Changing the Context

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

“Who we are at any one time depends mostly on the context we find ourselves.” -Ellen Langer

Context is defined as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists.” This idea of context and identity has always fascinated me, but never more than this year as we began the adventure of changing the context of school for a small group of 5-10 year olds.

My guiding question: What happens when we change the context of learning? If the conditions (the rules, the environment, the narratives, the roles of individuals) change- what then happens to the individual learner?

Of course, our team was equipped with the stories of those who went before us, from founders Jeff and Laura Sandefer, who pioneered the very first Acton Academy a decade ago, to our network colleagues who had launched their schools in the years prior.

We were confident in what what we were offering families. Even on the challenging days- and there have been many, we have never doubted that the learning environment, context, or “interrelated conditions” of which our young heroes find themselves in every day, is one designed for human flourishing.

As our inaugural school year comes to a close, we have many stories of our own now- stories of young humans flourishing. I’ve been incredibly privileged to witness the remarkable things that happen when we throw out the traditional, compliance-based model of education and introduce a learner-driven model designed to empower. Below is a story of one remarkable young learner in our community.

One of our 8 year old heroes entered the school year with three tumultuous years of traditional school and all of the typical behaviors of what one might call a twice exceptional child- impulsive, emotionally explosive, hyperactive, and highly distracted- all typical of a learner diagnosed with ADHD and, at the same time, highly gifted (by academic standards). He expressed not feeling like he “fit” anywhere and that no one understood him. He hated school and had developed a general distrust of teachers/educators.

His parents had tried medication, at the pediatricians recommendation, for a brief time but had stopped when they saw a concerning shift in mood. In the first month of school, he earned three strikes for his impulsive behavior and had to stay home for a day. In the second month of school, he exhibited greater self control and was far less argumentative with his fellow heroes. As part of our learning design, he was provided both warm and cool feedback from his peers at the end of each session. Though hard at first, he took this constructive feedback to heart and began to thrive in a system of peer accountability, choice and freedom. His parents let us know, at the advice of another Acton parent, they also started him on daily magnesium and zinc supplement.

By the fourth month of the school year, the changes in this hero were remarkable. His general demeanor had changed. He appeared visibly happy, with a peace about him. In this new learning environment, he was free to walk in circles while thinking or walk outside the studio doors and run a few laps before coming back to his work, refreshed. He was able to climb trees and dig in the dirt and just BE. We watched as he was able to focus for longer and longer periods of time- largely in part because he was finally able to work in his individual “challenge zone” and on things that interested him.

Ultimately, what we witnessed, was a young person- free from the constraints of an adult trying to manage him, control him, or even tirelessly engage him with what they deemed as important- who was now empowered. No longer a passive recipient of his “schooling” experience, he was honored as a co-creator, a maker, a hero by his own right. It was as if an enormous burden had been lifted.

He sensed the shift and was grateful for it. Halfway through the school year, he wrote our Elementary Guide a heartfelt letter, thanking her for “showing up each day and guiding him on his hero’s journey.” His parents said, not only did he write this at home unprompted, but in years past he had expressed anger and even tears when asked to write his teacher a thank you note. This to me is a stellar example of what happens in an environment of mutual respect.

Now, at the tail end of the school year, this young learner is hardly recognizable from the child we knew in September. He exhibits a pride in himself, in his abilities, and our school- even more so perhaps, because of where he’s been and what he’s overcome to get here.

The verdict is out- the shift in context is everything.

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