“Our school looks and feels a lot more like Google."
For decades, parents, educators, and students have talked about the constraints and frustrations of traditional schooling. In almost all schools, students end up figuratively chained to their desks and bored out of their minds—and they suffer personally and academically as a result.
That all changed for our family, two years ago when we discovered Acton Academy. Founded by Jeff and Laura Sandefer, who faced this situation with their own children, and took matters into their own hands. They founded Acton Academy—a revolutionary new kind of school that prepares students to become leaders of tomorrow through hands on, real world learning with practical applications, self-governance, and self-discovery.
Jeff and Laura join me and Jon Berghoff on the podcast to talk about how challenges educating their own children led to a revolution in modern education, what teaching looks like in the 21st century, and Laura’s new book, Courage To Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down.
If you’re interested in learning more about Acton Academy or even want to start a school in your city, visit https://actonacademy.org to discover everything you need to know.
- What sets Acton Academy apart from other schools—and how it parallels what leading entrepreneurs do to make their organizations succeed.
- How the hero’s journey can inspire passion and excitement in students—and rapidly accelerate learning (even in subjects kids once thought they were “bad” at).
- Why asking questions is so essential to learning, building character, and creating great habits.
- How you can help young people find their gifts, get into flow, and become self-sufficient.
- The importance of learning to fail, shaking it off, and getting back up—and why being comfortable in taking risks is a major part of personal development.
- And much more…
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Hal: Welcome to the Achieve Your Goals Podcast. This is your host, co-host, Hal Elrod, and it’s good to be back. I’m getting back into the swing of things. Jon’s let me back on the podcast which, Jon, I appreciate that, buddy. Thank you.
Hal: You’ve done such a great job. It’s something that I’m excited for today’s interview because this is near and dear to my heart. Now, Jeff and Laura Sandefer are the co-founders of Acton Academy. And Acton Academy, you may have heard me mention this before, but this is the school that my daughter, Sophie, goes to. She’s been going now for this is her, I believe, second year. My son is a little too young. He’ll go, in about a year he’ll start. And, Laura and Jeff, I don’t know if you’ve heard me say this so before I officially introduce the two of you, I’m going to speak right to you and that is I tell anyone that will listen that one of the most, if not the single most important decision that our family has made is to send our children to Acton Academy. And when I talk to other folks and I tell them about Acton Academy, I tell them, “I would not move to a city that did not have an Acton Academy,” and then I tell them, “Hey, your job if you are a parent is to figure out, to campaign, figure out how to get Acton in your city if it’s not in the town you’re in.” I mean, I am so passionate about it and my wife and I kind of playfully will say, “Our children when they grow up, who they become it’s probably like 50% our influence and 50% Acton Academy and it could even be 60% Acton Academy. I don’t know. It’s such a game changer. And the other thing that I want to share with you is we explored Waldorf School and we explored – what’s the other popular one that I’m forgetting?
Hal: Montessori. So, we explored Waldorf and Montessori. Now I’m a very practical, logistical person so Waldorf was close to our house. So, I was like, “I am sold. We’re doing Waldorf,” and I went and looked at Waldorf. Great school. Went and looked at Montessori. Great school. We fell in love with both of them and either one of them could’ve worked and then David Osborn, our mutual friend who is the one who told me about Acton Academy. He’s been on the podcast a couple of times. His daughter, Bella, goes to school. And I called him and said, “I think we’re going to do Waldorf. It’s real close to our house,” and he said, “Hal, you have to do your due diligence and you have to go look at Acton. You got to check it out.” He said, “I know those are great schools, but this is different. It’s just different.”
And so, we went and toured Acton Academy and within about ten minutes of touring the school, I turned to my wife as we had a break from Joey and Jaime and we kind of got a chance to whisper to each other and I said, “Sweetheart, I hope you’re thinking what I’m thinking. There is no comparison with any school that I’ve ever seen with what they’re doing at Acton Academy. This is totally revolutionary,” and thank God she was on the same page and our daughter loves going to school. Acton Academy is preparing her for the current economy, the future economy, the world that we live in. So, we’re going to go into a lot of depth on this, but I just wanted to express the deepest, most abundant heartfelt of gratitude that I have for both of you for creating this opportunity for our young people that I really believe is changing the world one person at a time and I just want to help you get into every city in the world.
Jeff: Thank you, Hal. Thank you.
Laura: Thank you.
Hal: Yeah. You’re welcome. All right. Let me give an official introduction for the two of you here. Now for our listeners that don’t know who you are and I’m actually going to start with Laura. Everybody listening, Laura Sandefer, she’s a mom first and foremost. She is also a wife and her awesome husband, Jeff, of course, is here with us. And they are the co-founders of Acton Academy. Now Laura received her BA at Vanderbilt and worked in the aviation insurance business in London and New York City before returning to Vanderbilt to earn her Master’s in Education and that’s really what led to her to launching a deep dive into the world of learning and human development. And I will let her and Jeff, I want to hear the story from the two of you, but she does have a brand-new book.
So, Laura’s new book is called Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down. And I was talking to Jon Berghoff, my co-host here, about Laura and about Jeff and about the book and we’ve talked about Acton many times. I’m campaigning to get Jon and his wife and family to move to Austin and come go to school with my kids. And so, I’m always pushing that. But Jon has done a lot of research on Acton and based on his field and his expertise, he actually is doing what a lot of what Acton Academy does for young people, he’s doing it in the corporate world. He’s doing it with organizations and with cities and with all sorts of grown-ups if you will and finding that what he’s trying, what the leaders of today are trying to do in their organizations is what you’re doing for the future leaders of tomorrow. So, I want to bring Jon on to start this interview and really dive in with you guys. Jon Berghoff, bring it, my friend.
Jon: Well, I want to get out of the way and just ask Jeff and Laura. Tell us how did Acton Academy come about. Start wherever you want with that. Where was there an idea born? How did it come about?
Jeff: Well, I’ve been a Socratic teacher for 30 years, so I love teaching by asking questions and I was at our daughter’s high-end prep school. She’s older and goes to a high-end prep school and our boys have been going to Montessori school. And I went to the very best teacher in that school and I said, “You know, our boys are loving Montessori and the freedom. When should we transfer them to a traditional school?” and this wonderful teacher said, “Well, immediately.” And I kind of said “Well, why?” And he said, “Well, after they’ve had that kind of freedom, they won’t want to be chained to a desk for eight hours a day.” And before I can even stop myself, I said, “Well, I don’t blame them.” And this tall, lanky, great teacher looked down at the ground and he looked down for so long I thought I offended him. And he looked up and he had tears in his eyes and he shook his head and very quietly said, “I don’t blame them.” And at that point, I went home, and I told Laura, “We’re done. We’re going to homeschool. We’re going to start a school. I’m not going to see those two beautiful boys chained to a desk,” and that was really the start of Acton Academy. Then Laura took it from there and found a house and we found families. And we started with a completely blank sheet of paper and said, “How should learning look? What should learning look like in the 21st century?” But it was really that one conversation that launched everything.
Jon: Wow. And so, and then what happened next?
Jeff: Take it from there.
Laura: Right. So, we just started living our lives and thinking about like Jeff said, what should learning look like? If you could create a dream school that you would love to go to, what must it include? We know it had to be hands-on learning. It had to be real-world problems to solve. We were right at the point in history where online learning was really taking hold even though people were skeptical of it. This was back in 2009 when we started. We saw great potential with technology and we saw the other school model is just not being adequate in that area, so we wanted to combine the very, very old with the very new. We wanted the new technology. We wanted the old-world apprenticeships, mentors, the real-world stuff from way back when and Socrates. We believed asking questions is much more powerful than being given answers. So, we just took those ideas and started experimenting with our own children.
One of the first experiments we ran was a result of a dinner conversation around our kitchen table. The boys, they were four years old and five years old at the time, and we started talking about lemonade stands and I was reminiscing about my childhood and how we used to do that in the corners. And Sam was four at the time and he said, “I want to do that, but I don’t want to sell lemonade. I’ve made bracelets for my stuffed animals,” and Charlie said, “And I’ve made dog biscuits.” Let’s have a fair with lots of different businesses in our yard with other children. That idea of a children’s business fair where children have an idea, make something, sell it, interfaced with adults and people in the community really was a launching point for us to test our idea that children can do amazing things when adults step back. So, the children’s business fair was our first prototype of learning. Is there anything else you want to add?
Jeff: No, but it’s amazing when you let children make something with their own hands, sell it safely to someone they don’t know, and they have a little spending money left over. How hard they’ll work, and we saw these young people learning, are working for a month, six weeks, eight weeks, and learning a tremendous amount with no adult intervention. So, that was our first indication. If you really love something and find the passion, the children could perhaps learn at a 10X rate of normal. And that’s what we found with Acton Academy that when they’re really engaged, when they believed they’re on a hero’s journey, when they believe they’re going to change the world, and you provide them with the right tools and processes and get out of the way, they can do amazing things including, by the way, getting self-governance and self-mastery and self-management. I mean, the idea that you kind of manage yourself and can learn to work. And so, our school looks and feels a lot more like Google. A learner-driven community feels more like Google than it does a school. It’s really, we shouldn’t even use the word school because it doesn’t feel like that.
Jon: Yeah. Wow. I think I’ve got about a thousand and five questions. Oh my gosh. So, I’m going to kind of go in order the way you brought some of these things up here. I want to go back to the power of questions and I became interested in this for my own reasons and, are either of you familiar with the research? I think it was published in a book called A More Beautiful Question?
Jeff: I’ve read the book.
Jon: Yeah. They really show that kids naturally ask a lot of questions until they ask the most questions when they’re what, three, four, five years old? But then traditional schooling if you look at their inquiry, it goes down almost at the exact same rate that engagement goes down and you realize, wow, there’s an interesting correlation there. So, why are questions so powerful from your perspective? And do you have to nurture that with the kids? Do you find that it’s already in them? You just have to not stop them from asking? I’d love to hear more about that.
Jeff: Well, sure. So, our learning philosophy is that the right analysis leads to the right decisions. Decisions become habits. Habits determine character and character determines destiny. So, you start out with the right dilemmas or problems that need to be solved and then you learn to ask the right questions around those and make decisions. So, the reason questions are important is they lead to actually doing something. Now you can ask conceptual questions but first, you need to understand with your hands what you’re doing in the real world to then come up to the conceptual level. And so, questions are important because they lead to action and when you’re doing something that you care about, you’re engaged, and when you’re engaged, you’re learning. And the idea of memorizing something you don’t care about and regurgitating it, that’s not interesting.
The idea of learning knowledge to use it for a purpose and I think more important in learning algorithms and processes and steps to bake a cake, create a chemical experiment, the process in order to do something’s important, questions are the thing that keeps you going. And the other thing is they do allow you also, process is important, so questions with no structure, the energy will go down. If you think about having kind of a vessel where everything is held inside that vessel in a place and the pressure builds, intensity and interest builds. So, questions allow you to frame kind of a place where you can talk and where you can get more energy.
Jon: Wow. That’s so interesting. You know, a lot of our audience, we were just talking about this earlier, are entrepreneurs and I think one of the things that our community appreciates is that, and Hal and I both share in a belief, and that is that curiosity, real curiosity which is born from I think humility is it’s the number one quality if especially folks that we meet that we bring onto this podcast. When we ask of all the qualities for a successful entrepreneur, what’s most important, and some variation of curiosity always rises to the top. So, I just want to connect that dot that it’s so cool that you’re nurturing that with kids.
Jeff: Yeah. And I’ve taught several thousand in MBA student years in the 30 years of teaching, and one of the things I think ties your curiosity point is the tolerance for ambiguity. So, it’s the curiosity to go forward to set a mission but then you have to move forward without the knowledge. And so, you can’t really start saying, “I don’t know where I’m headed.” You have to act like you know where you’re going but then be very open to new information, so you don’t charge off of a cliff. Most people can’t hold that idea of, “I have to say I know where I’m going and charge forward and get to ask questions.” That’s a tension they can’t hold in their mind, that’s the tolerance for ambiguity that at least in my experience really differentiates entrepreneurs from the average person.
Laura: Well, and it changes everything about the learning culture when you’re basing things on questions. There’s a Master Socratic teacher here in Austin Texas named Steven Tomlinson. He teaches with Jeff at the Acton School of Business. He’s an economist and a playwright. He’s this fabulous man and he asks – sorry?
Jeff: No. I said he’s terrific.
Laura: Oh yeah. He asked a question once in a discussion I was participating in. He said, “Would you rather be right or surprised?” And I remember before I got into this idea of creating a school, I always wanted to be right. I was a girl who got the good grades, who did everything right. I could work a system. I just worked my way through being right all the time. Life completely changes when you’re excited about being surprised and you don’t know the answer. So, the people that we bring in to work with the children, we call them guides, not teachers and then the bottom line with everyone who is in an Acton Academy is you cannot answer a question. And it’s a mental discipline of not being the one to deliver answers to children because then it sets the children off on these pathways of wonderment and mystery and the curiosity that is so natural within children just grows and it just feeds on the other people’s curiosity. So, the energy in an Acton Academy is a rare kind of energy in any other thing you call a school. In fact, when people come observe, the biggest question we get is, gosh, what makes these kids so happy here? And a lot of it is the freedom to be curious. In other school settings, you’re kind of punished for being too curious.
Jon: Yeah. What have you learned about how to present, how to either design a question or present a question? I’m sure you’ve learned so much about the whole process of choosing the question to ask and asking it in a way where it’s really inviting.
Laura: That’s a great question you just asked.
Jeff: Great question. So, one of the things we do a lot of where they’re called quests and you’re trying to do something that matters in the real world. I’ll give you an example. Yes, we have biology but often as soon as we’ll learn at the medical quest. So, you are in fact the doctor who is going to be diagnosing patients and you have a series of challenges that involved using simulations that nurses some real doctors. These are middle schoolers doing this. So, they’re learning how to read a CAT scan. They’re learning how to read a blood test. You’re not going to let them go operate on a hospital on people, but they actually get pretty good at it. And their mission is they know at the end of six weeks there will be a public exhibition and at that public exhibition, they know adults are going to come in with a series of symptoms and the medical team that can most correctly diagnose the most patients for the least money without killing someone are going to win.
So, if you think about there’s a real world, I mean, in this day and time we all need to learn more about our own health, but these young people are learning how to take command of their own health. They know it matters. They know it’s part of their hero’s journey. There is a series of sequence of challenges. So, in many ways, we’re game makers. A guide at Acton is creating a game inviting you to play, setting the rules and rewards but it’s a real-world game. Our real goal though is to turn Hal’s daughter into a game maker. We don’t want to be the game makers for long. We want her to learn how to make her own game in the real world so why it feels like a game.
Laura: And there is a bit of a formula to asking questions that bring the energy level up rather than down when you’re sitting with a group of people. And, Jeff, as a Socratic teacher at the higher-end level has taught us all a recipe for that. Would you want to share the options, presenting options rather than…
Jeff: Well, this is like a magician sharing secrets but…
Hal: Share. Share.
Jeff: The Socratic method comes down to two questions. Should you do A or B? And what do you mean by A? It’s all a matter of choices and definition. And so, you learn to work with other people to listen carefully, to ask questions back but you’re really trying to determine a set of choices to make and then to ask the definitions that we know that we’re all talking about the same thing. And so, there is a structure. There’s a structured way and really a lot of what we do at the Acton School of Business with the MBA program is borrowed from the Harvard Business School where I served for a long time. And so, there is a method to the madness of how you ask questions to solve problems.
Laura: Well, and it’s fun because parents at Acton Academy learn how to do this to engage more deeply with their children. So, you probably sat in the car with your child driving home from school. How was your day? Well, that’s a terrible question. It just doesn’t work. But if you would say, were you more challenged during math or during writing today? So, you give those options and then let them go deeper from there. It keeps the energy at the forefront instead of people sinking back into their minds and thinking and wondering. It keeps everything right up front, and energetic which is a real ticket to having a great discussion.
Jon: That’s a great insight. Jeff and Laura, you have twice in this conversation mentioned the idea of the hero’s journey. So, I would love to hear maybe how you introduce it whether it’s explicit or implicit with the students, the idea of a hero’s journey. But I’m going to give you an interesting request.
Jon: I don’t want to hear about it theoretically. I do but I actually would love to hear a story. I’m guessing you’ve got a lot of stories of students who come into your school’s who maybe when they came in for whatever reason, they weren’t used to this environment. They didn’t believe they could change the world like you say and I’d love any examples of stories that stick out for you that remind you why what you’re doing is so fulfilling of students that maybe have discovered their hero’s journey and it’s led to them realizing and enabling themselves to change the world.
Laura: I love that. You’re giving us this opportunity. Thank you. I’ll tell one and then I’m sure you – there are so many but the one that pops into my mind, we had a girl join our school. She had been in a traditional public-school setting and she said she was terrible in math when she came in. She started with us in the seventh grade and she’s tested at the fourth-grade level at math. So, we set her up with our online learning program, Khan Academy, and she’s just started working really hard on math. The nice things about these online programs, you get lots of instant feedback. You get to work at your own pace. So, she was working through math and in about a seven-month period, she had done not only all of elementary school math but all of high school math.
And she came up to me one day and she said, “Ms. Laura, Ms. Laura, I found out something. I’m not bad at math. I just have to work really hard at it.” And it completely changed her self-identity. She had to go through the struggle of working hard and battling the monsters of resistance and being the victim and distraction, all those monsters on the journey we all have to struggle with and defeat at some point but the treasure she found was an understanding that she’s not bad at math and it just opened up her world. So, that story comes to my mind often when I think of children who get labeled as good or bad at something early on in their lives and it shuts them down, the hero’s journey and seeing that you can do anything, you got treasure inside of you, now go battle for it, really frees them up. What comes to your mind?
Jeff: Well, as you’re telling the story, I’m thinking this idea of hero, young people often have the image that celebrity is what a hero is, and heroes don’t always win. They get back up. So, Laura’s idea of this working hard and it’s really woven in everything we do. Young people, you don’t have to teach them about the hero’s journey. They get Star Wars. Every great movie and every great novel, I mean, it is the hero’s journey. So, we launch with stories about people and role models and Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot in the championship. And so, everything is really comparing stories and role models looking for your own gifts like this young lady finding her gift in math which is really the result of hard work, not aptitude; finding when you’re in flow, so when am I losing myself in the task and I’m in the zone; and then doing something that matters, I want to look for an opportunity or injustice in the world. And so, over and over again we see it happen.
I think about one young lady who wanted to be in the law. She wanted to be in law, but she was 14. And so, our young people start apprentices, real-world apprentices in early age and I thought there’s no way she can get an apprenticeship in a law firm at 14. She wrote an email that the people couldn’t say no to because this lady that was running a law firm was a hero. She said, “I don’t want an apprenticeship. I just want 10 minutes on the phone to explain myself further.” The lady listened to the conversation and she said, “We’re not going to hire you.” She said, “Well, could I just come see you for five minutes? It’s all I want to ask.” She got there. She got hired and the lady said, “Well, one thing’s for sure. We’re going to give you this apprenticeship, but we can’t pay you.” After a week, they were paying her. And she was going to meet with clients and then they said, “Well, the one thing, we cannot offer you any kind of full-time position.” After four weeks, she’s been offered a half-time position because she’s still 14 to work in a law firm, and they were grooming her to go to law school and could come back to be a partner. Now, this young lady actually found out that was a hero’s journey. She tried on the jacket of law and is one of the six apprenticeships she will do here and she’s just now about to leave us to go to college and she’s got a much better sense of what that calling is. So, every day is the hero’s journey and role models and stories and the power of story and looking for your gifts.
Laura: And one thing that I’ve learned myself on this journey and I see children are much better at this than adults usually is that the hero’s journey includes boundaries and fellow travelers who hold you accountable. It’s not a free-for-all and a wandering around. We have really clear structure and boundaries with lots of freedom along the road but the Eagles, we call the students they’re the Eagles, they hold each other accountable to stay on the journey. They care so much about each other’s hero’s journey that when someone straying and not working hard or being mean, the basic things that happen at all levels of growing up, they call each other on it to get back on the journey because that’s why we’re here.
So, it’s a purpose-driven learning experience but really tightly held by accountability. So, they’re creating feedback all the time because you can only get better with other people’s feedback. They learn how to give good feedback as well as to seek feedback out. I grew up hating feedback and being worried about being criticized. These young people seek it out on a daily basis and that’s one of the things I’m learning to really admire about these young people.
Jeff: In fact, Jon, another work you do in the corporate side, these young people get 360 survey feedback every six weeks from the whole studio. So, you’re getting feedback that says, “Well, Jon, you weren’t tough-minded enough. When you interrupted me when I was working, it made me angry. Would you please respect my right to work alone?” Or, “When you talk to me sarcastically that’s not being warm hearted, and it hurts my feelings.” So, you’ll get feedback from 30 peers trying to help you and growth mindset encouraging feedback every six weeks. I mean, it’s better than anything I’ve seen in the corporate world because these young people are both honest and kind by giving each other real structured feedback.
Hal: Laura and Jeff, you mentioned something earlier about the learning is very self-directed and how you realize that when you give young people this freedom and the space that they really come alive and they’re creative. I love for you to speak on how the rules and I don’t even know if they’re called rules but how they are set from the beginning. Because my understanding of it is essentially that there is just a couple of rules in the beginning, a couple of guidelines of don’t kill your neighbor and don’t insult them. But then really the kids, the students create their own rules, they vote on them. So, can you talk about that whole process from the first day of school?
Jeff: Well, sure, and the best way to think about it is they draft their own constitution, so they set up a set of rules. They govern aspirational rules first, I mean, how are we going to treat each other and believe. Those, the first time they do it, it takes about six weeks of committee meetings and discussions. So, it’s a structured process where everyone gets a say and at the end of the day, there’s a handful of rules. They are signed by the way with great solemnity. I mean, it’s as if the founding fathers were signing something with their treasure and their word, their sacred honor. So, that’s put together but then over time they also have an economic system and you can earn Eagle bucks but if you violate one of your promises to me, I can ask you for an Eagle buck. So, there are honor codes that are developed over time.
So, it becomes to look like Tocqueville civil society and the young people build it one step at a time. It is not, by the way, a panacea. It’s not a utopia. It falls apart from time to time and may have to put it back together again. And so, like any culture, it has a certain fragility. You have to inject energy to keep it going upward or the intra-people tear it down. But these young people do build it, enforce the rules and hold it. We will go as long as a week without an adult entering the middle school. Students will run everything. They don’t need us in there. We’re available and we can see them on cameras but there’s no reason to go in because they are managing. In fact, at this very moment, there is a town hall meeting going on in middle school and adults aren’t in there because they’re hashing out some self-governance issues they need to hash out. And so, how do you learn self-governance? By self-governing. How do you learn self-management? You set smart goals every week and you manage yourself towards badges that matter to you. And those become something that eventually builds into a calling.
Jon: Wow. This might be one I got to go back and listen to again. This, Jeff and Laura, what you’ve been sharing, two comments and then I want to ask a little bit about the book, Courage to Grow. Hal, I just remembered that we have a private mastermind community of entrepreneurs called the Quantum Leap Mastermind and we do these retreats a couple of times a year and a couple of years ago we brought a gentleman named Pat Solomon who is the director of the documentary called Finding Joe. It’s all about…
Laura: Oh, I love that.
Jeff: Yeah. We love it.
Jon: Yeah. In fact, we should introduce you to Pat. He’s a great guy and a fun guy to talk to considering your interest in the hero’s journey. And I’ll never forget, we had him walk us all through the hero’s journey and it was a dialogue with the group and during that dialogue, everybody was reflecting on their own realization that wherever they were at in their lives at that moment, they were on some sort of journey and maybe a journey within a bigger journey. And one of the common observations that folks made is they said by having this framework and this understanding, it helped them to recognize not just what was great about moments that were great. Frankly, that’s the easy part. But also, to recognize the beauty and the gift within the moments when we’re most likely to think, A, there is no beauty and not gift and, B, there’s no way I’m on some sort of special journey but to realize that that’s really a universal experience. I saw that with entrepreneurs and just it’s so refreshing to hear that that’s kind of an anchor concept that you have kids learning about.
Laura: Well, and we talk a lot about finding your passion. Like you just said, it’s not always a beautiful thing. The Latin root of the word passion includes suffering. And so, when someone is suffering, we talk a lot about not taking that away from them because it’s only through suffering you find the best parts of yourself. And so, we try to equip parents instead of fixing things for their children all the time which is what we all want to do, I mean parenting is so hard. It’s just so hard and you hate to see your child suffer but the worst thing we can do is to step in and fix it for them. And that’s the mantra we work a lot with just as parents in our community really supporting each other and letting our children suffer, not unduly. It’s a safe environment but we let them fail. We let them get into conflicts because that’s where they really learn the good stuff about life.
Jeff: And there’s always major failures but learning to fail early, cheaply and often takes the sting out of minor failures, the ego failures. The ego failures don’t matter. And so, learning to fail early, cheap and often, shake it off and get back up. Once you learn to do that, the small failures they really do become learning moments. The big ones will come but if you make the small ones into big ones, you never try anything. You’re so fearful that it becomes so you won’t take any risks.
Jon: I’ve become as a parent really interested in what I can learn by being curious about some of the youth sports coaches in our community I’ve noticed have committed themselves to being great youth coaches. I mean, I can’t tell you how many examples I’ve seen where I see coaches doing the opposite of what all the parents think they should be doing. Like my son when he went to learn to play hockey, first thing they have to do is learn how to skate. The first lesson one hour was all they did was fall. They had them fall so that that would not become a bad thing. They would just learn how to get up. I started coaching my son’s baseball team recently and I grew up playing baseball but it’s different doing something versus knowing how to coach it the right way and I respect that.
So, I was standing back at our first practice the other day and the coach who I really respect and learn a lot just by his way of being, he tells me before practice, he goes, “You want to know how it is that we teach these eight-year-old boys because this is the first year where they pitch to each other?” And that means they’re throwing it all over the place. I mean they’re throwing it at the kids who are hitting the ball. And he says the biggest thing that he’s learned about how you get kids to not be afraid of the ball is guess what, the first practice, you hit them as many times as you can with the ball literally. And he has a separate bucket of baseballs that are little softer so he’s not damaging them but literally during hitting practice the coaches go out of their way to let the kids get hit a bunch of times, so they realize, “Okay, like you just said, it stings a little bit,” but psychologically they can move past that and now they’re no longer afraid.
So, what you just said, I’ve gotten to see that play out and I’m a huge fan of that, letting my kids fail. And I try and bring that to the workplace and I try and remember as a leader of an organization how important it is to let our team fail, how important it is to have a culture where mistakes are embraced. That’s where we’re going to have our best learning and I am better at doing it intellectually than in reality.
Jeff: It’s hard. It’s hard in reality.
Laura: Yeah. And I think one of the key elements though and we build this into our practices at Acton is reflecting upon the failure. So, we have something called the challenge donut and it’s literally a donut where in the middle is your comfort zone, you’re all protected by this puffy delicious donut. Your challenge zone is where you’re eating the donut, you’re getting energy and you’re working and it’s good. And outside of the donut is your panic zone. It’s a great visual for young people. So, they reflect at the end of the day when were you in your panic zone and how did you get back into the challenge zone? Because where you want to be is the challenge zone. So, I think the more often you get to share reflections with each other and hear other people reflect upon their mistakes or how they recovered from mistakes, that’s really powerful. They’ll have those stories in their mind for the rest of their lives. As they move into the world, they’ll have a big bank of stories to draw from and when they need to recover from something that’s really, really tough.
Jon: That’s awesome. I don’t want to end this conversation, but I want to make sure that before we go, we hear a little bit about your book, Laura, Courage to Grow.
Laura: Oh, thanks, Jon.
Laura: Yeah. So, Courage to Grow, I have it right here, it’s on one hand just the intimate origin story of Acton Academy, how he took all these ideas, built a small startup school, bootstrapped it, made it come alive and it took off. Now there’s over 60 Acton Academies around the world. It’s something we never planned strategically to do. It just sort of caught fire that way. So, my book documents that but what we learned along the way is what was happening at Acton wasn’t just learning like you think of a school and learning. It was really a human growth machine. We were seeing lives being transformed, not just the children either but parents and families. Parents and families were becoming mission focused and more disciplined with their own time and money as a result of the disciplines at Acton Academy.
So, the Courage to Grow, the subtitle is How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down because we really have just flipped everything you think about school on its head and it documents how our family was transformed, our marriage was transformed, our children were transformed, and how other parents bravely joined us and then took the model into their communities around the world. We were just watching last night a couple in Pakistan being interviewed for their Acton Academy they’ve started there and it’s just a story that rings too mainly because it is a hero’s journey story. I actually wrote it with the stages of the hero’s journey in mind.
Jon: Wow. Well, we’ll make sure to have a link to go find the book and of course where can everybody find you one more time if they want to learn more about Acton Academy or anything else you’re up to?
Laura: Yeah. The easiest thing is go to ActonAcademy.org. There is a great one-minute video that we just posted. It’s a real fresh look at everything we’re doing and there are tons of resources right from our main website.
Hal: And then, Laura, we have to ask you, if anyone is being influenced by my aggressive that you must get your kids in Acton Academy and they don’t have one in their city, is there any kind of process of how you could start to get…
Laura: Yes. Why don’t you talk to that?
Jeff: Sure. So, if you just go to that same website through ActonAcademy.org, it allows you to look at the model school and if you want to come to our school in Austin you can come do it or it allows you to actually begin the process of starting your school. And we have over 7,000 applications now from parents who want to start a school. So, there’s a pretty well-defined process for auditioning to start this goal and most of our owners are entrepreneurs who put their own children in the school and then have a community around it that they can build. And so those of you who are in the audience for entrepreneurs that’s who we serve. We aren’t school people. We are entrepreneur people.
Jon: That’s awesome. Hal, anything you’d like to say, buddy, and sending us home?
Hal: No. Just thank you, Laura and Jeff. This has been awesome. I mean I’ve never gotten to hear it directly from the two of you and the passion, the idea behind Acton, the inspiration and I’m your biggest fan. So, this is an honor.
Laura: Well, we love you too. Thank you and it’s great to see you.
Jeff: Yeah. Thanks, Hal.
Laura: Jon, thank you.
Jeff: Bye, Jon.
Jon: Laura and Jeff, it was a pleasure. Thank you.
Laura: Thank you.
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