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The Education Movement You've Never Heard Of

02/20/2015 08:52 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

If ever there were sustaining proof that the educational process of children is subjective and evolving, it is the fact that the application of Common Core standards has turned into a political debate. Americans want their children to have the knowledge necessary to achieve their goals and live fulfilling lives but we still seem uncertain on how to make that happen. Public schools are often beleaguered with tax funding and facilities shortages while home schooling can deprive children of social interactions critical to development.

How do we fix something if we don't precisely understand how it is broken?

Jeff and Laura Sandefer of Austin appear to have landed on a viable concept called "learner-driven" schools, or academies. Seven years ago they launched a small school that allowed students to follow their curiosity and seek answers to questions and problems with little more than supervisory adult guidance. The strategy loosely parallels the philosophical approach to education pioneered by the late A.S. Neill, who founded the famed Summerhill School in England, which allowed children to learn with "freedom from adult coercion and community self-governance."

Neill, who became a counter culture figure of the '60s and '70s, did not believe in teaching. "The function of a child is to live his/her own life," he wrote. "Not the life that his/her anxious parents think he/she should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educators who thinks they knows best."

Such freedoms for children, the Sandefers appear to have learned, is even more valuable for when it empowers their communities of peers.

"If you make it fun, and make working hard and being part of a community an essential part of the process, they will all work hard," said Jeff Sandefer. "Just saying, 'Hey, we're all going to go out and learn' is not the same as being part of an incredible community and doing great things. You can think of what we're doing as a kind of super-charged home schooling. The group dynamics make things better, and the kids get more productive."

The Sandefers have seen this happen daily since they founded the Acton Academy. Their school is designed with what are referred to as "studios," one each for elementary, middle, and high school. Presently, 90 total students are enrolled and growth is expected to be limited to 120, (although Austin will have five of the academies by the end of this summer.) There are no teachers. Adults present, usually four, are referred to as "guides." These guides propose challenges for the students, who then work individually or through group projects to find answers and achieve goals. The guides do not provide answers and there is no rote learning. In fact, no adult is allowed to even use a declaratory sentence with the children. Much of the discovery process begins with Socratic discussions.

"These are one room studios," Sandefer explained. "It functions almost like a big family. But it's forbidden for an adult to answer a question in a studio. I can offer you a choice of different processes. Would you like to brainstorm or do mind mapping? Even though I can't answer your question as a guide, I can offer you choices on how you can find information and learn. Offer you a process."

The results, according to Sandefer, offer a powerful proof of an innovative educational system. He estimates that two thirds of Acton Academy's middle school students have tested out of the high school assessment offered by the Stanford 10 exam. The test is the only one ever conducted on the small Acton campus because it is a way to measure whether students are improving cognitive skills in reading, writing, and math. Instead, they concentrate on various learning tools available on the Internet, game-based programs for math and language, and the fact that the web allows the student to get access to almost any teacher they want in order to learn what they want. Students, however, never spend more than a few hours a day on a computer. They are responsible for producing special projects every six weeks.

Jeff Sandefer TEDxOKC

The learning process is structured in a manner that children are encouraged to discover their personal "hero's journey." Abilgail King, a parent of an Acton student who became a guide, thinks this is central to the exceptional achievements being witnessed.

"The idea of looking at your life as a narrative that you have control over," King said. "I didn't figure that out for myself until I was in my twenties. But these young kids, some of them are six years old when they come to Acton, are being given the idea that they are the protagonist in their life story. And that they are the heroes. It's so empowering that I think it gives the context that how they spend today affects what their choices will be for tomorrow."

If Acton is still considered an experiment, there are already people who believe the findings are conclusive enough to launch their own learner-driven schools. Sandefer says there is no advertising or public relations and he receives an average of one application per day to start an academy. An estimated 25 are expected to be in operation in the next six months around the U.S. and in locales like Honduras, Canada, Guatemala, and England. Affiliates can be launched with a $10,000 fee that provides administrative and consulting services to startups, which often begin in private homes or small office spaces. The academies are run on a not-for-profit basis, which keeps tuition at about fifty percent of the cost of most private schools.

Which has led many parents to believe that education intersecting with entrepreneurism may provide a reason for optimism.

"I have great hope for education in the future of America," said Acton founder Laura Sandefer. "Because I believe people are really experimenting right now. And playing around with ideas and trusting things they didn't trust in the past. I feel that technology is just shattering everything that we've known and been comfortable with. I think that people accept that a system that worked in the early 1900s is not appropriate for us now. But I think free thinkers are the key and that's what we're trying to protect here. The freedom to really think and be what you were meant to be."

And that, in the simplest of terms, is the purpose of education.