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.