Freedom and Structure: A Synchronous Pair at Acton

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Written by Laura Sandefer and originally posted September 7, 2016

Some people confuse freedom with a lack of structure and rigor. Acton Academy is a perfect antidote to this thinking.

Our learning community, well-known for loving and protecting freedom, is grounded in structural cornerstones that protect the consistency so critical to a child’s peace of mind and, hence, learning. This structure also ensures a learning experience based not on adults’ directives and whims but on young people making choices within predictable boundaries.

The goal of our design is that Eagles move progressively and systematically closer to excellence over a series of years while being free to make important choices for themselves on a daily basis. Eagles are given more baseline freedoms at Acton than any school I’ve ever encountered just by being there but more and more freedom may be earned over time and is protected within clear boundaries.

It takes a keen eye to recognize these systems at Acton, though, because they flow without adult intervention once they are in place. (And that’s the magical secret to why Acton Academy works.)

Here is a snapshot of Acton’s key structural elements:

1) Place: Our studios are set up carefully so young people are equipped with what they need to learn, organize themselves and carve out a space for concentration and collaboration. Thank you, Maria Montessori, for giving your genius in this practice.

The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult.” Maria Montessori

2) Time: Our schedule is designed to create a predictable flow of each day, week, session and year. More importantly, it is designed so as not to waste a moment of a young person’s life. Time is treasured at Acton.

3) Language/Method: Our word choice and the Socratic Method have crystal clear boundaries – from how many questions a guide can answer to how many words a “launch” for a discussion should be. In addition, our internal Levers of Control include never lecturing, shaming or embarrassing an Eagle.

4) Curriculum and Freedom Levels: Every area of learning has a progression of incremental steps toward excellence. The online learning programs, Quests, Points Tracker, Badges, Freedom Levels and Full Circle Surveys have inherent structure so Eagles can gain tangible feedback for continual improvement in reading, writing, math, discussion skills, quest work, civilization, conflict resolution and leadership.

From this underlying foundation, the Eagles add their own layers of structure for self-governance: the Contract, Rules of Engagement and Eagle Bucks.

Building this structure is our primary and most challenging work, but once in place, our Eagles can work hard and truly be free – from distraction, wasted time and bureaucracy – in order to learn how to learn, learn how to do and learn how to be.

The structure is ready. The Eagles have arrived. Let the learning begin!

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