking family goals, for example – we believe children through their teenage years need parents to claim their role as authentic family leaders rather than abdicate that authority to peers, a school or American culture.

Our model of learning attracts hard-working, curious, smart and generous parents who sacrifice much so their children will find their greatest gifts and move into adult life prepared and with purpose. While we are an extremely diverse group in light of our religious, economic, cultural and political backgrounds, we are bound by the same principles of excellence, freedom, and responsibility.  And we agree that children should be held accountable for their choices so they grow into responsible heroes rather than victims who blame others and the world when things go wrong.

And while we do not give parenting advice, what works at Acton Academy is most closely aligned with the description of “authoritative” parenting.  The Eagles’ daily life in the studios includes high expectations; clear boundaries and consequences; and surplus amounts of feedback and warmth to support each Eagle.

Being in sync with parents on the basic pieces of this perspective forges a partnership that benefits the children for the long run – even when things go wrong in their studio lives in the short run.

With this kind of adult relationship surrounding them, the Eagles know they are loved deeply and that their choices matter. They know they are worth being held accountable and that they are capable of excellence.

To support our partnership with you, I have a couple of summer reading suggestions.

On the topic of parental authority, I recommend, “The Collapse of Parenting” by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. The data Dr. Sax presents is unsettling but the suggestions he provides to parents are simple and inspiring. (Teaser: You’ll be very interested in his research on why using growth mindset language doesn’t work well when it comes to instilling virtue; and why learning self-control may be one of the most important things our children achieve.) I have a purchased copy for each of my Acton families and I’ll be handing them out at school over the next few weeks – a little summer gift to you.

I also would recommend, “How to Raise and Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

Happy parenting!

What are the Main Differences Between Montessori and Acton Academy Programs? Guest Blog Post Dr. Vineet Nair & Andrea Nair, M.A., CCC

What are the Main Differences Between the Montessori and Acton Academy Programs?

A question we commonly hear at our London, ON, Canada Acton Academy is this: “How is your school different from a Montessori school?”

We relied on the experience of having both of our children attend a wonderful Montessori program as toddlers and pre-schoolers, our own research on this topic, as well as the input from other Acton Academy owners who have also spent time contemplating the answer to this question. We certainly share many values of the Montessori system and care greatly for our friends who run and work in these schools.

A common response to this question from other Acton owners is that Acton Academy is almost like a Montessori 2.0 or Montessori for the 21st Century. While Acton Academies do believe in many of the principles espoused by Maria Montessori (respect of the child, self-learning/freedom of choice, multi-age classrooms, a prepared environment and teachers as guides, to name a few), there are significant differences between the programs as well. It is important to note that not all Montessori schools are officially licenced so there is some variation in the style of programming delivered. Similarly, each Acton Academy is independently owned and operated as well so absolute generalizations cannot be made.

With that in mind, here are some specific distinctions that make an Acton Academy a unique learning environment compared to a Montessori school.

Consistent Progressive Education Goals vs. Focus on Early Years

Maria Montessori seemed to invest her genius in preschool-aged children and early childhood development. Acton owner Kai Olderog had this to say: “She designed it for those ages and placed an enormous amount of trust in children that age to be responsible for their environment and capable of doing amazing work.”

The Montessori programs offered for older children weren’t necessarily developed by Maria Montessori and have been formed by individual programs wanting schooling for higher ages. As a result of this distinction, many Montessori schools add more traditional elements to their programs as the children get older; this actually leads to decreased responsibility in the higher grades. At an Acton Academy, our Hero’s are given more responsibility as they get older and are heavily involved in self-management, leadership, and self-government of their learning environments.

Having said that, our school and many other Acton Academies accept students at age six or seven so we often rely on, recommend, and partner with local Montessori programs for the toddlers and preschoolers who will come to our school at that older age.

The Focus on Mastery and Use of Technology

At an Acton Academy, a large emphasis is on the development of mastery when learning Core Skills (reading, writing, math, and spelling). We utilize tools, at times technology-based, that allow our students — we call them “Heroes” — to learn at their own pace and individually. We continually seek the most efficient ways to enable this, and many Acton Academies incorporate other paper-based tools (Singapore Maths, Writer’s Workshop, for example) to find the best means to achieve our ultimate goal.

Technology is one tool we use to allow this kind of learning to take place. For the most part, Montessori programs have a reflexive policy against the use of technology in the classroom.

Jeff Sandefer, the co-founder of Acton Academy said this about our program: “Acton isn’t pro-technology, but we use powerful game based programs for areas like Math, as well as relying on the internet to bring experts and the world to us. We don’t dismiss technology out of hand.  If it’s a useful tool, process or habit, we use it, whether its Khan Academy or a walk in the park.”

Socratic Method vs. Group Discussions

Acton Academies emphasize the use of the Socratic Method in educating our students. This differs from the group discussions led by teachers, which Montessori programs encourage. The Socratic method, with the use of active questioning in order to draw out and clarify one’s thinking, is a vehicle for developing critical thinking skills, stimulating critical reflection, and developing depth of character. Although group discussions are better than lectures, often the teacher is still in the role of ‘expert’ and this can limit the robustness of thought required by the students.

Ability to Apply Learning to the Real World

Real world preparation includes a need to adapt to a place influenced greatly by technology, a continual shift in knowledge, and a rapidly changing landscape. We just don’t know what kind of future our children will face so developing useful skills and a critical thinking approach is extremely important moving forward.

The Acton Academy system is focussed on preparing our Eagles to find their own calling in the real world. We continually help our students in this regard in multiple ways:

  1. The use of the Hero’s Journey heuristic as a way of using stories as a backdrop for learning, and in understanding that they themselves are on their own journey
  2. Bringing in guests to discuss their Hero’s Journey and demonstrate the challenges everyone faces on their life’s path
  3. The use of Quests as structured real-world challenges that create real world accountable results, much like project-based work
  4. The use of Apprenticeships as Eagles get older to make the world their classroom
  5. The focus on entrepreneurship, leadership, and self-management
  6. An emphasis on character development and the concepts that allow our Hero’s to do their best – Curiosity, Gratitude, Grit, Growth Mindset, Optimism, Purpose, Self-Control, Social/Emotional Intelligence, and Zest

At an Acton Academy, we continually focus on relating lessons and tasks to the real-world in order to give our Hero’s the skills, abilities and confidence to succeed in whatever field they choose. The focus is on the process of learning, not just the content of it, thus enabling them to be ready for whatever the future may bring.

Ongoing Improvement to Achieve our Educational Goals

An Acton Academy has, at its core, the mission to enable our Hero’s to Learn to Learn, Learn to Do and Learn to Be, along their path of finding their own calling. The program has been developed with this goal in mind and therefore there is constant reflection on what is working and what is not, so continual improvements can be made as needed. The Montessori Method is a specific educational philosophy in and of itself, and thus it can be hard to change in a rapidly changing education landscape.

Overall, while Acton Academies do share, respect, and incorporate many of Maria Montessori’s philosophies on children’s education, we do have a number of differences which we feel help our Heroes to best prepare themselves for the future. It comes from the similar desire to do all we can for our next generation but also takes advantage of the recent advances in tools, philosophy and understanding of education in the 21st Century.


Written by Dr. Vineet Nair & Andrea Nair, M.A., CCC – Infinity School: An Acton Academy in London, ON, Canada

What qualities lead to life success?

On the recommendation of the podcast Entrepreneur on Fire, I bought the book Think and Grow Rich by Napolean Hill. This is a very fascinating book written in 1937 on the heels of the great depression.  This book has continued to be a best seller.  There are a few quotes I wanted to share that I believe represent the culture we are trying to create at Acton Academy Las Cruces.

“Before success comes in any man’s life, he is sure to meet with much temporary defeat, and perhaps some failure.  When defeat overtakes a man, the easiest and most logical thing to do is to quit. That is exactly what the majority of men do.  More than five hundred of the most successful men this country has even known, told the author their greatest success came just one step beyond the point at which defeat had overtaken them. Failure is a trickster with a keen sense of irony and cunning.  It takes great delight in tripping one when success is almost within reach.”

One of the hardest parts of navigating the Acton learning approach is recognizing that failure is a powerful teaching tool.  When our children struggle with a concept or personal relationship at school, how we respond to the situation showcases our own mindset.  Are we willing to allow our children to walk through this process or will be coddle, blame, or demean?   Will we respect failure as a powerful educator while simultaneously offering love and support?  Are we mindful of our own approach to life – do we quit when something gets hard?  Do we blame or complain vs. taking personal responsibility? The most powerful parenting opportunity we have is modeling good life choices.   Being a part of Acton has challenged me to grow as a parent and face some of my own failures with a growth mindset.  We are stronger as a family.   One of my number one priorities of this school is to motivate, challenge, and encourage all of our families; ours included, to live a life of courage and purpose.   If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to complete the process of developing a family mission statement.  We just completed ours a week ago and it is posted on our refrigerator.

Mr. Hill outlined key skills that are critical to leading a successful life.  These eleven traits, although created in 1937, ring true today.  Our children have the opportunity to practice these life skills on a daily basis at Acton Academy.

  1. Unwavering courage.
  2. Self-Control.
  3. A keen sense of justice and fairness.
  4. Definiteness of decision.
  5. Definiteness of plans.
  6. The habit of doing more than paid for.
  7. A pleasing personality. No slovenly, careless person can become a successful leader.
  8. Sympathy and understanding.
  9. Mastery of detail.
  10. Willingness to assume full responsibility.
  11. Cooperation

Mr. Hill’s comments on education were fascinating.  “This missing link in all systems of education known to civilization today, may be found in the failure of educational institutions to teach their students how to organize and use knowledge after they acquire it.”  This comment builds a great case for project based learning.  If you don’t see the “why” behind what you are learning, it feels like a pointless waste of time.

Mr. Hill further goes into the concept that general knowledge is somewhat useless.   He notes that a person should focus on their greatest gifts and then outsource their weaknesses to a mastermind team. This was such a profound statement!  Within our school, Eagles who are good at a certain skill can sign up to mentor a student who might struggle in that area.  This provides an opportunity for Eagles to exercise their greatest gifts while giving other Eagles the chance to develop a “master mind” team to help them solve their problems.    Learning to collaborate and play to your strengths is a solid plan for success.  Often as parents we tend to focus on our child’s weaknesses and how we can improve upon their flaws.  Instead what would happen if we focused on augmenting their strengths? Mr. Hill noted that a person’s greatest asset is their ideas.  “The great leaders of business, industry, finance, and the great artists, musicians, poets, and writers became great because they developed the faculty of creative imagination.”  Ironically many of history’s most impacting people never went to college – Abraham Lincoln and Bill Gates immediately come to mind.  It is the human imagination and ability to dream that is our most powerful asset.  A goal of an Acton education is to ignite curiosity and creativity.

In summary, my vision for our school culture is very much defined in the hero’s journey.  Learning, growing our strengths, and making the world a better place by using our inherent uniqueness and creativity.  “The person who stops studying merely because he has finished school is forever hopelessly doomed to mediocrity, no matter what may be his calling.  The way of success is the way of continuous pursuit of knowledge.”   Napolean Hill


Parenting an Acton Academy Child — Be Prepared for an Interesting Journey! Guest Post by Andrea Nair

If you are a parent of a child or teen at an Acton Academy school, chances are good that you have heard one of these types of comments from your children:

“Mom, you really shouldn’t say ‘never’ because that’s not actually true, is it?”

“Dad, you do know ‘That’s impossible – it’s not going to work’ is a fixed mindset, don’t you?!”

“I really don’t like that you’re telling me what to do. Can we please process map this?”

Yup, some of our students actually talk this way – even the youngest ones. It can be quite challenging parenting a child when you feel they’ve got one up on you! I know how that feels because I have two Acton hats: one as an owner/ Head of School and another as a parent of a child in this program. My two children are enrolled in our Acton Academy school, called Infinity School in London, ON, Canada.

At the request of parents who were both smiling and making a grimacing face at the same time, I agreed to address this question: How do we parent an Acton Academy child?

In addition to learning academics in a self-paced, modular way (versus a curriculum set to a calendar), our Acton students develop many non-academic intelligences. It appears that it is this type of learning that is throwing our Acton parents the biggest curveball.

Here are some of those types of skills your child is learning along with some suggestions and resources to stay in tune with your ever-growing child:

We engage in Socratic discussion

Acton Guides provide a few opportunities throughout each day to grow critical-thinking skills by facilitating Socratic discussions.

The website ReadWriteThink provides a good definition:

“Socratic seminars are named for their embodiment of Socrates’ belief in the power of asking questions, prize inquiry over information and discussion over debate.  Socratic seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic seminars and implies their rich benefits for students:

The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)

Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.” In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom. James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.” 

Perhaps you can continue this at home by asking your children why they’ve come to a certain conclusion and get them to defend their words.

We answer questions with questions instead of providing the answer.

For the most part, Acton Guides respond to questions with questions. For example, if a child asks, “What time does core skills end,” we might respond like this: “What tool can you refer to that will have this information?”

We’ll also smile and nod at statements (which can frustrate the kids) and wait until they realize that a statement isn’t going to get them anything: they have to construct a question. For example, if a students shouts, “This KHAN Academy program isn’t working” we might smile, nod, and wait until he or she says, “Can you please help me understand why I’m not getting this mastery challenge right?”

Your child is going to get used to not having answers handed to them, thereby experiencing both the joys and frustrations of having to use their good judgment, resources, or help from others to get what they need. We suggest continuing this practice at home.

We allow chaos to be a teacher of valuable skills.

Jeff Sandefer, the co-founder of Acton Academy said this about getting involved when students are not upholding the studio guardrails: “Step back from the situation. Let them try to figure it out, and then step back again.”

It is REALLY challenging to step back when a child is having trouble like an outburst, not getting himself ready on time, or forgetting to put his stuff away. It’s very easy to just jump in and say something like: “You’d better pack up now or you’re going to be late for Quest time,” but doing so robs them of developing valuable skills. In this case it is the skill of being aware of the time and knowing what to do in order to be on time for the next block in the schedule.

The students in our school were having trouble getting themselves where they needed to be on time, so we did a process map of the problem. The funny thing was that some of them blamed their parents for always telling them when to stop and get ready to go as the reason they haven’t learnt how to be on time!

Process Map

Instead of telling the kids what to do, doing things for them, or rescuing them, we allow them to make mistakes, face their frustrations, and make themselves do things that are hard.

We foster the development of a Positive/ Growth Mindset.

I can imagine that your child has already called you on saying something with a “fixed mindset.” My kids feel like they’ve got me when they catch me doing that! To avoid frustration all around, I recommend reading Carol Dweck, PhD’s book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Here is a graphic with some explanation of this concept:


We facilitate the growth of conflict management skills.

It is common to see a “peace table” in an Acton Academy school or a conflict resolution process posted up on the wall. We guide our students in the process of understanding each other, the real root of the problem, to think of some options available, and what will be tried to resolve the problem.

I imagine that this might be quite challenging for families who are not used to calmly sitting down to resolve differences. If you are interested in learning more about what your child is hearing about the brain, the calm-down process, and conflict management skills, I suggest looking more through Dr. Dan Siegel/ Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s work, following my Parenting Educator page, or asking your child to try to explain these to you.

We expect a lot from children and view them as equals.

We have a fundamental belief that children are more capable than they are usually given credit for and give them opportunities to prove this to us. The students are not viewed as inferior to the adults – we’re all on a journey together.

This may require breaking out of our accustomed role of providing answers or steering the conversation into familiar territory.

Generally, I’d say that being an Acton parent requires a lot of courage, patience, and openness. The types of skills our children (and us, too,) will develop are phenomenal in helping them reach their highest potential, however; there will likely be learning bumps along the way. These are the kinds of bumps that provide us with truly helpful experiences that will make a positive difference in our lives. If you have any questions, I invite you to visit our Infinity School Facebook page to post a comment there.

Preparing Scientific Heroes in the 21st Century – Guest Blog Post by Jeff Sandefer

How do you teach science in the 21st century? If you want to inspire young heroes to change the world through discoveries, inventions and innovations, our belief is that you don’t “teach” science at all.

Why not? Because when you study the lives of world changing scientists, you realize that these heroes weren’t “taught” science in a traditional way. Sterile historical experiments and textbooks do not provoke the imagination. And the indoctrination of Scientism – that science is the ruling authority in the modern world and can explain the entire universe – discourages the irreverent curiosity and maverick spirit that lead to new breakthroughs.

Our goal is to equip and inspire our Acton Eagles to be brave scientific paradigm busters, puzzler creators and data gathers, even if they never choose science as a calling. We invite them to deeply study the lives of paradigm busters like Galileo and Einstein, citizen-scientists like Benjamin Franklin and tireless trial and error scientific entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison or the pioneers at Bell Labs.

In the curriculum, we continually refer to Thomas Khun’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions, the paradigm shifts in the past and the brave heroes who led them, emphasizing how today’s accepted truths may be overthrown by future mavericks.

In real world projects our Eagles face the tensions between competing paradigms and heroes, learning to be skeptics who seek to disprove theories, gaining a practical understanding in hands-on challenges of topics like electricity, chemistry, genetics, biology, physics and cosmology, to name a few.

We want our Eagles to experience firsthand the ego clashes, catfights, accidents, missteps and reversals that made science, by standing in the shoes of Newton or Galileo or Einstein. To see how scientific advances begin as stories, created in the minds of heroes, influenced by emotions and political intrigue, leading to theories, experiments, inventions and eventually world changing innovations, all subject to later being overturned by new discoveries or innovations created in a competitive marketplace.

We long for our Eagles to be deeply curious and awed by the mysteries of the natural world and to focus more on provocative questions than answers. That’s why we’ll often revisit the debate between Francis Bacon and Adam Smith.

Is Bacon correct that discovery leads to invention to innovation in an orderly process, and that government support of institutionalized science is the key to progress?

Or is Adam Smith correct that tinkering with real world problems, adding investment to old science in pursuit of practical trial and error experiments, in places like Edison’s Menlo Park lab and Bell Laboratories, creates the wealth that allows us to invest in basic science?

Teach science as a dry series of facts and an arrogant institutional worldview? Never.

Expose Eagles to the rich history of scientific creative destruction, debating hard questions in the shoes of real world heroes? Absolutely.

Equip them with the courage to ask difficult questions and seek their own truth, with the practical skills to design and launch trial and error experiments and the humility to admit when they are wrong?

Now that would be a real scientific advance, wouldn’t it?

One Truth We Can’t Get Around at Acton – Guest Blog Post by Laura Sandefer

My friend would sleep on her textbook before a biology exam thinking the words might sink in. She also played recorded lectures while she slept hoping for the same easy fix.

Sadly, there is no easy fix for true learning.

As much as we talk about the love and fun of learning at Acton, there is one truth we cannot get around:

Learning is hard.

How so?

  • I must embrace a bit of suffering for deep learning to happen. (Maybe it’s pushing through the disturbing feeling of not understanding something; or maybe it’s the sting of mistakes that are bound to happen.)
  • I must invest a large quantity of time. (Here’s the gist of a recent conversation in our home: “I’m sorry you hate math right now. You think you’re not good at it? How much time did you spend on Khan Academy this week? Let’s look at the dashboard…oh, 65 minutes this week? And you think you aren’t good at math? It takes a lot more time to master math. What you are doing is really hard. Have you watched the videos? How many times? I know these videos may not be exactly entertaining but they do bring you face-to-face with a master who will show you how to do the work. Think of him as your private coach. Some people watch a video over and over again to understand, finally, how to work the problems. There is no easy way out of this. I know you can do this. I’ve seen you work really hard many times.)
  • I will want to quit. Distractions tantalize and practicing is boring.
  • I have to be the one to do the work. No one can do it for me. And learning cannot be done to me. Learning is a deeply internal, ultimately private experience. Even when collaboration and play are part of the on-going process, deep learning is dependent on the learner’s honesty and effort.

Grounded in the story of the Hero’s Journey, the Acton Eagles have guides and fellow travelers alongside them as they learn. This means they have others who believe in them, love them and will not let them fall under the radar. It also means they have a safe place to grow their intelligence and their strength of character, even grit, over time. This is the magical – and difficult – road to living a meaningful life that is happy and purposeful.

At Acton, we embrace constructive collaboration, friendly competition, game-based programs and engaging quests. While these things may add fun and energy to the day, the truth lurking around every corner of every interesting activity is the hard work that must happen for the learning to stick.

As a mother, this means I must let my children have the suffering along with the fun. There are days I want to take the struggle away. I mustn’t. If I do the work for them, I will rob them of their own learning especially in the realm of “learning to be” where we become fully human, living rich lives filled with love and joy.

Up next: How do I know if my child is learning anything at Acton? I can’t see progress in the portfolio this time.

And then: An Important “To Do” item for Acton Academy Parents.