Learning to Think for Yourself vs Learning How to Follow Directions

Acton Academy is a learner-driven school. To be “Learner-driven” means that when we do our core skills, the Eagles can choose their own pathway of education. This approach is beneficial for the students not just while they are young, but also when they grow up and face real-life challenges.

For instance, they can choose either Khan Academy, Aleks or Dreambox for Math. To earn badges in Math level 1, Math level 2, and so on, there are different goals depending on the program(s) they choose.

In our first few weeks of being open, we have noticed a big shift happen. Once the students had their plans in place, we noticed a lot of complaints starting to happen. Many students are drifting around the room, unable to focus and wondering what they were supposed to be doing. At one point they actually asked our Guide to tell them what to do and please set their goals for them. That was when it hit home to me that in a traditional school environment, everyone is taught to follow directions. No matter the task, they are given a worksheet or a list of step by step directions. Every moment of the day in a traditional environment is scripted. 

Here at Acton, on the other hand, we do not give directions. We tell students to choose their own path instead. There are directions in the badges, but nobody is constantly reminding and asking them “What badge do you want to work on now?”

Do you think it is better for your child to struggle with learning how to set goals and how to figure out what tasks they need to focus on to reach those goals at an early age rather than after they go to college and start a career? Imagine an employer asking your child to get a task done, but your child will answer “How do you want me to do it? Can you give me step-by-step directions?” Certainly, this is not what the boss wants to hear. It doesn’t matter how your child does it (we are all individuals and do things in different ways), what matters is to simply get the task done and reach your goal. This is the real-life skill we are teaching to our students while they’re young! In that way, their mindset will change so that they know they can handle anything that somebody throws at them. They will have confidence in setting their own plans in action.

Students want specific directions, but that’s not what we do here at Acton. We only encourage and guide. We let learners think for themselves. By engaging in that process, they learn how to learn. What a priceless gift we can give our children by helping them become lifelong learners.



Learning How To Manage Your Time

When I was in a traditional school growing up, a bell would always tell me when it was lunchtime or when it was time to move to a different class. The teacher would always tell me when it was time to do Writing or when it was time to do Math. There was always somebody else in control of my schedule, telling me where to be and when to be there.

Because of that experience, I struggled when I came out of school to be at places on time. You may have heard stories about students who go off to college and end up failing or dropping out because they don’t go to their classes. Sadly, they don’t have the inner drive or skill of knowing when to be at places at a certain time. They became used to having somebody else tell them when it’s time to do something or go somewhere.

At Acton Academy, we do things differently. One activity that helps our Eagles learn time management is having a Timekeeper. Each day, a different Eagle is in charge of knowing what the schedule is and wearing the watch. The Timekeeper is in charge of knowing what time it is to get his peers to the right places at the right time. He is also expected to give a two minute-notice when it’s time to move to the next thing on the schedule. The schedule is also on the whiteboard for everyone to see and there are multiple clocks in the studio, however, one person each day has to really be on top of the schedule.

This simple task teaches the Eagles to learn how to read a watch or a clock. They also learn to be responsible with time because if they forget their duty, they start losing points. Here at Acton, we have freedom levels that students earn based on the number of points they have each week. For every minute they are late to the next place to be, they lose points.

During the first week of having a timekeeper, the Eagles decided to enact the “2 minute warning” because they realized that they needed to start putting away the games, computers, books  etc. BEFORE it was time to be somewhere.

Yesterday, we had a huge fail that turned into a major priceless learning session for our Eagles. It was free time, and all of the Eagles were completely absorbed in the project they were doing in the backyard. Nobody knew what time it was. The timekeeper didn’t have the watch on. The guide and I waited and wondered when they are going to figure out they should be doing something else by now. 10 minutes went by, then 15, then 20….after waiting for half an hour, we finally gave in because we knew the day would be over. Because of this one mistake, the Timekeeper lost 30 points! Instead of possibly being at the highest freedom level next week, this one mistake will probably put them all at the lowest.

After what happened, we had to have a discussion with the Eagles about making up the time lost. By having a discussion and voting together, they ended up deciding to give up their snack time and 15 minutes of going to the park to make up for the half-hour they lost. Do you think next time they would take it more seriously? We do! 

We love it so much when our Eagles are soaring and accomplishing amazing things. However, we also love it when they fail because that is where the real learning and growing occurs.


The Art of Learning

In a lot of traditional environments, children are mostly trained by having them read textbooks and memorize facts. At Acton Academy we believe that it is more important to teach learners how to get to the answers – where to look for information, how to dive deeper into a subject that you are interested in, and once your put knowledge in your “tool box”, how to use that information in the real world. This method empowers children and makes them take ownership of their education; which we believe is a great first step to taking ownership of their lives.

One of our main philosophies here at Acton Academy is similar to a quote by Dr. Seuss, “It is better to know how to learn than to know.” There is an important life lesson in this simple statement.

At Acton Academy, we get to the core of what will engage a student as a learner. We focus on what will drive them and spark the passion in them to find more information on a topic. That’s the reason why we are constantly asking questions and trying to inspire curiosity. We want to see the Eagles soar and discover how to expand their knowledge on their own because that’s what they are going to do for the rest of their lives.

There is a key difference between giving someone fish and teaching someone how to fish. Instead of telling children what they need to learn all the time, it’s beneficial for them to be able to learn and do research on their own. Isn’t it amazing to see the students being self-driven and not being driven to just memorize and take a test? Isn’t it amazing to see them truly care about what they are learning because they can choose what they want to learn?

If we keep on giving students the answers, we only provide them temporary solutions. If we teach them principles on how to arrive at the answers, we help them find lasting solutions.

At Acton Academy, we strive to inspire the Eagles and remind them that they are on their own Hero’s journey where everything and anything is possible. If they choose to grow their brain just as fast as they want to, they have the tools to do it!


The Courage To Be Vulnerable

When asked to reflect on what the students had learned over the past year, one 11-year old’s answer was this: “I thought that my biggest lesson learned was not to procrastinate. But now, I realize I was actually not procrastinating. I was just giving up every time something was difficult.”

It’s insightful when the Eagles are given the power to think about who they are and reflect on what has happened with their daily experiences. Here at Acton, we have a circle time every morning called our Morning Launch. It is one of the best ways to give the Eagles time for reflection. It is where everyone can share their feelings, listen to others, ask simple questions, and dive deep into answers.

During this time of the day, the Eagles learn to be encouraging and vulnerable at the same time. They create a safety net for each other so that everyone can share about their realities, character development, strengths, weaknesses, regrets, mistakes, and everything else. However, it doesn’t happen right away. It takes time to build this community. Sometimes, it even takes a year for others to be comfortable. But once it happened, it’s truly beautiful.

There was one time when a guide overheard two Eagles talking to each other during Writer’s Workshop and one learner said, “How can I challenge you to be better?” Hearing that was so amazing for us because it’s what we strive for at this school.

People do better when they are challenged and motivated. That is the culture we are instilling to the Eagles – to challenge each other to be the best version of themselves and do better than they have done before. The goal is to always be better today than they were yesterday, with a plan to become even better tomorrow.


Facing Real World Scenarios Through Medical Quests

Here at Acton Academy, we believe that project-based learning is an effective way to master the skills children need to solve real-life situations. One of my favorite quest stories is the Medical Quest Exhibition.

Most schools have Biology. But here at Acton Academy, we have Medical Quests. For 6 to 7 weeks, the Eagles will learn how to read blood scans, read x-rays, set a broken bone, treat diseases, administer first aid, and many other medical tasks. At the end of 6 weeks, there will be a public exhibition where the Eagles will be role-playing as doctors. Parents, Guides, family, and many other guests become patients.

The so-called “patients” will arrive with index cards that have their ailments and symptoms on them. The Eagles will have to diagnose and treat every patient based on his or her symptoms. The group who correctly identifies and treats the most patients wins the quest.

Interestingly, there is another variation of this quest. The lights will eventually go out and an announcement will be given that there is no electricity. The hospital is still open so they have to continue treating their patients without relying on computers or the internet.

After some time, the light will come back. But all of a sudden, there is another announcement! There has been a plane crash 2 miles away from the hospital. All survivors are being rushed in all at once, which means the hospital will be swamped. They can no longer see patients one at a time, but have to deal with several people all at once. Many of them have broken bones and life-threatening injuries.

The Medical Quest covers not just biology, but all the basics of life in one simple project. Having the Eagles face this real-world scenario is amazing. They learn how to perform medical tasks and do them under pressure. They also learn to control their emotions in the process.

Studying Biology in a textbook is not our style here at Acton Academy. It is way more fun and powerful to learn biology by applying real skills that are needed in the real world.


Teaching Children At An Early Age To Equip Them For The Real World

Today, I’m going to share with you an exercise we did in one of my local BNI meetings. 

We were asked to do this exercise where we were paired up with another entrepreneur in the room. It was an opportunity for us to share more about our business through one simple question. The question was, “What is the story that sticks out to you most about one of the clients you’ve worked with?”

My business associate partner knew about Acton Academy but never had a conversation with me about it. We had an amazing conversation where he asked a lot of questions. After we talked, he told everyone, “I just had my mind blown about what education can look like.” To me, hearing that felt so good.

At Acton Academy, we focus on apprenticeships. Once you get into middle school and high school, 50% of the Eagles’ time is spent on apprenticeships so they can try on “different coats”. We also have a Writers Workshop where they are taught real-world writing skills, such as “How to write an email that someone can’t say no to” or “How to write a speech that will change somebody’s opinion.”

The success story that I shared at the BNI meeting was about a 13-year old Eagle who was able to do something that seems impossible for some. She wrote “an email that you can’t say no to” to one of the top designers in the fashion industry in New York City. Amazingly, she got an email back! The fashion designer asked her to visit so she can show her around. She immediately went to New York City with her mom, and by the end of the day, was offered an apprenticeship for the summer to be side-by-side with this fashion guru. All summer long, she became the designer’s assistant and loved every minute of it! She also learned a lot of information about the things she was very interested in. It was such an amazing story.

Through apprenticeships, the Eagles can explore their gifts and passions so they can find their “calling” in life. It also provides them with great opportunities to develop real-world skills that will help them face real-world challenges.


Understanding High-Energy Children

Children have tons of energy! It’s natural and normal for them. As a mother of a 3-year old, I know this first-hand.  Even though many children are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, it’s also natural and normal for every child to have a high amount of energy throughout the day.

I would like to tell you a story about a child that was attending one of the Actons across the country.

Before she transferred to Acton Academy, she attended a traditional school. She was always getting into trouble and being sent to the principal’s office simply because she couldn’t sit still. She was always trying to get up and move around the room. She was also constantly told how bad she was at Math. She was about to enter 7th grade but was testing at the 4th grade level for math. Even though she was not a bad person, she started to feel like one because she was always sent to detention.

When she transferred to Acton Academy, she fell in love with her new freedom in just the first week! She was so happy being able to freely walk around the room, take her computer, and do core skills wherever she wanted.

During her first month, she would get up every 20 minutes and do a quick cartwheel and then re-engage to whatever she was doing. But after a month, she stopped doing cartwheels and got down to business. She just needed to release the energy inside of her so that she could focus more on the tasks that were at hand.

Remember she was in 6th Grade, but at the 4th-grade math level when she started at Acton. In just 7 months, she was able to finish not only all of 4th grade math, but also all of 5th and 6th grade made and start in on 7th-grade math materials! She started excelling at everything! Her parents were in tears about how their child was more confident and wasn’t restless anymore. They said that she became a different person. She told her Guide that she had realized something about herself: “She wasn’t bad at math, she just needed to TRY HARD.”

It’s amazing how our environment at Acton Academy gives children the freedom they need to get their energy out and still be children. We see first-hand how once they burn off their energy, they can come back to their task with greater focus and determination and achieve greatness.



In the traditional system, bullying is very common. In some schools, no serious actions are being made even when the teachers are well aware of the situation. Whether physical or verbal, no one deserves to be bullied. It will never be okay.

To address this issue, there are two questions to ask. First, “How can we, as a society, stop bullying?” But a question that is even more powerful is this: “How can we empower our children to be able to stop bullying before it even starts?”

At Acton Academy, we have many systems in place. One of the most strong and powerful ones is the Studio Contract. The students spend the first 6 weeks of school drafting a contract and describing the promises and responsibilities they make to each other, such as:

“I will not distract others when they are in deep work or during core skills time.”

 “I will not run in the studio.”

 “I will not hurt others emotionally and physically.”

At the end of writing their contract, the Eagles express their sacred honor by signing their name to it. As the year progresses and an eagle violates his contract, another eagle can call them out. There would be a penalty or fee involved in every violation.

If an eagle gets out of hand, he will be given a strike. Strikes means the student is sent home. It allows him to revisit the promises he made to his fellow Eagles. He also cannot come back to the studio until he has drafted a plan of how he is going to change his ways. He is then going to create another contract signifying his promise to the guide and the other Eagles.

But the third time an eagle receives a strike or is sent home, he is out of the school. For others, it’s just not yet time for them to be in this type of learning environment. If they want to come back, the only way is for the other Eagles to vote them back—which is another type of power that we give to the students.

When you go to Acton, you will see how happy the Eagles are. They are very considerate and respectful not just to adults, but also to each other. By having a Studio Contract, they step into a role of authority and live up to the responsibility involved in keeping the contract they signed.


The Power of Building Character

Let me tell you a story about a student at one of the Acton Academies who just graduated last year.

She applied to 4 different colleges and was accepted into all of them. She even had a full free ride to the University of San Francisco. However, she decided to take a gap year. She knew that as a veteran Eagle who had grown up in the Acton model, she understood the ins and outs of Acton Academy better than anyone. She offered her services as a consultant to all of the Acton owners in the network for that 1 year. After she pitched herself, she spent the last year traveling the entire globe and getting paid for her consulting.

Today, many college students are lost. Some spend most of their time drinking, while others are partying out all night. Some are confused about what they want to be, while others can’t figure out what they want to do and keep switching majors every year. It seems like many students today are still figuring out a lot of daily life skills that they should have figured out long before college.

Sadly, some people just seem to “go with the flow” and accept whatever life gives them.  On the other hand, some are goal oriented and able to make wise decisions that lead to achieving their goals.

When children learn in an environment like Acton Academy, they are taught to develop their character, not only their intellect. They are also given the space to know their strength, their passion, and where they are heading. They are taught to use goal-achieving tools and systems every day, along with reflection about what is and isn’t working.

The student I talked about earlier probably doesn’t have her whole life planned out, but what is certain is that she knows what her strengths are. She doesn’t just “go with the flow.” Rather, she is determined to set and reach her goals relentlessly, and she knows that she is in control of her future. No doubt, she is destined to do great things.

“Character is the result of two things: mental attitude and the way we spend our time.” -Elbert Hubbard


Celebrate Failure

Let’s talk about failure.

In most traditional environments, students are punished for failing. As a result, these students begin to develop a severe aversion to failure and they want to avoid it at all costs. The younger generation today are so afraid to fail at anything that they don’t even want to try new things. If there is a remote chance of failing, they choose to take a step back and stay in their comfort zone.

At Acton Academy, we create an environment where children can fail cheaply, often, and safely. It’s only inside the studio environment where they are safe in their failures. After all, it isn’t the real world where they are losing thousands of dollars due to their mistakes. 

Let me tell you a story about one exhibition that happened to our students. One project we have at Acton Academy is called the Drama Quest, where the students create a play themselves. They write the script, direct it, make their costumes, make their own set, and even sell tickets to the public themselves.

In one exhibition, the guide knew that the students weren’t fully prepared. But since the time is up, they have to start right away. The parents came in, all excited to watch the play. But the Eagles had some cardboard boxes around the stage that ended up being piled on top of each other. As they acted behind the boxes, the audience sat on the other side just seeing a wall. Since the whole play was filmed, the Eagles were able to watch their play the next day. Some of them started crying and couldn’t believe they had let themselves down. But during reflection time, the guides asked questions that helped the students evaluate their actions. All of them were so engaged and determined to learn from their mistakes that they never failed at an exhibition like that again afterward. In fact, they had the most beautiful exhibitions after that major failure.

At Acton Academy, we celebrate both successes and failures. We reflect on them and focus on the lessons that could be learned. As a result, students learn perseverance, dedication, and curiosity where they want to try new things all the time. They learn to look back and take ownership of their failures, not just their successes. Because if they don’t, the beautiful lessons of failures and struggles will not be learned.


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