Late last night, after returning home from an inspiring conference on disruptive innovation, I was exhausted but my mind was swarming with thoughts about the future, inspired by countless conversations and presentations at the IBM iDisrupt Executive Summit. I drove into the driveway a little after midnight and found a small package by my front door. I picked it up, carried my luggage inside, and opened the package, excited to find a copy of a brand new book. I’d read this book a few months before, getting a chance to review it prior to publication, but I soon found myself sitting beside my luggage and reading it a second time. I read it from front to back before settling into bad in the early morning hours. Satisfied, inspired, and no longer thinking about the wonderful conference that I just attended, I instead found myself repeating a single sentence to myself. “This might just be one of the most important educational stories of our generation.”
I’ve followed Acton Academy for many years and had the honor of visiting the school a couple of years ago. When I speak at conferences and to school leaders in the United States and around the world, I almost always find myself referencing this student-driven learning community at some point. If you’ve read this blog for more than a few months, then you know that I make frequent reference to it here as well.
I’ve visited and studied hundreds of innovative models of schooling over the past decade, and Acton continues to be one of the most promising models. From their grounding the vision of the school in the metaphor of the Hero’s Journey to their humane and mission-inspired approach to assessment, their distinct and compelling vision for what it means to be a learner-driven community to their wonderfully reflective and emergent approach to nurturing a rich and compassionate community, Acton is a truly inspiring and exceptional school.
Even if one does not embrace the entire vision of Acton Academy, it has so many positive attributes and innovative practices that can be applied in a variety of traditional school, homeschooling, and emerging school contexts. Instead of shaping their school by standard or commonplace practices in other schools, the founders take the time to learn from others, consider the breadth of possibilities, apply what they learn, but they do so with the humility, intellectual rigor, and reflection necessary to constantly review, revisit, and revise what they are doing. I believe that they are able to do this in part because they have refined a clear and compelling mission, established a list of core promises and beliefs, and hold firmly to a succinct educational philosophy (“We believe clear thinking leads to good decisions, good decisions lead to the right habits, and the right habits forge character, and character determines destiny.”). When you have these in place, and you actually use them to direct your thoughts and actions, good things are likely to follow. Acton Academy is certainly a testament to that fact.
It is with this context and background that I am incredibly excited that Laura Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, displayed the courage, commitment, and conviction to put the Acton story on paper, writing what is soon to become one of my most recommended books to anyone who cares about the future of schooling. I am not exaggerating when I state that Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down is one of the most important educational stories of our generation, and it is now in print, ready for you to read.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to consider a compelling possible future for education. In fact, it is not a future. It is a present reality. What I love about the book is that it is inspiring, fresh, authentic, and practical. Laura is not just writing about dreams and ideals. She tells the story of how they actually made such a distinct and compassionate learning community a reality, and she offers sage advice on how others can do the same. She tells the personal and important story of how the idea for the school came into existence. She tells the story of humble inquiry combined with bold action that led to first experiments and soon a new school. She tells the story of their struggle with rules and assessment. She tells the moving and wonderfully candid story of her own son’s search for the right learning community. She tells the honest story of a school, a learning community, that is continually learning. She tells the story of how this school emerged as what I’ve come to call one of the most compassionate learning communities that I’ve ever studied or witnessed. She tells many other stories along the way as well, each written with what seems to be the same care, reflection, and careful attention that went into the founding of the school.
Not only that, but the book includes some of those simple and practical components as well, everything from what tools they find helpful to some of their core documents (like the student contract). It includes their recommended reading list for parents, their use of badges, and reflections on the Socratic teaching that informs what they do.
If you are in education or care about education, this is a must read text. If you want your mind expanded about what is possible, this is the book for you. If you want to expand your sense of what is possible, this is also the text for you. If you are jaded by the current system, perhaps wondering if there is hope for anything else, this book might just take you down the road toward renewed hope. I read widely and pride myself in being well-informed about the most important and influential education texts of our age, and this is one of them. The stories are deeply human and humane. They call upon us to consider how we might nurture a better, more hopeful, more humane, and more inspiring educational ecosystem. It is my sincere hope that the stories in this book will shape and inspire the education of the future.