Learner Driven = Well-Equipped

One of the greatest outcomes of a learner-driven education is the ability to navigate uncertainty. Just today, I watched in awe as our learners led morning mindfulness, launched and executed the morning discussion, settled in to the morning work time to accomplish their own goals, and engaged in a tough conversation with a fellow learner who had shown a lapse in integrity. And this was just in the first 90 minutes of the school day. The rest of the day includes diving into individual or collaborative passion projects of their choosing, leading a civilization lesson and Socratic discussion and working towards mastery in either visual or musical arts.

They are leaders of their own learning and thus, are well-equipped to navigate their learning outside the walls of The Village School. This has always been the goal. Resiliency and independence are direct outcomes of a learner-driven education.

Beginning Monday, March 16 and lasting through next Friday, March 20, 2020, we are moving all learning and programming—including check-ins, Socratic launches, Quests, e-learning, and more—remotely. For our Spark learners, our team will spend Monday creating individual work plans and activities for learners that mimic the regular school day as much as possible. We will send more details over the weekend. Next week we will make a decision about school plans for post March 20.

We are making this change for three main reasons:

  1. By not convening in person we can help slow the spread of COVID-19.
  2. Currently, none of our Village School learners are sick but given that members of the school community travel fairly frequently, we feel it’s best to pause in-person gatherings to mitigate spread among our own community.
  3. The reality of COVID-19 is already affecting our Studios. We’ve been down several heroes everyday this week, and those absences are impacting goal setting, launches, group work, Quest, Studio maintenance, and more. Working remotely will allow us to all be on the same page and working within the same parameters.

Our team is not living in fear, and we don’t want the heroes to live in fear. We see this as a way that we can help one another and our larger community. And how amazing is it that we live in a time of technology where life and learning can go on digitally!

We recognize this change will be harder for some families than for others, due to work and childcare needs. If you need help, you can reach out directly and we will crowd source help among our parent community, or you can post specific needs on our TVS Community Forum. 

As we finalize our plans for remote learning, we do so with these goals/expectations in mind:

  • Work— Learners are expected to make progress on their badge plan daily, to attend virtual Socratic launches led by our Guides, to check in with their Running Partners, and to check in weekly with Guides. 
  • Communication—Learners should check their email 3x daily to look for instructions from Guides. Heroes should check their emails by 9 am each day to receive instructions and a schedule for the day.
  • Schedule—It’s important that learners keep scheduled work times daily so they can meet for group launches, Running Partner check-ins, and Guide check-ins.
  • Technology—ES Learners will need use of their Chromebooks daily (including a charger).

Parents can provide the best support during this time by checking in with learners at the beginning and end of each week to discuss goals and progress. In addition—and to the extent you’re able —we encourage parents to take on a “Guide” role to encourage and inspire heroes to direct their own learning. Here are some (optional!) ideas you can pull from.

Our hope is that throughout this our community stays healthy, continues to learn deeply, and grows closer together.

Please let us know if you have questions, concerns, ideas, or suggestions.

– Lauren on Behalf of The Village School Team

Laboratory of Learning

When you think of the word laboratory what do you see? A chemist in a windowless room, a group of scientists conducting experiments surrounded by white space, or perhaps, like me, your ill-equipped and uninspiring high school science “lab” comes to mind.

According to Merriam-Webster’s definition, a laboratory is defined as “a place providing opportunity for experimentation, observation, or practice in a field of study.”

It is in this broader sense, that we see our community at The Village School as a laboratory. Our field of study is learning.

Our school isn’t a school in the usual sense of the word. It grows as a child grows. It grows and develops out of a learning “laboratory”- out of the experiences of our learners, their parents, and our guides here at TVS- and of those in our affiliate communities across the globe.

While every Acton community is different, we each share the goal of creating the best learner-driven environment we can while guiding each of our learners to discover a calling that will change the world. Put in other words, this means we have hundreds of learning “laboratories” all over the world providing opportunities for experimentation, observation and practice in the field of self-directed and collaborative learning.

At The Village School, we utilize this network of learning “labs” to help us constantly improve in three key areas:

Content: This includes content in the form of integrated real-world projects /quests and core skills learning in the areas of math, reading, and writing.

Structure: This includes studio systems to enhance both independent and collaborative learning as well as social/emotional skills and studio culture.

Application: This includes support from an active online forum for Acton Guides and Owners to troubleshoot, share, and learn from each other in real time, a monthly video conference call with adopted “running partners” (close colleagues/owners/guides in the network), and an annual Owners conference.

In a laboratory things are never stagnant. The next experiment, revealing observation, or field-tested practice in human learning and motivation is right around the corner.

Just like a child- or a scientist on the verge of something big, we live in anticipation of all of the new discoveries that await.

A Better World

Guest post by Vijay Shah, Co-Founder & Director of The Humanist Academy

It is such an incredible and indescribable feeling. Every parent can attest to it. When your newborn baby has just entered the world, and you are holding him in your arms for the first time. It seems like the entire world has just stopped for a few seconds. The moment has somehow frozen in time. You lose yourself in him and forget about everything leading up to that point: the months of anticipation, the hours of agony, the intensity, the struggle, the exhaustion… everything vanishes. 

Just a few months ago, we were blessed with a baby boy. I can remember holding him for the first time like it was yesterday. It doesn’t matter whether it is your first child or your third, it never gets old. I vividly remember being so incredibly engrossed in that moment; in my hands, I held this tiny human being, a bundle of joy, hope, and infinite potential. Why was it so breathtaking? It’s difficult to pinpoint, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the tremendous power of human connection, the power of family, and the power of love. 

For some reason though, as my mind obsessed over his arrival, doubt started to creep in. He had just entered the world, but what kind of world was awaiting him? Was it hopeful or dreadful? I started to worry. As the first few days passed by, pessimism started to take over. The sea levels are rising, I thought. Major cities across the world are facing water shortages. Millions of tons of plastic are being dumped into the ocean each year. Human consumption and wastes are outrageously imbalanced and disproportionate in nature. Mass shootings have become all too common. News and media outlets are not only extremely negative and appeal to the worst of our human instincts, but they also have become so incredibly polarized that it has become almost impossible to distinguish the truth from biased agendas and opinions. Schools and hospitals are just massive factories where human beings equate to quantifiable commodities. Role models, heroes who embody virtues, stand for principles, and live for higher ideals have become harder and harder to find… Is this the kind of world that awaits my newborn baby?

But when I thought all hope might be lost, as I deeply worried about my son’s future, I entered the magical studio of THA. What did I see? I saw the entire studio enter pin-drop silence during core skills and then grow loud and rambunctious during Quest and Free Time. I saw all fifty-four of our Heroes engaging in meaningful work. I saw a curiosity and a zest for learning, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my 15+ years working in schools as a teacher, professor, and administrator. I saw older Warriors taking out time to build relationships with younger Warriors, and younger Warriors being grateful for it. I saw them journey inwards during morning meditation, and reflect deeply upon their day during closing group. I saw thought-provoking Socratic discussions that put our Heroes in real-world situations and force them to think critically about their choices, “Imagine you were Marie Curie, would you risk your life working with hazardous materials in the pursuit of world-changing scientific discovery, or would you play it safe?” 

I heard insights from young Heroes that would astonish any adult willing to listen, “Mr. Vijay, I don’t think I deserve the full points for this challenge because it was pretty easy for me, so I’ll just submit it for half the points.”  I saw brave heroes who held their peers accountable and rejected victimhood. I saw laughter, tears, joy, and struggle. I saw mistakes, accompanied by the courage to accept those mistakes and the resilience to overcome. I saw tremendous growth, holistic growth. I saw integrity, focus, curiosity, courage, appreciation, persistence, rigor, diligence, warmth, compassion, and love all come together in one place. I saw at THA, a world I thought only existed in a dream. I saw hope. In a world plagued with problems, I saw a solution. 

I thought again about my son and the type of world that awaits him. He gets to be a part of this world.

How incredibly fortunate he is. 

That’s Exactly Why You’re Here

Recently, one of our founding parents reflected back on her daughter’s experience transitioning from a traditional school to our learner driven environment.

She shared with us, after the first month of school last year her daughter came home and exclaimed, “I don’t want to make all of the rules. I just want someone else to do it and tell us what to do!”

In response, this heroic parent said calmly and matter-of-factly, “And that’s exactly why you’re here.”

Fast forward to today. This young lady is now our resident “sheepdog” at TVS. Sheepdog status is a special role given to our student leaders in the community, who work diligently and thoughtfully to guard and protect the learning environment. There is a sheepdog at every Acton campus and these young heroes are connected to each other through a global “sheepdog” forum, where they can help each other brainstorm and problem solve studio issues. It’s a new initiative within the network, but I can already see the potential of connecting and empowering campus leaders at a global level. I mean, how cool is that?

Recently, there had been an eruption of unkind and derogatory comments in the studio. A few of the learners were quick to point out the specific contract promises those participating were breaking and the offenders were quick to diminish the importance of their words.

Our young sheepdog, in turn, saw this as her call to action. She rallied a few others in the studio and crafted an email to the Sheepdog Forum. The group cheered in excitement when they received a response email from the resident sheepdog, and launchpad (high school) hero, at Acton main. Fueled with new insights and a clear path forward, she and another hero crafted a launch on language and why words matter. Following the discussion, a contract was created and signed by all heroes, penning their commitment to preserve and honor a sacred, respectful space, through the use of kind and inclusive language. The consequences of one’s choices clear as day: future offenders would be warned and stop (including apologizing) or receive an Honor Code violation for breaking their promises to each other.

In watching this play out, I am reminded of how capable our children are. This was accomplished with zero adult intervention- aside from providing the tools and setting up the learning environment. Our heroes saw a problem and immediately stepped in to solve it, calling the community to a higher standard of excellence and imprinting something lasting on each of their young hearts. Words matter.

Would this have had the same impact coming from an adult? I ponder the outcomes of a different course of action, of one that didn’t involve an empowered young person at the helm, and I know the answer.

Certainly, it would have been easier- for us, the adults. But what a missed learning opportunity had we done so. These tensions and reparations become the very essence of who we are as a community, a school. As if each time, we are saying- this is who we are and this is how we do things here.

When ugliness erupts or thoughtless language finds its way back in to the studio, I am confident that our heroes, with the support and guidance of our sheepdogs, will rise to the occasion.

Because, truly- That’s exactly why we’re here.

You Are Here

Recently, I had a conversation with a gentleman who knew very little about our school. In seeking to understand more about our program, he asked me a series of questions. He was a very nice man, but rather than bring us closer together, each exchange seemed to make the connection even fuzzier- as if I was standing in front of a map at the precise spot where it says “You are here” and this person can not seem to find their way to the same spot. The service is bad. The connection was never good. We may meet at the same spot eventually, but certainly not today.

“Do they play in this fenced playground area?”

Me: “Yes, but also in the large field over there and in the woods over here.”

“They climb trees?”

Me: “Oh, yes!”

“What if they fall?

Me: “They do.”

“There are no whistles or bells? How do they know when it’s time to come in or move to the next thing?”

Me: “They tell each other. They know the schedule.”

“What if they just decide to stay outside and play football all day?”

Me: “That would be interesting if they made that choice.”

Of course, I followed up by explaining this would be an “unsafe choice” and violation of our school’s Honor Code. Our learners know this because they helped create the rules and attached consequences for abusing any of their freedoms. Aside from this, I state, “Learning is fun here. They want to come inside. They want to work.”

While I want to keep talking about the freedoms and responsibilities of our learners, and how children want to learn, I can tell this is just causing the connection to get fuzzier.

So, I give up on that and share the responsibilities of our team, the adults- to ensure a safe learning environment for the young people in our care.

Satisfied, this nice gentleman and I bring our conversation to a pleasant end, no closer to each other than when we began. I find that quiet resolve inside to accept this fact.

This man is doing the best he can with what he knows. In our conversation, he asks a series of “What if” questions that contain assumptions that children are incapable, fragile, irresponsible, manipulative, and disengaged. Of course, somewhere in our conversation he reveals to me how much he hated school. No surprise there. When he thinks about school, his imagination can go no further than his own experience. This saddens me. He is there.

And we- well, we are not there, thankfully.

We are here. In a place where children are capable, strong, responsible, compassionate, and filled with wonder. In a place where asking “What if…” is focused on all of the magical possibilities and untapped potential in each of us. In a place where children are free to spread their wings and fly.

I remember this, and just like that- my heart is filled with joy.

Am I Doing This Right?

There’s no standard handbook for parenting. Out in the universe of parenting self-help books, there exists a million different opinions, methodologies, and philosophies of how we should be doing this parenting thing. The pressure is real because the stakes are so high. Is there anything we care about more than the healthy growth and development of our children?

The majority of us tend to parent the way we were raised- the way our parents parented us. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, this is what we know and what we know is always easier. It’s the path of least resistance.

This fact alone is what makes a Village School parent a hero. We are choosing to quiet these handed-down, reflexive parenting methodologies, in order to nurture and grow a confident, resilient, responsible, kind, and empowered child- one who’s ready to use his or her unique skill set and passions to thrive in the new world we now live in.

Counter-intuitive and frequently uncomfortable, this is really hard work. This new territory of parenting self-directed learners can often leave us wondering, “Am I doing this thing right?”

The truth is- there’s no right or wrong way. The beauty of being a TVS parent is you get to choose what feels right to you, based on your values and your relationship with your child. Your role in your child’s school experience depends on what’s important to you.

With that said, some of our founding families who are thriving in our community do have some advice. They say, regardless of whether you are checking in with your child daily, weekly, or once per session at the exhibitions of learning- the most important thing is engaging in the process of letting go, of shifting your mindset and prioritizing your relationship with your child, paying close attention to who they’re becoming- over what they’re producing. Remember: Our goal is to nurture life-long learners with strong character, not carry them through mindless “grade-level curriculum” so they can do well on a test. We mean it when we say learning to learn, learning to do and learning to be are far more important than learning to know. This whole-child approach is what we’re all about.

Parents who are thriving in our community are committed to a regular practice of:

1) letting go: trusting their child and trusting the process, being willing to be surprised, respecting their child’s path and understanding that it may be different from their own, being patient, letting go of immediate gratification, letting go of solving their child’s problems or removing obstacles 

2) meaningfully engaging with my child: being present, listening and having conversations with their child, seeking to understand by asking questions, being curious, accepting and affirming ther child’s thoughts and feelings without judgement, giving growth mindset praise

3) meaningfully engaging with the community: attending parent coffees and exhibitions, getting to know others, giving and receiving honest, thoughtful feedback, assuming the best of others, sharing vs. comparing, modeling respect, honesty and kindness, being open-minded and supportive

4) being self-directed learners/problem-solvers: finding own solutions rather than expecting the school to provide them, actively seeking out answers to questions, taking responsibility for learning, looking for creative solutions to potential “trade-offs” of a micro-school environment

5) embracing failure and experience as the best teachers: embracing the messiness of experiential learning, expecting failure and stumbles, being willing to reflect on experiences regularly as opportunities for growth

6) embracing accountability: having clear and consistent boundaries at home, holding their child accountable using natural and logical consequences, supporting systems of accountability at school or encouraging their child to use their voice if a system or rule seems unfair.

So, when you find yourself wondering, “Am I doing this thing right?”, try a quick self-assessment using two follow-up questions: 1) Am I practicing the things above? and 2) Am I willing to try again when I fail?

If you’re answer is yes, then please self-affirm your heroic efforts: Yes- 100%, you are doing this thing right. Then, by all means, look up- there’s a whole group of us cheering you on.

The road to mastery is long but the rewards are worth the effort.

Solving Difficult Problems

At The Village School, we promise seven key things to our families. One of these is our promise to guide each of our learners to discover his or her most precious gifts so they can use them to solve difficult problems.

What kind of problems are we talking about? Do we mean problems related to the core academic areas? Are we talking about complex multi-step word problems or mastering that spelling list, reading drawer, or newest civilization challenge?

Actually, no. While these core skills are an important part of our learning design, they are tools that allow our learners to begin the work of solving difficult real-world problems.

As parents, we can sometimes lose sight of the real-world problems in our midst.

Recently, my oldest son was working on mastering the concept of rounding on Khan Academy. He was struggling while working on it at home and asked me for some help. Rather than sit with him for a few minutes or ask questions about what he’d tried so far, I jumped in to show him a rounding “trick” that could help him solve his problem. Happy with this new-found method of rounding numbers, he went along his merry way working through the remaining challenges on Khan. Problem solved.

Or not.

The very next day, as he was working through similar problems, he threw up his hands in frustration and yelled from the other room, “Mom, I forgot what you showed me! Ugh, can you come show me again?”

At that moment, I was reminded of something I already knew- quick, academic progress that feels good in the moment is not the same as deep, mastery based learning. I had lost sight of the actual problem.

For my son, he was facing the problem of how to use his time when didn’t understand something. Should he invest the time to deeply learn this particular math concept, watch the videos, do the practice problems, ask one of his peers for help or look for a shortcut- saving time but sacrificing understanding?

By stepping in the way I did, I had removed the difficult real-world problem that my son would face again and again throughout his life. The problem of time- how should we use it?

The slow, cumulative process of mastery based learning takes time. But we know, at The Village School and throughout the Acton network that it is this process that allows our heroes to learn to learn, learn to do, and learn to be- which is far more important than simply learning to know.

Knowing this, I always find it remarkable that our learners, on average, score one to three grade levels above their same aged peers on standardized tests. The truth of this fun fact is staring us right in the face: a child who knows how to learn can learn anything.

While academic progress is important, this is not the work of solving difficult problems.

While we celebrate a learner mastering his or her grade level in math or reading, what we are really celebrating is how this learner faced and solved the difficult problem of time to meet his or her goals.

Using your voice, solving a conflict, meeting a deadline, becoming a leader of yourself and your learning- this is the work. If our children learn how to do these things now, in a community that mirrors the real-world as much as possible, then they will be poised to solve the world’s most difficult problems when they encounter them.

Next time my son is struggling and looking for a “quick fix” as a way to solve his immediate problem, I’ll try my best to remember this.

Taking Inventory

“I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened because, after all, erosion is so much harder to recognize than earthquake damage.” – Kevin Salwen

Disengaged, distracted by our various technological devices, “busy” with our own work, agendas, extracurricular activities, constantly enticed by a consumer agenda of “more”- it is dangerously easy for modern life to cause our family relationships to erode. 

So how do we recognize erosion before we’re faced with earthquake damage? The start of a new year is a great time to take a family “inventory”. This inventory involves stepping off the treadmill long enough to reflect and answer a simple question: How are we doing?

Recently, when Christian and I asked this question, it became clear that we were not doing great. Distracted, disengaged, and entrenched in various rationalizations of “busy”, we were far from describing our family life as thriving. As our boys developed new interests and greater independence, and we allowed our own work demands to take over, it began to feel like we were on a path that we had not intended to take- one that prioritized productivity over connection. The hardest part of this realization is that we were the problem. As parents, we set the tone, and we were not setting a good one. Ouch. 

But, with newfound clarity, we can begin again. We can choose to do less and listen more. We can build rhythms of restoration and connection into our family lives and choose to take the hard but more rewarding path of living more intentionally among the people we are entrusted to and who have been entrusted to us. Whether it’s a New Year or a new week, we can all do this.

Even better news- we don’t have to do it alone. Here are some great resources, along with one inspirational story, to help your family thrive this year, and beyond: 

How Your Family Can Live a Richer Story in 2020: Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller
The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family by Patrick Lencioni
Rhythms of Renewal by Rebekah Lyons
The Power of Half by Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen

Learning to Learn

“The focus on Acton is on skill-building, not meeting academic standards.” -Jeff Sandefer

The first year or two for a learner at The Village School involve a Hero learning how to learn.  This starts with learning how to do something as simple as staying focused for 10 minutes on a task, or setting smart goals consistently, or learning how to navigate the systems in an Acton studio.  If they learn these skills, then they can learn anything they set their mind to.

As a community in our second year, I can say this is where most of our learners still fall- they are still learning how to learn. It’s important not to miss this part. This is the foundation that will allow them to thrive in the new world we now live in.

These are the things our heroes are learning in their first two years:

  • Developing a growth mindset/ Hero Mindset (vs Victim mindset)
  • Learning how to respond to failure/mistakes 
  • Learning to take responsibility for their choices 
  • Learning to give and receive feedback from peers
  • Learning how to hold their peers accountable
  • Learning how to participating in discussions productively
  • Learning to work well with peers on group learning activities 
  • Learning to regulate emotions
  • Learning to advocate for themselves and others
  • Learning to set goals for a day, then a week, then a session
  • Learning to organize their belongings and their work
  • Learning to track their work accurately
  • Learning which systems to use when
  • Learning to operate a laptop
  • Learning to navigate their learning without direct instruction from a teacher

These are the skills of a life-long learner. They don’t develop overnight- nothing important really does.

From “I’m Great” to “We’re Great”

According to research, every truly great organization exhibits a range of “We’re great” language and behavior. The same is true of championship winning teams and powerful social movements. “I’m great” thinking might allow for a top producer or a star player, but it will not create the impact of a group of people who understand that their collective efforts are far more powerful than anything they can do alone.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s not a bad thing to have a healthy dose of self-esteem and a set of skills that allow us to reach our goals. It’s just not where we want to stay- at least, not if we want to do something truly great.

Reaching this next level of success requires a noble mission, a common identity, and shared values. Harry Potter, Hermione, and Ron were on a mission to save the world from Voldemort. They were wizards/witches who valued friendship, courage, and love. The 1980 U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Team was on a mission to defeat Russia. They were American athletes who valued hard work, humility, and innovation. (Put the movie “Miracle” on your family movie night agenda if you haven’t already done so.) Our learners at The Village School are on a mission to discover their gifts and talents so they can use them to change the world. They are heroes who value honesty, passion, and grit.

None of these are solitary adventures. If we want to change the world- in whatever form, we need others on the journey. The “others” in our midst reinforce the shared mission, identity and values that allow us to harness the power of a “We’re great” culture.

As parents, we can do a variety of things to help our children move from “I’m great” to “We’re great” thinking.

  1. Give yourself an honest self-assessment. Does your language include “I” more often than “we”? Do you talk about others strengths in relation to your own? (For example, our boys have a very good understanding of how our strengths as parents are different and how they compliment each other and make our family unit stronger).
  2. Encourage your child to form relationships with other children that have overlapping interests and could result in a common goal. Partnerships are good- Triads are better. (Common goals could include building a fort, making a song, or forming a “club”).
  3. Speak often about your own personal role models, highlighting the specific language and behavior that you admire.
  4. When your child complains about the behavior of others, reiterate your belief that we all have something to contribute. Re-frame the conversation by asking what their peer’s strengths or interests are and encourage your child to invite this peer to contribute in some way. (For example, “I noticed you have really nice handwriting, would you like to write the title on the poster?”)
  5. Tell, read, or watch stories that focus on people making the transition from “I’m great” to “We’re great” thinking and behavior. Reflect on them together. (Do you remember the moment you realized you couldn’t do it all on your own? Tell THAT story.)
  6. Give growth mindset praise every time you see your child working collaboratively and help him/her notice what he/she was able to able to accomplish by working as a team.

Yes, we want our young learners to be confident, capable and self-directed. But more importantly, we want them to learn that the highest level of success is discovered as a team.