12 Thought-Provoking Ideas for Student-Centered Schooling: Reflections on the Acton Way

I’ve been reading and learning more about the Acton Academy in Texas, a learning community with a wonderfully student-centered vision for schooling. The following video provides a quick introduction to some of their core ideas. Following the video, I’ve included my thoughts and reflections about 12 fascinating aspects of the Acton way.

“Every student who walks in our door is a genius who is destined to change the world.”

This statement is packed with power and meaning. It is powerful in that it provides a lever for “doing school” in a different way. Some might read it in a simplistic way and think that it is little more than an effort at false self-esteem, telling students how great and wonderful they are without any connection to real thoughts and actions on behalf of the students. Yet, as I am coming to learn about “the Acton way”, this does not seem to be what they mean. Instead, they recognize that every student has some unique contribution to make to the world. They may not all be geniuses at math or brilliant artists, but each student has a unique combination of gifts, talents and abilities that can be identified, nurtured and used to “change the world” in some small or monumental way. This statement protects us from designing a school and curriculum that reduces human value to a short list of standards, or skill sets that are deemed to have special national significance in a supposed international competition for intellectual and economic prowess.

“Students should be in charge of their own learning.”

Depending upon your context and background, this statement might conjure different images. One person might imagine a room of unruly and undisciplined students with a teacher fast asleep at his desk. This is certainly not the intent with Acton and others who espouse student-centered learning. Instead, this statement typically stems from the desire to help students grow into competent, confident, self-directed learners. If this is our ultimate goal, something that we hope to see in adults, why not provide a learning environment where student discover how to be in charge of their own learning?

“Asking great questions is far more important that regurgitating correct answers.”

This one reminds me of a quote from a Michael Card song, “Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” Of course, this is not ignoring the importance and value of discovering answers. However, we can tell a great deal about a student’s learning and thinking by the questions they ask. And asking questions is the starting point for many wonderful student-centered learning journeys. As Thomas Berger noted, “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”

“Learning to do and learning to be outweigh simply learning to know.”

Schools tend to have a bias toward facts and knowledge acquisition, which are important. The problem is that the rest of the world expects us to embody and be able to do something with that knowledge. To be a musician and be able to play music goes far beyond just knowing about music. The same is true when it comes to math, science, social studies, building relationships, collaborating with others, being a servant leader, inventing things, designing things, helping people, and much more. If school is going to help equip us for this sort of a life, then it calls for an education that emphasizes learning to do an be as much as recalling a set of facts.

“Using adaptive software for core skills”

While Acton is clearly a student-centered school with ample opportunity for students to help generate the curriculum, they also recognize the value of emerging adaptive technologies that help students grow in skill acquisition, especially in areas like math. These tend to be more computer (as teacher) directed, but it also constantly adjusts/adapts to the learner’s readiness, providing a sweet spot of challenge that resides between too easy and overwhelmingly difficult.

“Learn to love reading.”

As a bibliophile, I was delighted to see their embracing this 16th century skill that continues to be a valuable skill for life and thought in the 21st century. As Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.” Or, in the words of Victor Hugo, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” Literacy is a foundational skill for the self-directed learner.

“Write… a lot, but not just traditional essays. They do authentic writing in the form of thank you notes, posts on the web.”

Learning to write is learning to think and communicate. I love the fact that Acton invites students to experience many authentic forms of writing. Instead of having students only focus on writing tasks that are unique to schooling contexts, they invite students into forms of writing that will empower them to engage with the world.

“QuestBased Projects – Connecting multiple real-world projects… that build on each other.”

This is a brilliant idea. They do not simply engage in a series of disconnected projects. Instead, Acton helps students live and experience a story, a hero’s story, that weaves multiple projects throughout the year. I am intrigued by this concept and intend to learn more about it over the next year. Human brains crave novelty but also thrive and patterns and connections. Teaching and learning through connected projects seems to be a helpful way to feed both of these brain cravings.

“Real world apprenticeships – Help them find their calling / gift that they are called to share with the world.”

There is so much that we learn, and so many possibilities that we discover by observing others. By adding apprenticeships, Acton invites students to explore the possibilities for their own lives.

“Weekly surveys to students and parents, asking them what worked this week and what did not?”

This is such a simple idea, but I know of few schools that do it. It is a quick and simple way to get feedback on what is working and what is not, allowing teacher and others at the school to adapt, adjust, celebrate, reconsider, and imagine new possibilities for the students. It also demonstrates interest in and honor for the voice of students and parents. Regardless of your schools vision, simply adding this one practice and seriously reflecting on the weekly results has immense promise to help you take your school to the next level.

“Create a driving question that ties everything together for the year. In 2012, they asked, ‘Does the past determine the future?'”

This is an interesting way to help students make sense of the many things they learn throughout the year. It also seems to encourage depth and not just surface level learning about different topics. By having a central question, it is also likely to help students make connections, learning to see relationships between different concepts and experiences that would otherwise seem unrelated.

Kids learn that, “they are the protagonists in their life’s story. They are the heroes.”

Much of the school vision is tied to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey, a pattern that Campbell discovered in many of the great myths throughout history. However, at Acton, they also invite students to think of themselves is a Hero in their own life story; a creative way to help them recognize that their lives have meaning, that they have gifts and abilities that can be a blessing to the world, that life has challenges and mountaintop experiences, might even help them cultivate the long view of life.

I’m far from an expert on Acton Academy. At the time of writing this, I’ve never visited it in person nor have I interviewed those who work there. However, even from my cursory review of what I read and watch on the web, the school strikes me as having a powerful and promising vision for schooling, one that shares features of many high-impact and deeply humane schools that I’ve visited over the years. These twelve concepts give all of us possibilities to consider for our own informal lifelong learning as well as the learning organizations in our communities.