Why the founder of Acton Academy Red Rock is recommending families “detox” from education
Acton Academy Red Rock’s learner driven education model offers a new view of “goal setting” that puts the child’s curiosity first.
Over the several years that Acton Academy Red Rock Founder Amy Novak worked as a public school teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, she noticed a troubling trend among her students. Year after year, children were walking into her classroom more stressed, more hesitant, and harder on themselves than the year before.
“They wanted to be spoon fed answers, even if the answers were right there in front of them,” she recalls. “They were afraid to be wrong, and they beat themselves up if they were wrong. I remember little kids were drawing, which should be so much fun, and crumpling up their paper. They’d rip it up and I’d find it in the garbage because they just didn’t feel like it was good enough.”
Novak realized that the conformity and uniform way of measuring “success” in schools was breaking down the confidence and autonomy of young students. And it wasn’t just the public school system: Novak had previously worked at a private school and noticed the same patterns there as well.
That’s when she discovered the Acton Academy education model. She was struck by how similar it was to her most successful teaching methods, which centered around project-based learning and giving students more autonomy. She was inspired to found the Acton Academy Red Rock in August 2021. To be sure, getting used to the new system does require a “detox” of sorts for the parents who have to wrap their heads around independent learning and fewer metrics by which to judge progress. But once they do, the world opens.
In Amy’s words, Acton Academy Red Rock does far more than teach students to “learn to do.” It also teaches them to “learn to be” and “learn to learn” — creating a new generation of self-confident students able to identify and pursue the education they want for themselves.
At Acton Academy Red Rock, learner-driven education is the focus
During Amy’s previous experience in the public school system, children were “dependent on us for answers,” she says. “They don’t know where to look because they’re never allowed to look.”
Acton Academy Red Rock, however, not only allows students to look for answers themselves, it puts students in the driver’s seat of their educational experience.
Elementary schoolers, for example, start the day with a “conundrum,” in which they are presented with a new decision to make for themselves. They are taught to avoid circumventing difficult situations, “because they know a challenge is also part of who they are becoming,” says Amy.
Crucially, Acton Academy Red Rock instructors are “not teaching upfront — we’re not on the stage saying,’This is what you’re going to know,’” says Amy. “We’re showing them the way to find the learning on their own.”
The mixed age groups present in Acton Academy Red Rock’s single classroom building encourages children to learn from one another and engage in community discussions. Curriculum is flexible, adaptable on an individual basis to play to each student’s unique strengths and talents.
“We’re learning to be in the world,” Amy says. “And how are we going to be in the world if we never have any experiences with people who are different from us?”
Learning at Acton Academy Red Rock requires an “unlearning” first
Perhaps surprisingly, Amy has found that the best-equipped students for Acton Academy Red Rock are those who have never set foot inside a school.
“If they’ve never gone to school, that’s better, because they have not been taught to sit and be still in quiet,” she says.
Many students have an adjustment period when they first arrive at Acton Academy Red Rock. “When kids first come into our environment, they have to go through this process of unlearning the way they’ve been taught,” Amy describes, including asking permission to change activities or use the restroom. “They have to go through the process of letting go of everything that they think education is.”
Parallel to students’ journeys are that of their parents, this “detoxing” process each parent inevitably faces.
“What we find is parents often default to how their education was,” Amy says. “That’s what’s already pre-programmed in their head, that you go to school and you sit at a desk.”
For students to truly uncover their potential through the independence that Acton Academy Red Rock encourages, parents “have to let go of the preconceived ideas that they have in their mind, that this is how school is supposed to be.”
Acton Academy Red Rock’s K-12 model has non-traditional goals
Milestones and success at Acton Academy Red Rock aren’t measured by test scores or awards. Rather, the school emphasizes perceiving “success” through personal development. Students are able to give “character call-outs,” praising each other for displaying traits like kindness and patience.
Amy defines student achievement as displaying “a depth of character. How did they show up in those moments? … We’re going to show you why it’s almost more important than what we can shove in their brains.”
Similarly, the ultimate goal for a student attending Acton Academy Red Rock is not necessarily college acceptance. Instead, it is to be empowered and enabled to be a lifelong learner, prepared for real-world challenges.
“The ultimate goal is for them to find their calling,” says Amy. “Do they want to be an educator? Do they want to start their own business and pitch area business owners for startup costs? Do they want to go on to college and become an anesthesiologist? Whatever their passion is, whatever that curiosity is — that is our ultimate goal for them, to find it and hone in on it, to experience it. And then, to make a decision about what their next great adventure might look like.”
Learn more about Stand Together’s education reform efforts.
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