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Book Review: ‘Courage to Grow, How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down’

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Book Review: Courage to Grow, How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura A. Sandefer

I arrived at Amtrak’s Union Station from Kansas City at exactly 6:45 a.m. and stood in line waiting to board the 7:45 train to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I stood behind a rather large Amish family with seven or eight children. They graciously moved over so I could sit beside them on the bench. Over the next half hour, we were informed through several announcements that the train was delayed for three hours. I opened my backpack in frustration and pulled out the book Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura A. Sandefer. Surrounded by a family that values tradition and didn’t mind waiting for the train, an innovation from the past, I began to read about disruptive innovation; in particular, the disruptive innovation of online learning that may one day replace traditional instruction.

As I began the first few pages, I couldn’t help but reflect on a question that the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has often asked in her talks: “Are we basing education on an outdated model that was established 100 years ago, or are we creating unique schools that meet the needs of today?” Laura and Jeff Sandefer certainly echo, and may have preceded, Secretary DeVos’s thoughts. Theirs is a very personal journey that began by asking a question based on their dissatisfaction over school choices for their children: “What would learning in the 21st century look like if we started with a blank sheet of paper?”

As Jeff and Laura began asking themselves what kind of school they wanted to send their children to, Acton Academy began to form in their minds. They chose the name Acton because of Lord Acton’s writing on learning and liberty. They were particularly intrigued with Lord Acton’s deepest work that focuses on the relationship between liberty and morality and what he envisioned as a free and virtuous society. Freedom, excellence, and moral goodness were the principles the Sandefers focused on for the community of learners.

Acton Academy started in a one-room schoolhouse with mixed ages so that students could learn from each other. The model included “Socratic discussions to hone deep thinking, peer teaching, internships, and online learning for mastery of the basics of grammar and math.” The ultimate goal was to learn how to learn, how to do, and how to be. The primary distinguishing feature is that there is a complete power shift from adults to the students. “There are no teachers, only adult guides. There are no report cards, only student-earned badges and portfolios to prove mastery of skills. No classrooms, only creative workspaces called studios. No assigned homework, only what a child chooses to do at home.” Power is shared among peers, and students are released to care about their own learning and to hold others accountable for their learning.

Another key distinguishing characteristic is Acton Academy’s focus on a hero’s journey. This is the age-old legend that has been repeated over and over throughout the world: an ordinary person leaves their security to meet a challenge, and in doing so they discover who they are, why they’re here, and what their calling is. So the students are asked to go on an adventure and, even more strongly, always to choose to seize the adventure. They are “warned that there will be monsters, dark valleys to cross, there will be suffering and struggles, but in the end they will find their calling and their giftings.”

These are the core values of Acton Academy: trust the children with freedom and responsibility, and let the children struggle. This is not the type of school where everyone wins a trophy. Parents are not encouraged to continually rescue their children. The children are given the freedom to learn from challenge and struggle.

The book itself is a quick read. It’s a blend of personal journey, describing how Jeff and Laura’s thoughts on education evolved, and institutional journey, telling the story of how Acton Academy evolved. It also explains the theory, practice, and development of Acton Academy step by step. The story is inspirational, because of the impact it has had on children and because of the rapid spread of Acton Academies around the world.

There is much to like about Acton Academy. Students take ownership of their own learning. They learn at their own pace and their progress exceeds many expectations. Students develop a sense of community as they learn how to apologize, forgive, encourage, and hold each other accountable. Through Socratic discussions they are challenged to think for themselves. Through apprenticeships, they learn real-world skills. In many ways, it’s learning at its best.

As a former public school teacher, much of what I read in Laura’s book was a teacher’s dream. Students are learning at their own rate and owning their own learning. They are voracious readers and they are thinking deeply about the things they are learning. It’s all done within a healthy community, and through it all, a person learns how to know herself better, discover and unleash their gifts, and develop virtue.

Many of the preconceived concerns I had were alleviated as I read. One of those concerns was whether the Academy’s student-centered and student-directed approach would enable students to gain a sense of their place in the story of the world (history) or whether their learning be diminished by their disconnected whims and fancies? As the author chronicled their students’ advance to high school, the Academy demonstrated a strong sequence of learning, especially in world history, with some of the badges required for graduation. As I read the book, age-old questions rattled around in my head concerning the debate over what will enable a free and virtuous society to survive? Does there need to be some shared belief, shared histories, or a shared culture, as Ed Hirsch would say? Is there a need for a Judeo Christian assumption of God? Can virtue be taught? If so, how is virtue taught? What is the fundamental reason or motivation for acting virtuously? How we answer these questions can and should have great bearing on how we do school.

One of the things in the book that was most unsettling to me was a student discussion led by a nine-year-old with no adults present. The student leader described a scenario of people and whales who were being stranded by an ice storm that would result in their deaths. There were only time and resources to save one group, and the students had to decide whether they would save the people or the whales that were in danger of extinction? After a long debate they decided that due to the number of human beings involved, they would save the people, and the author wrote: “The humans won, this time.”

The phrase “this time” caused me concern as a person who values a Christ-centered worldview. My worldview would see the life of a human being as having infinitely more intrinsic worth than the life of an animal. I am one who believes that there are some truths that are foundational and absolute, that there is a chronology of history that we need to find our place within. I am interested in seeing other expressions of Acton done within a particular belief system, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, or Islam where the “teacher” is acting as a guide within the framework of a belief system.

Another concern that I had is that the foreword said that technology is a vehicle that promises to “push out access to the people with the very least wealth and expertise of all children.” As I read the book I did not at any time get the feeling that Acton Academies were reaching children of the marginalized or impoverished. Nor did I get a clear understanding of how students with special needs would be well served with this model. Having worked as an urban and private school educator, I have great interest in better understanding how children with learning needs, children with adverse childhood experiences, and children who are second-language learners will succeed with this model?

My greatest concern came at the end of the book where the author states that each family pays $10,000 to attend the school. It was unclear whether this was per child or per family. Either way, in most urban settings that I’ve worked in, that tuition rate would make Acton Academy unaffordable for the vast majority. All of these questions would take more time and research to understand how they are addressed by the Acton Academy paradigm.

As my train neared Chicago, I finished reading Sandefer’s thoughts on the disruptive innovation of online learning and her exploding Acton Academy network. Ironically, we Amtrak riders had several less-than-innovative disruptions of our own. More delays, dire reports, and apologies for those who would miss their connecting trains in Chicago, specifically me and my Amish friends who had been monitoring their chances on a cell phones since we left Kansas City. As we entered Chicago, the now-stranded Amish family calmly began to discuss where they would spend the night in Chicago. The teenage boys pulled on their woolen hats first and then placed their straw hats on top. Trains, straw hats, cell phones. Strong and virtuous people trying to live in the tension of the ancient paths and the 21st century. For myself, I had good news of a five-minute window to catch my train to Grand Rapids. After racing through the station with my bags to catch my next train, I settled in my seat for the last four hours of my 17-hour train ride to my home, during which I would have ample time to ponder tradition, ancient paths, and disruptive innovation.

As I continued to ponder Courage to Grow, I was left with two lingering questions. Can this model become accessible for all children and not just children of financial means? Can this model be morphed to meet the needs of various religious communities? While the book provides a unique school model with great potential, it doesn’t fully meet the needs of all children. I found it to be a thought-provoking and inspiring read.

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John Booy John Booy is Superintendent at Potter's House School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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