Notes & Quotes from Jeff Sandefer’s The Learner Driven Revolution

My visits and reviews of creative and promising school models must have reached the triple digits by now. Near the top of the list for me remains a school that I’ve yet to visit in person, one that I briefly described in the past when I wrote about the Acton Way. As such, I was delighted to sit in on a presentation at SXSWedu by Jeff Sandefer, one of the founders of Acton Academy. Following is my biased and flawed recollection of his words…combined with a bit of commentary, ending with a couple personal reflections. In, The “Learner Driven Revolution,” Jeff didn’t start his presentation with proclamations. True to his philosophy of education (as I’ve come to understand it), he started with questions followed by a story.
  • What if…?
  • What if children are far more capable than we imagined?
  • What if children could share learning with each other in a tightly bound community?
  • What if they could find a deep, burning need in their hearts to meet a deep burning need in the world?
As Jeff explained, “the start of Acton Academy” was an impulse more than a vision.” Even the beginnings of the school was passion-based learning at its best…a passion for something personal, the education of his two boys. They attended a Montessori school in their town. Jeff described an eye-opening meeting with a teacher in a traditional classroom. He asked the teacher when he should think about moving the boys to a traditional school, and the teacher explained that he should do it now. His reason? “Once they’ve had that kind of freedom, they will not take well to sitting in a desk for 8 hours a day.” Jeff went home and decided that his boys would not sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day. There has to be a better way. This is the type of story that led to the launch of a wonderfully distinct type of school, one that began with simple questions for students like the following four:
  • Who am I and where am I going?
  • What tools and skills will I need and which will I master?
  • Who will affirm me and hold me accountable?
  • How do I prove what I can do?
Jeff described four metaphors for their school design, although he acknowledged that they are always on the lookout for new and promising practices.
1. Superman – This is a person who discovered his special talent. He refined it, used and changed the world.
What a powerful vision for education. What if our schools sought to nurture a generation of young people who did the same. They discovered their genius, nurtured it and used it. When I hear that word “genius”, I don’t think of people with 150 IQ. I think of the day I first walked into The Sistine Chapel over twenty years ago. It was crowded that day and I was not allowed to stand and look for long, but my eyes were instantly drawn to the paintings of the prophets and these little children sitting or standing behind them. According the person next me me, these were not children but geni, which artists sometimes used to represent inspiration or genius. They represented the calling and inspiration in people’s lives. True or not, the concept stuck with me, and I continue to see each person as having callings. What a compelling way of thinking about schooling, not as a place to make young people as uniform as possible, but a community where people discover their distinct genius and some of their callings. They develop them, come to understand them, and they experience the joy of sharing their genius with the world.
2. Alcoholic’s Anonymous
There is this wonderful self-organizing element to AA. People mentor one another and hold one another accountable. And there are “explicit covenants.” At Acton Academy, eagles (as the members of the community are called) create similar covenants around their learning.
3. Google (and Gaming)
This is a place with a culture of innovation. It is place where teachers are game designers, and they take advantage of the growing research about quest-based learning, game-based learning and gamification to design rich and engaging learning experiences. Students travel back in history, playing roles as they go on quests, for example. They also make use of developing adaptive software like Dreambox, Khan Academy, and Rosetta Stone.
4. The Boy Scouts of America
In the Boy Scouts, you show what you can do, and you are granted a badge as a symbol of your new skill. The same happens at Acton, and students build a growing digital portfolio of their work. I also see many parallels wit the BSA focus upon learning by doing.
What do students learn at Acton Academy?
While there is plenty of content that is learned, Jeff explained a vision that goes well beyond learning to know. Instead, it is about “learning to do, learning to be, and learning to learn.” They learn to do through hands on projects culminating in public exhibitions at the end of a quarter. They learn to be as they go on quests, meeting “giants, ogres, and fellow travelers.” Along the way, as in the hero’s journey, they learn about themselves and their gifts. This is not just about completing a challenge, but it is about “the change that happens in the hero” through the journey. They learn to learn as they are invited to organize their own learning, self-direct, and come to discover the wonderful capacity for learning inside of each of us.
How does Acton know how they are doing as a school? 
They take a transparent, customer-centered approach. Each week they ask parents a simple question. “How did we do this week?” The responses are open to the public and, as Jeff explained, “sometimes it is pretty and sometimes it is not.” More important, they actually use this feedback as an ongoing source of improving and refining what they are doing. As Jeff explains, The Hero’s Journey matters a lot…get[ting] them to believe that they are on an important journey and their gifts matter.” By the way, this feedback approach is used with the students as well. They get 360 evaluations from fellow Eagles at different times throughout the year.
What about motivation?
Jeff shared the same thing in my recent interview with him as well, but this can be a problem for some of us who seemed naturally inclined toward self-directed learning. He explained that, in their school, it is important to “focus on the tribe,” to remember the importance of “hav[ing] fun and hang[ing] out with friends…They all love to learn but because they want to be with friends.” As such, he has learned the importance of fun first, challenge second.
What about the Teachers?
Teachers are guides. They are also game-makers, although the students are game-makers as well (with high school students designing challenges for the younger eagles). When it comes to finding teachers, he pointed out that it is really challenging to convert traditional teachers to such an approach. In this context, when there is chaos, teachers need to step back. When it gets worse, they step back more. The teachers offer processes and possibly options, but it is up to the students to act.
Contrary to some champions of solving challenges in schools by creating smaller teacher to student ratio, Jeff’s vision stems from a conviction that, “the more adults in the more, the more things are going to go wrong.” He is confident that this model works well with 4 adults for 120 students and $4500 per student; and he is working on getting to 1 adult for 120 students, dropping the cost to $2500 per student.
How did he end the talk? 
He finished with with this sentence. “Don’t dismiss their super hero dreams.”
A Couple Last Personal Reflections
I realize that such a vision of education is frightening, maybe even troubling to some people. It isn’t what many of us experienced and people are unsure how this could possibly work. I’m not sure that I can alleviate such fears or concerns with words. In most cases, people probably just need to see it in action.
The vision for Acton Academy is truly unique in many ways. In other ways, it is part of a growing movement in K-12 education (and possibly soon to be in higher education as well). It shares many values and convictions about education with a variety of schools that I’ve visited and/or studied , everything from Montessori schools to self-directed learning academies, project-based learning schools to student-centered quest-based learning academies. It is a broader movement that believes in empowering the students to take ownership for their learning, to make school a community where people learn to set goals, self-organize, and to grow as a competent and confident people with a deepening sense of agency.