Discovering Independence in Discovery Studio

And we’re off! We’ve thrown ourselves into this new school year in Discovery Studio. 

We started the year off with the biggest Discovery Studio yet. With more learners and more space, learner independence isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. 

Being learner-led leads to so many incredible moments. Seeing young people learn, reflect, interact, and problem-solve through any obstacles is inspiring. In a world where so many adults can’t work together, watching young people work together the way they do here gives me a lot of hope for the future.

However, when a group of highly independent 6-11 year olds are first thrown together for the first time, it’s unsurprising that there are some challenges. That’s why our year starts with introductions to a lot of different systems. 

Systems are the backbone to our learner-driven community. Systems let learners decide their rules, hold each other accountable, share joys and failures, and celebrate each other. Systems let learners handle things themselves.

This group has proven that they’re eager for more independence. They’ve flown ahead in independent projects, like collaborating on an illustrated book about climate change in just one optional Friday. They’ve started thoughtfully making their contract and having constructive conversations about what they want their studio to be.

So, a bit earlier than usual, they were introduced to the system of Town Hall this week. Town Hall is a time when learners can share with their community, whether it’s solving a problem, getting feedback, or celebrating a success. They had an opportunity to write their first Town Halls of the year.

They made this meeting so much more than just an introduction. Learners brought up real issues in the studio. Even with issues I found a bit uncomfortable, they proved their maturity by having meaningful, productive conversations. They came up with their own solutions, debated their pros and cons, and voted to enact the things they felt their community needs. They celebrated each other’s progress and offered kind and helpful feedback. This group of young learners showed how much responsibility they already have for their community and their learning, and that they have the skills to work together for the greater good.

A learner driven environment can be messy at times but the ability to come together, discuss, compromise, and solve problems shows that this group is off to an incredible start.

Igniting the Spark: Off to a learner led start

“Excited”

“Nervous”

This week, Spark learners embarked on a new journey as they prepared themselves to start a new school year at The Village School. Learners expressed how they felt going into a new year on their first day but by the end of the week, those emotions had quickly changed. We began to see amazing things happen as nervousness turned into calm and peaceful inquisitive minds working at their own pace.

The calmness of the returning learners is leading the Spark studio in a new direction. New learners are becoming acclimated to their new learning environments and are openly voicing their opinions in our daily launches. Grace and courtesy and safety were discussed as learners modeled how to carry materials with two hands and an outdoor tour of the playground was given to showcase new boundaries. These boundaries called for lots of fun outdoor play as learners expressed their personalities through collaborative play in hula hoop and planning to be your own boss games.

Collaboration also occurred during Sparks first music lesson. They learned about different instruments, their high and low-pitched sounds, and showed us how to control their body movements. Harmonious clapping echoed throughout the enormous room, one beat at a time. Learners were challenged with staying on beat and stopping at any given moment. Oh, how they wowed us!

What would happen if their excitement continued throughout each quest, project, and work period? Would learners awaken something inside themselves that they have never known? These questions have yet to be answered but we’re starting our journey with learners who have set their goals for a successful school year.

Teamwork at its Best


“We need those to catch frogs.”


“This is so gonna be amazing.”


“This boat is cool.”

Session 7 has been all about the Ocean. Artwork, seashells, and books about the ocean adorned the shelves. Spark heroes learned about the different layers of the ocean with their varying temperatures, amazing ocean animals that could be seen in many shapes and sizes, and how trash impacts the oceans around the world.  They even got to explore an ocean sensory bin where they could dig in to find all types of colorful sea creatures. Their last challenge encompassed everything that they had absorbed these past few weeks–building a boat. Hearing the news of the challenge, the learners erupted in enthusiastic chants and excitement.

Over the course of two days, Spark learners eagerly collaborated to build the best boat ever.  They all dove in immediately and got to work. They selected materials and started putting their ideas together. Some chose to work together in small groups and then bring their contribution back so everyone could ooh and aah. Others decided to work individually. There was no plan and no instructions. Just lots of conversations, input, and hands-on involvement.

Their newfound determination continued to show itself at the end of the year. Not one person opted out. Instead we heard shouts of “we need scissors, where’s the tape, I need that”. Heroes were listening to each other, communicating effectively, and using their critical thinking skills to solve problems.


“That can be like a motor boat”


“This is the best boat ever.”


“Umm, Umm, the ship is going down”


“It’s the soda escape boat!”

The qualities that learners showcased during this project were all focused on teamwork. Teamwork has been a big focus in our morning and closing launches and learners have been busy practicing their newfound skills in different ways. Whether helping each other achieve their session goals or working together outdoors in nature, learners have continuously shown that progress can be made together.

Throughout this school year, we saw learners who once happily played by themselves now join in to play with other learners. They feel a part of the community. Laughing and talking with other learners, voicing their opinions on how things can go has been a joy to see. Simple statements such as “What can I do now?”  can be heard loud and clear. Active engagement, curiousness, and independence have taken over. Guides have also watched as learners who did not share in conversations with other learners develop a connection like never before.

Michael Jordan once said “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” I so agree with MJ. The journey of witnessing Spark learners enter The Village School and flourish during such a trying year speaks volumes. The success of Spark Studio is in part to all of the amazing learners bringing their qualities and skills together to make a foundation for future learning. It has truly been a team effort this year!

Learner Led Lessons

What is The Village School?”

This is a question I find myself asked time and time again. It’s a question I haven’t been able to come up with an answer for. How do you describe this place?

But then, this week, I was taught the same lesson I’ve learned over and over again this year – leave it to the learners. This is a learner led school – of course they have better answers than I do!

Discovery and Adventure learners had their Hero Celebration this past Thursday. The Level 5s (and one Level 4!) wrote speeches reflecting about their time here and their growth.

In the spirit of being learner-led, this blog post will be a space to share excerpts from their speeches. What is The Village School? What have you learned? How have you grown? Let’s ask the experts…

What is the Village School?

“The Village School isn’t your regular school. It’s a place where learning is fun and team work, independence, and learning are sole ingredients. you need those skills when you enter the real world. Other schools may say we are preparing them but that’s only schooling. Not life experience. You still need those sole ingredients for your life, your job and your future. And that’s what the Village School does. We are prepared. “

Fin, Level 4

“Kids take responsibility for their learning instead of the teachers teaching… Almost everything was different to what I was used to from the guides not teaching to even the desks being positioned differently… The kids are so much more driven to learn and be responsible. “

Jackie, Level 5

“When you think of failure, maybe you think of disgrace, or just BAD in general. Well, in this school, failure is nothing but success, and hopefully that message will be known to the world some day. When we fail, we call it an awesome failure, because failures are, well, awesome. And the reason for that is every time you fail, you learn, it is part of your hero’s journey, because if you don’t fail, then you just don’t go anywhere, and where’s the fun in that?”

Maddie, Level 5

At the Village School, I can move at my own pace. I’m more free to work on the things I want to…”

Emerson, Level 5

“I love the village school. It really pushes your limits and teaches you how to be responsible.”

Alexa, Level 5

Lessons Learned

“…The best things I learned from Discovery Studio were great leadership, grit, my passions, and, most of all, I learned how to be on a hero’s journey.”

Jackie, Level 5

“Honestly, before I went to the village school I really did not like work. Everyone learned the same thing and could not have the freedom to follow our passion while at school… When I found the Village School, I was amazed a school like this existed.

Alexa, Level 5

“I’d like to share a quote that my dad motivates me to use: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Benjamin Franklin said that. What have I learned here? Never stop trying, and don’t make an important decision when you are in a mood. You will regret it. I have lots of memories, but what makes a good day possible here is coming in everyday and seeing someone determined to do work. We are a pack, and like a community, the pack leaves no one behind.”

Owen, Level 5

Teamwork and Independence

“Thriving villages use teamwork to get jobs done and are independent from other villages. It’s the same here at the Village School. There are no teachers but only guides who won’t answer a question directly, but let you figure it out yourself.”

Fin, Level 4

“Something I wish I’d known is that we all are a team, pack, community, whatever you want to call it, and yes, you are responsible for your education, but you are also a part of everyone else’s. When we work together we can make the world a better place. Individually you can, but together we can do it exponentially. We have done that this year and we will continue to.”

Owen, Level 5

Thank you, TVS learners, for all the lessons you’ve shared this year. In the words of Owen, together we can make the world a better place, and we will continue to do so.

Challenging the Common Narrative

The world is full of narratives, especially those of middle schoolers. If you pay attention, you can see a master narrative running throughout, made evident by the systems, structures, and social norms in place. In looking at these pieces and parts, simply asking why can lead you to the master narrative at play.

Take the grading system for example. Why give grades? Because young people can’t be trusted to measure and reflect on their own progress. Why do parent-teacher conferences without the student present? Because young people are not capable of sharing and reflecting on their own learning. Why change the rules, provide the extension, make multiple allowances? Because young people are fragile and can’t handle missing deadlines or making mistakes.

So much of what we do at The Village School is construct a counter-narrative- a narrative entrenched in our beliefs about children and adolescents. In our community, young people are trustworthy, capable, strong and resilient. They want to learn, they want to improve, and they want to do excellent and purposeful work. In turn, our systems, processes, and language at TVS reflect these beliefs.

This year, I’ve seen the power of this counter-narrative in Adventure Studio. Within the walls of our school building, our middle schoolers are trusted with more freedom and responsibility than most young people their age. It goes without saying, they respond to this trust and respect by actually being trustworthy and responsible. Why? Because they are capable and they want to be trusted. In an environment such as ours, they can shed the narrow constraints of the outside world and step into a far more productive narrative about who they are and what they have to offer.

But like all things that challenge the status quo, this is not always easy- particularly when engaging with the real world.

On a recent trip to the bookstore, one of our middle schoolers was looking for a “definitive biography” of at least 400 pages to fulfill her Civilization requirement this session. After finding a book that she felt was in her challenge zone, the employee at the checkout counter engaged her in a long line of questions laced with skepticism:

“How old are you? Did you look at the young adult section? Why do you have to read 400 pages? Are you sure you can handle this?” and my personal favorite, “Is your teacher just trying to inflict some cruel and unusual punishment on you?”

I watched as she navigated this line of questioning that was so different from the types of questions she encounters in the studio. And, on the way back to campus, she shared some of her own questions that had formed as a result of the interaction.

“Why did my age matter? I read adult-level books. I know what is appropriate for me. I know my mom would agree. Why did they think I didn’t want to read a long book? I love long books. Why did they assume I wouldn’t choose to read a book like this unless someone was making me?”

She was baffled, understandably so. The bookstore employee’s behavior fit with the master narrative but not our narrative at TVS.

Similarly, our Middle Schoolers faced this challenge when attempting to secure apprenticeships. It was not easy. Many potential employers who showed interest in hosting an apprenticeship at first, became less decisive and certain about having a young person spend time learning and helping their organization. It seemed the master narrative loomed large, threatening their success in landing their first apprenticeships.

But, after several weeks of hard work, persuasive and impressive emails and pitches, dead ends and promising new opportunities, our founding middle schoolers secured their apprenticeships, showing the real world just how capable they really are.

One Adventure Learner apprentices in Spark Studio

Again and again, our learners at TVS will be given opportunities to challenge the status quo. They’ll no doubt face struggle and skepticism. But, along the way, they’ll be part of a movement that actually changes the common narrative, one that offers a more complete and accurate reflection of what young people are capable of.

Math Quest

Everyone can get better at math. That was the message at this week’s Math Quest.

Like education, teaching math has remained pretty much the same for the last 100 years. A teacher puts problems on the board and students get them right or wrong. Everyone goes through the same spiral curriculum at the same pace. At TVS, we have innovated: learners go at their own pace. They are free to choose what they want to learn next and how they learn it. But we wondered… is there an even better way?

Computers can now perform millions of computations in one second. Algorithms are replacing human labor. The future of the workplace is one that we can’t imagine. Is math even an essential core skill?

Many of today’s great mathematical minds have thought about this problem: Jo Boaler at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stephen Wolfram from Wolfram-Alpha. It comes down to the fact that math is more than just computation. A true mathematician poses a question about the real world, creates a mathematical model, performs a calculation, and transfers the model back to the real world to see if the question is answered. Then the process is repeated.

To highlight, computation is only ¼ of that process, and it is the part of the process that is most easily performed by a computer. Why wouldn’t we use a tool that can quickly and accurately calculate vs. doing it by hand?

So we posed a question, “What if we used all the steps? What would math look like?”

It was a deep dive into how to learn math. Like many things, math is collaborative. Math is relevant when it relates to the world. Math questions are ideally low-bar (simple enough for anyone to start) and high ceiling (a potential for using very complex math). Problems should include a visual component because mathematical thinking uses 2 visual regions of the brain. From all of our research, Math Quest was born.

In Math Quest, learners are challenged each week with Skill Builders (collaborative, game-like activities). At the end of the week, they come together to solve a real problem as a team. These problems are open-ended (no right answer) with many ways to solve. The studio shares solutions at the end of the day.

For example, can you solve this challenge? Draw a shape in the middle of a square piece of paper. Fold the paper so that with 1 straight-line cut, you cut out the shape.

Can

So far this session, learners have explored probability and geometry. We’ve had fun tying our questions into each quest from this year. It has given us a chance to reminisce about time in the woods for survival quest and the intense role-playing of the American Revolution. 

Everyone can get better at math, even TVS.

Expanding Spark in the Fall

The transition from Spark Studio to Discovery can be a big one. While learners navigate new systems and computer programs, they simultaneously strive to find their place in a new, older peer group. At the same time, they have left a studio with more support, structure, and direct one-on-one instruction and entered one with new levels of freedom and responsibility. For some learners, all of this paired with the studio’s newfound academic rigors can be overwhelming.

In an effort to ease the transition for some learners, TVS will build in a ‘flex’ year to Spark Studio starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Essentially, the studio will expand to include comparable academic work to that offered in the lower levels of Discovery Studio. This expansion will allow some Spark learners to continue to excel academically while they spend a little more time in the structured, familiar environment of Spark Studio. In other words, early Discovery and older Spark learners will be working on the same material in both studios. A learner can do that work in the studio that fits them best.

The expansion will apply throughout academic areas from math to grammar. It will include computer practice, advanced workbooks, research projects, writing prompts and more. Some of these additions have been piloted in Spark this past year with great success. 

Who stands to benefit most from this change? Perhaps a shy learner is still working on the confidence needed to speak up in a group. Maybe a child still needs practice reading, working on a computer, or resolving conflicts peacefully. Whatever the need, allowing these final puzzle pieces to fit into place before moving to the next studio will enable a smoother transition when the time comes. If learners are excited and ready to take on more independence in their learning they will find the move much easier. 

As an added bonus, more older learners in Spark will have the opportunity to step up as leaders. They will gain confidence as they bring newer learners up to speed on how to run discussions, hold each other accountable, and maintain a tidy studio. At the same time, younger learners will benefit from their example. That’s the beauty of mixed-age learning!

The hope is that building in this flex year will relieve any anxiety on the part of Spark learners that they are being held back or being moved too quickly into something they are not ready for. Hopefully, parents can also rest assured that their unique learner will be getting exactly what they need to grow and flourish.

The Circle of Control

As a learner-driven community, we talk a lot about what we can control and what we can’t.

By the time a learner reaches Adventure Studio, they understand that they are in the driver’s seat of their education, meaning they have a lot more control over their learning than the average young person their age. Understanding badge requirements, doing excellent work, meeting deadlines, having the right attitude, being a good friend, resolving conflicts- they understand that succeeding in these areas is within their control.

Guides do help by asking, “What tools do these young people need to be successful?” The answers determine the launches, stories, experiences and challenges for the year- planned out by session, weeks, and sometime days- leaving room for the spontaneous needs of a learning, growing, changing, group of learners. The learning design is within the guide’s circle of control- as is their personal attitude, effort, actions, and words, all of which is intentionally modeled each day. The guide’s job is to inspire, equip and connect young people to the tools available to them so that they are empowered to take control over their learning.

Within this learning design, there are two very important tools that help a learner really understand what they have control over: Experience and reflection. This is the super-power duo of all tools available to our learners at The Village School. This is where the deepest learning happens and how the most growth occurs.

This session provided many experiences for our Adventure learners to reflect on what is within their circle of control.

From failing to earn a badge to a hosting a semi-chaotic Field Day, their reflections helped them connect their actions to the outcomes, providing vital experiences and life lessons that will be applied the next time they submit badge work or plan a Field Day.

Of course, of equal importance is learning what is outside their circle of control. Experience teaches them this too. They learn that people’s actions, other people’s words, the weather, external circumstances, world events (such as a global pandemic), and so on- are out of their control.

From not getting replies to emails about potential apprenticeships to the internet going out on the day you need to submit your work, they learned that things happen- life doesn’t always go as planned no matter how much we prepare or put all of our “ducks in a row”. In these situations, all you can control is how you respond.

Distinguishing between the two is critical, for it shows our learners where to focus their energy.

As we near the end of the school year, our guides also spend focused time reflecting on the experiences of the year, of the outcomes we see from the environment and opportunities we’ve provided. Without a doubt, one of the greatest outcomes for our Middle School learners is their ability to focus their energy on the things that matter. As far as life skills go, they are 1,000 steps ahead of many adults!

Indeed, Adventure learners are savvy travelers now on this journey of self-directed learning- and their adventures have only just begun!

A Day in Nature

Cicadas! Cicadas! Learners have spent a lot of time focusing on bugs in Session 6. They have been learning about butterflies, ladybugs, and cicadas for the past 5 weeks. This new found information has fostered into a life of its own and learners have turned into real life scientists as they actively explore in nature. This week, Spark learners had the advantage of going on a field trip to the park where their inquisitive minds ultimately took over.

At the beginning of the field trip, learners were asked what they already knew about insects. Hands were raised swiftly in the cool refreshing air. Learners attentively modulated their voices sharing that “some insects have wings and some don’t”. Each reply led to more questions and more questions led to more excitement.This engaging discussion gave our learners the opportunity to showcase the skills that they have steadily worked to equip themselves with. Leadership, confidence, and the ability to remain calm in challenging environments highlighted just how the Spark community fosters a sense of collaboration.

Working together to roll over logs and look for bugs was a joy to watch. Arms hugged the bulky piece of a tree as it slowly moved from its place. Afterwards, a learner was asked to showcase their bravery as they stood and modeled how a sweet-gum ball might feel on their back if it landed on their back. The learner stood peacefully without moving.

Along with cicadas, we discussed the beetle family, butterflies, and antennae. This learning experience will continue to nurture their love for nature and keep their spark as they discover new insects.

The Apprenticeship Hunt

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our founding Middle School learners are trying to do just that this session by finding and securing their first 40-hour apprenticeships.

First step: Who am I? What are my strengths? What are my interests/passions? What am I doing when I find myself in flow?

Through discussion, peer feedback, and self-reflection, Adventure learners identified their individual top character traits of insight, leadership, and creativity and narrowed down their many interests to history, event planning, radiology, alternative medicine, and education- among many other things.

Next step: Identify three possible apprenticeships: one “safe”, one “reach”, and one “dream” apprenticeship. Do your research.

Research

Subsequent steps: Draft a compelling email to secure a five minute phone call for each potential apprenticeship. Write, get feedback, revise and practice your phone pitches. Complete the same process for your in-person pitches. Make the pitch. Work out the details. Land the apprenticeship(s).

Sounds easy, right?

Well, sure- except doing something, anything, the first time is never easy. Things will certainly not go exactly as planned.

But this is real world learning at its best- learning that involves a worthy challenge, a strong why, and an outcome that feels fairly high-stakes. Inevitably, mistakes will be made, their skills and confidence will be tested, and our young learners will face disappointment.

Truthfully, we are COUNTING on these experiences. It wouldn’t be REAL world learning without them.

Of course, it always helps to hear the stories of others, complete with their own struggles and successes to better equip, inspire and connect our learners to the challenges they face. We were thrilled to welcome Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer, to campus this week and hear his own personal story to entrepreneurship and founding of Acton Academy.

Learners enjoyed a special visit and Hero Talk from Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer

Where will they land next session? What new experiences will they be having in their first apprenticeships?

This is still unknown. What we do know, is that they will have grown through the very act of doing, falling, and getting back up again.

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our Adventure learners are doing just that.