Let’s start this conversation with three simple words: you’re not alone. There are other parents out there, like you, searching for solutions to keep kids excited about learning.
One of my first goals with this blog, was to find like-minded parents to help provide inspiring ways to keep my kids’ curiosity alive:
Let’s encourage divergent thinking, instead of convergent thinking; innovation instead of standardization. Grab your child’s interest while it’s hot. Let your child follow their interest wherever that passion leads, however quickly it leads them, regardless of what other children their age are working on. See the light in your child’s eyes. [Quote Source]
Despite a common goal, as parents we each take our child’s needs into consideration when choosing a schooling route.
Today I am super excited to introduce you to a mom who is taking matters into her own hands and making a difference in her community. I’d like to introduce you to Anne Stephenson. This savvy business woman, along with a few other key educational players, will be opening Acton Academy Wausau to students for the 2014/2015 school year.
Beyond the interview below, you’ll find 5 inspiring educational TED Talk recommendations, as well as 7 must-read books on re-imagining our education system.
Shall we get started?
Q: Wausau’s Acton Academy will be patterned after a school in Texas, which is being championed as a pioneer in education and one of the top blending learning schools in the world.When you first learned about Acton Academy in Austin, you considered uprooting your family and relocating across the nation. Starting a private school is obviously not a simple task. When I look at this story, I see the love of a mother who wants the best for her kids.
Please tell us a little bit more about how this adventure started.
A: I have two sons, who are 8 and 10, and this adventure started with them. Over the course of the past school year, I saw my boys, both bright and eager learners, become increasingly frustrated and anxious regarding school. As their sense of wonder and zest for learning waned, I worked with their talented teachers and dedicated school staff to find solutions. In the end, I realized it was neither my sons nor the school administration that were to blame. The educational system under which they were learning, which mandates all students learn the same material, at the same time, in the same way with an over emphasis on standardized testing, was the culprit.
So, I searched for something better. I read and researched, watched hours of TED Talks by Ken Robinson, Sugatra Mitra, and other education luminaries. Finally, I found Acton Academy, a blending learning school in Austin, Texas, which uses cutting-edge eLearning platforms to allow a multi-age classroom of 36 students to master core subject content at their own pace and ability level, while also integrating hands-on, project-based learning, driven by student interest. Ready to pack up my family and move from Wisconsin to Texas, I soon learned that Acton Austin had a five-year waiting list. Unwilling to give up, I entered a competition to win the right to open my own Acton Academy, and this past May, I learned that my efforts had paid off. Along with new Acton schools set to open in Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, Toronto, Canada, and London, England, I had won the right to open an Acton Academy right here in Wausau, Wisconsin. And so my journey began…
Check out these top five educational TED Talk videos:
Q: Some parents are new to “blended learning,” give us a brief overview. Why are you so personally drawn to this approach to learning?
A: Blending learning is an educational approach that “blends” technology into the teaching and learning process, allowing students to learn at their own ability level, at their own pace, and according to their own interests. As a parent, I’m a big fan of blending learning because it allows my sons to self-direct their learning so that they’re learning things they are developmentally ready to learn, and perhaps more importantly, things they’re excited to learn about. This approach is an especially great for my younger son, for example, because the technology is intuitive enough to keep challenging and moving him ahead in Reading, his strongest subject, while allowing him to take as much time as he needs to explore, practice, and achieve mastery in Math, which is a challenge for him. My older son, on the other hand, can zoom ahead in Math and Science, while making sure reading comprehension is not left behind.
Q: Tell us about some of the learning challenges you’ve had with the traditional approach to education and how blended learning potentially resolves them.
A: In a traditional school setting, my sons and every one of their classmates all had to learn the same concepts in the same way, at the same time, despite their individual learning needs, styles, and interests. This one-size-fits-all approach to education isn’t designed to be flexible and accommodating of students’ varying developmental stages, learning readiness, abilities, or interests. If my boys didn’t master a concept within the small window it was taught, the class marched on, leaving my sons feeling inadequate. On the flip side, if either of my boys had reached mastery of a specific concept and were ready for more challenging work, they were not allowed to move forward on their own, which led to frustration. Blending learning as we teach it at Acton Wausau replaces the one-size-fits-all approach to learning with student-paced learning that allows them to achieve mastery and a sense of pride and fulfillment as they learn.
Q: Blended Learning + Montessori—Tell us about the different crossovers between the two methods of learning.
A: Both of my sons attended Montessori from preschool through kindergarten, and one of the biggest appeals of that model for us was that students could self direct, learning at their own ability level, at their own pace, and according to their own interests. We also loved the multi-age aspect of Montessori, which helped the boys learn how to mentor and be mentored by their peers.
The missing piece from many Montessori programs, however, is accountability and assessment, and this is where the innovative technologies used in many blending learning programs shine. The most successful blended learning models to date are combining the very best of Montessori — self-directed, hands-on, individualized and developmentally-appropriate learning in a multi-age classroom — with eLearning technology that can intuitively monitor, support, and report on student progress in real time.
Note: Now, y’all know I am a huge Montessori fan. The more I uncovered about blended learning the more curious I came. The Acton Wausau has a nice resource section. These the seven titles I’ve added to my must-read list: [affiliate links]
- Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education, by Clark Aldrich
- Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton Christensen
- The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, by Salman Khan
- Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle
- A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century, by Oliver DeMille
- The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Sir Ken Robinson
- Nutureshock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Q: What will the average day look like for an Acton Wausau student?
A: We start each day with a group meeting for open discussion, a recap of the previous day’s learning, and goal-setting for the day. Next, students move on to two hours of individual eLearning, which is when they work on their core subjects (Math, Reading, English/Language Arts, Science, and Foreign Language) through online platforms like Khan Academy and Dreambox, with active support from our Lead Guide. Depending on the day of the week, we end the morning with 30 to 60 minutes of Free Play, World History, or PE, followed by a full hour for lunch and personal time. In the afternoon, we alternate daily with an hour of Writing Workshop or Art. The final hour of each afternoon is spent in group lessons which incorporate hands-on learning projects, student designed “quests,” and social emotional learning, all of which connect back to specifically designed individual student learning goals. Lastly, we conclude each day as we started it, with a 15-minute group meeting.
Q: What role do teachers or guides play in a blended learning environment?
A: There are so many different blending learning models out there with varying degrees of teacher involvement, but I can tell you what we do at Acton Wausau. First of all, our Guides use Socratic Questioning. In essence, they teach solely by asking questions and guiding students to various resources rather than providing answers or direct instruction. This approach teaches students to be intuitive problem-solvers who are resourceful and independent enough to seek and find answers and solutions on their own. Our Guides are incredibly nurturing, supportive, and encouraging, and have the utmost respect for every student — they are deeply involved in and aware of students’ strengths and challenges.
Q: How much screen time on average does a child spend in a blended learning environment?
A: Again, blending learning models vary, but at Acton Wausau, the two hour block of eLearning each morning is the only time when students sit and work in front of a screen. During group work, students may also use the Internet or other online resources to help them find an answer or solve a problem they are facing when working on their hands-on projects and quests.
Q: As a private school, are you required to follow the same core standards as the local public schools?
A: While we are not required to follow any state or national standards, we operate under a strong and genuine commitment to our students and parents. To assure that we are delivering the individualized, self-driven, hands-on, meaningful learning experience we promise to our students, we distribute digital surveys to every student and parent every single week, and our ratings and results are reported to Acton Academy Austin. Additionally, the eLearning platforms we use to teach core subjects (Math, Reading, English/Language Arts, and Foreign Language) are aligned to the Common Core Standards. This means that Acton students will learn and master the same skills being taught in public schools, but in a way that is developmentally appropriate and individualized for the learning needs of each of our students.
Q: Will Acton Wausau students participate in state standardized testing?
A: Because the Acton model is new and innovative, we anticipate that parents and members of our community will have a strong interest in student achievement. Though we never, ever teach to the test at Acton Wausau, we understand and appreciate the need for data and measurable results. To help with that, we will administer the Stanford Achievement Test Series at the beginning and end of each year, with absolutely no test prep or pressure on the students to achieve. In a typical 10-month school year at Acton Academy Austin, students are demonstrating growth of two to three grade levels as measured by this test, and we hope to achieve similar results at Acton Wausau. Of course, testing provides just one data point. Our families will also have access to: student eLearning accounts with robust, data-rich reporting; student portfolios sent home weekly; open communication with Guides; and parent conferences twice per year.
Q:According to the website, “Wausau’s Acton Academy will engage students in quest-based learning. This allows them to create with their hands, explore, and discover solutions to questions sparked by their own curiosity. The goal is to experience the wonder of connecting the dots from one project to the next, and ‘level up’ by earning badges of distinction along the way.”
Can you provide us with an example of a quest based project and how it played out.
A: An example of a quest is our Hero’s Journey: Robotics & Engineering Lab, where our students are told they are actually joining Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratories. After an orientation (including a history of the lab and learning about invention and innovation), students are given a series of challenges that unfold over the next weeks where they learn, through hands-on work and background research, principles of electricity and robotics in super engaging ways.
As each team completes these challenges at their own pace, they are rewarded with patents (positive points) and keep track of the costs or materials and time (negative points). Completion of the entire quest results in a robust portfolio of work, a deeper appreciation of the science and the innovation behind it and an earned “badge.” Then it’s time to “level up” to the next quest.
Q: Are these quest-based projects scored or graded?
A: In lieu of grades, we use robust portfolios to demonstrate student growth and learning. Students contribute to their portfolios daily, organize them weekly, and take deep pride in this meaningful record of their work.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the benefits of a year-round school schedule.
A: Long summer vacations not only leave many parents scrambling to fill their child’s days, but also lead to “summer slide,” a loss of learning that must be made up by re-learning forgotten concepts in the next school year. An 11-month learning schedule helps prevent summer slide and offers more opportunities for growth through seamless learning, while also providing students with appropriate breaks and rest. To help our families transition to this model, Acton Wausau aligned our year-round schedule with that of Wausau Public Schools as closely as possible.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about Khan Academy and Dreambox. Do parents have ongoing access to their child’s progress and stats? Student-driven learning sounds lovely in theory, but are there safeguards to ensure a child stays on track with subjects across the board?
A: As a parent (and a numbers nerd), I initially worried that a student-directed learning model wouldn’t provide enough data on individual student achievement. Indeed, it was a problem we’d encountered when our boys were enrolled in a Montessori program. Once I researched the eLearning platforms used by Acton, however, I was blown away by their ability to track a classroom of students across multiple levels of competencies in multiple subjects using robust tracking tools.
I love the idea of being able to look at my son’s individual learning “snapshot” to make sure he’s on track, and these platforms provide me, and all parents at Acton Wausau, access to that information in real time, every day. I can see down to the individual problem level the skills my son is working on, how much time he spent on each problem or lesson, where he went right or wrong, where he’s excelling and where he needs support.
The analytics on individual student achievement are almost mind-boggling, and we make the most of these tools at Acton Wausau by creating and managing individualized learning plans for each student, keeping everyone on track and moving forward. Simply put, the eLearning tools are like the GPS in your car, but applied to learning.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say to parents who are interested in blended learning, but hesitant to deviate from traditional methods?
A: Khan Academy is a great way to dip in your toes. Get an account for your children and let them explore. Another idea is instead of watching tv, one night per week sit down as a family, pick an interesting topic (“What is bacteria?” or “When was baseball invented?” or “How did they build the Golden Gate Bridge?”) and explore together.
Thank you again to Anne for the lovely chat! I can’t wait to touch base with her and the Acton Wausau team as they kick-off the new school year. Get additional details about the school below!
Anne Stephenson is the founder at Acton Academy Wausau, which is opening this fall as part of a new wave of blended learning schools offering a unique combination of cutting-edge technology platforms and student-driven, project-based learning in multi-age classrooms across the country. Building on the success of the original Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, Acton Wausau is thrilled to have the opportunity to bring this innovative new model of education to students in the central Wisconsin area.
If you live in the Wausau area and are interested in learning more about Acton Wausau, please schedule a tour at our 1500 Merrill Avenue location (upstairs from Mountain View Montessori). You can also peruse the resources and enrollment information on the Acton Wausau website to learn more.
If you do not live in the Wausau area, you can find an Acton Academy near you:
- Original Acton Academy in Austin, TX
- Acton Academy Venice Beach in Venice Beach, CA
- Acton DC in Washington D.C.
- Greenfields Academy in Chicago, IL
- Houson, TX
- Grand Rapids, MI
- London, England
- Toronto, Ontario
Disclosure: My girls attended a Montessori school with Anne’s boys in the past. I have no vested financial interest in Acton Wausau. I am simply inspired by her actions!
Disclosure of Material Connection: The book links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”