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.

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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.

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Bullying

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.

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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

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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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The Gifts of Struggle

Is it better to protect your child from struggle or expose them to it? To answer this question, let me tell you a story.

There was a second-grader who excelled at school and was getting straight A’s. However, his mother wanted something different that would stretch him more. She found Acton Academy  and immediately enrolled him as an Eagle and his mother was able to become one of the guides.

When he was given the freedom to choose his own path and focus on the things he wanted to do, he decided that he didn’t want to do Math for the entire year. His mother took a step back and let it play out, trusting the system and knowing that all things will work out in the end. As a result, he became a social butterfly; going around helping everyone. He was on the Eagle Buck Committee and Town Hall and Town Council.  But at the end of third grade, her mother asked him, “How are you going to catch up in Math?” Realizing that his friends were moving on ahead in Math without him, he decided to conquer Math, but really struggled.

Near the end of fourth grade, he found himself stuck in the middle of fourth-grade Math and couldn’t go past it. His mother, the guide, said he has two options: keep struggling or start over by going back to third-grade Math. After wrestling with his choices for a while, he decided to go back and start over.

With 16 weeks left of the school year, he set a goal to finish all fourth-grade Math. He was so focused that it became his number one goal, and the results were amazing. Not only did he conquer third-grade and fourth-grade Math, but he also finished fifth-grade Math all in 16 weeks!

This is just one of the many stories that show how the Acton system always works itself out even in the shortest amount of time. Because of the struggle and failure, this student became one of the most hardworking Eagles in the studio. He excels in everything he touches and his ability to set goals and achieve them has quadrupled — which wouldn’t have happened without the struggle.

Removing the struggle takes away the opportunity for students to build enough strength to set and reach goals. When we give them the freedom to find their way through the struggle, we help them build the strength they need to face and conquer more challenges in the future.

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Mastery vs Grades

What does Mastery look like at Acton Academy?

At Acton Academy, we measure progress with badges. Students have to master something to be awarded badges, similar to the boys and girls scouts. What’s amazing is that they also get to choose which badges they want based on their interests. There are different badges to choose from, and the Eagles get to sit down at the beginning of the year and choose their path. Yes, the choice is in their hands. They can choose which badges interest them, and what they choose becomes their goal for the whole year.

Badge-based mastery is based on accountability. To be awarded a badge, the student’s guides and peers will sign their work to confirm that they have completed and mastered it. Each badge is a process where a large quantity of work is reviewed many times by several people. The eagles defend their work in front of their peers, parents, guides, and the public. Through this, they experience a “real world” kind of pressure to prepare them for “real life” tasks and challenges.

Another thing that we have at Acton Academy are digital portfolios. Did you know that Colleges are loving portfolios nowadays? It makes students stand out as it shows all the best work they have ever accomplished. Everything they have mastered is compiled together to show how well-rounded of an individual each student is.

At Acton academy, mastery is the goal. We do not take tests or give grades. Rather, the eagles work until they master their learning goals.

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Measuring Progress

Teachers measure progress by quizzes in a traditional environment. Students are graded and ranked according to test results. But is this the best way? Is this helping or hurting our children?

In my own experience, I found myself cramming for exams many times at school. I would regurgitate all the information I memorized onto the test and promptly forget every single thing I had memorized by the next day. Even though I had straight A’s in elementary and high school, I could not tell you what I learned after taking those tests.I would routinely forget everything right after.

Realizing this, two things strike me. First, I didn’t care much about what I was learning. I never had a chance to choose what I was interested in to study. Second, when memorizing things that fast, it doesn’t become part of you because you’re not learning it in context, but only as a fact to memorize.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the internet wasn’t prominent and memorizing facts was still a valuable asset. However, times have changed. Today, we have Google at our fingertips. We don’t need to memorize facts anymore because we have the internet everywhere. With everyone having the same information today, memorizing doesn’t hold the same prestige and power that it held in the 1800s and 1900s. 

Sadly, many students just go through the motions by absorbing the information they are taught without ever actually grappling with it. They also hardly ever had a chance to choose what they want to learn and had projects that had to do with the real world.

Of course, basic core skills such as Reading, Writing, Basic Math, and some Physics are very important. And there is a bit of memorization and learning to understand basic math, etc. But we believe that if you want to deeply understand something, you need to be hands-on with a project that will show you how those facts are relevant in the real world. However, the question is asked: If we do not take tests at Acton Academy how do we measure skills and progress?

A beautiful example of how to measure progress is the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts are one of the four pillars of Acton Academy. Their progress is measured based on mastery. They earn a badge because they have mastered the skill and have shown that they can actually perform this skill. For a cooking badge, they do not need to answer a multiple-choice test on the best method of cooking over a fire. Instead, they have to actually cook a meal over a fire and feed it to their peers and Scout Leader to see if they succeeded. And if not, they try again.

Badge-based mastery, we believe, is one of the best ways to show the progress students have made. 

To learn more about Badges, watch this video: Mastery vs Grades

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Challenging the Status Quo

In a past seminar I attended, I heard a fascinating story from a traditional teacher who has been teaching for many years.

One day, he was running late and wasn’t able to prepare his lesson for a History class. He then started telling a story about why the White House was painted white. He explained that it was due to a fire that got the walls charred, so the walls were painted white to make it look better. Nobody in his class questioned it. He has a class of 13 students and all of them seemed to believe it. 

The next day, he thought to himself, “Did I tell the children that fake story?” He realized that he needs to correct himself at some point. So when it’s time for a test, he included the “White House” story in it. The question on the paper was, “Are you certain that the White House is called the White House because it was painted white after a fire?” 12 out of his 13 students answered yes. As he was going over the test results, he then told the students that they got the answer wrong and they became furious. The teacher asked, “How certain are you that your answer was right?” The students answered, “Because you said so.”

This story serves as a reminder for both teachers and students. Sadly, some children will believe every single thing their teachers will say no matter what it was. But to teach the children to engage their learning, they need to challenge what they’re hearing. They have to be able to distinguish what is real and what is not.

At Acton Academy, the children are not lectured at. Instead, their questions are redirected, not just to engage them in learning, but also to keep their curiosity going.

Just like what Marshall Ganz said, “Challenging the status quo takes commitment, courage, imagination, and above all, dedication to learning.”

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The Socratic Method

Have you ever heard of the Socratic Method?

Our guides at Acton Academy use the Socratic Method where they aren’t allowed to answer a question. At first, you may think that learning won’t happen this way. Because how can you teach if you won’t answer any questions, right?

However, what this method seeks to encourage is to redirect the energy. When our guides at Acton Academy are asked a question, they keep the energy alive rather than giving an immediate answer. Instead of telling, the Socratic Method teaches by asking. Asking questions such as “Where do you think you can find the answer?” or “Who is the master at that subject that you can reference?” engages students in dialogue and leads them to the answers themselves. And due to the Internet, there are hundreds and thousands of master teachers at everybody’s fingertips today. The children themselves can reach out to anybody in the past, whether gone or alive.

The Socratic Method equips students with the thinking skills needed to excel in life. After all, students learn more through the use of reasoning and critical thinking.

It is necessary to learn how to ask good questions — questions that require, not just a “yes” or “no” answer, but thoughtful answers. Using dialogue helps children discover new ideas and discover things on their own. Asking questions with an A or B answer causes the energy to die soon.

Through the Socratic Method, children go off into the pathways of wonderment, mystery, and curiosity. They learn more. They may search for one thing and end up learning more things because their question will lead them to more questions. 

My mentor once told me, “The moment that you ask somebody a question, their future changes.” So learn the art of asking questions, as well as the discipline to not answer questions.

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