“A way of learning that’s full of connections”: Socratic discussion in Austin’s alternative schools

One of the most inspiring forms of learning I’ve encountered is Socratic discussion (sometimes called Socratic dialogue or Socratic seminar). Yet I often find myself in consultations struggling to adequately describe it to families who've never experienced it themselves or seen it in action. So I suggested that our staff writer-researcher, Shelley Sperry, delve into some local versions of the Socratic method with the help of students who love it. Here’s what she learned from them.

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

I remember my old high school was so divided. You were an island. But Socratic is a way of learning that’s full of connections.
                                                             —Cade Summers, KoSchool

Socratic discussions are powerful ways for students to help each other explore ideas, values, and opinions on important political, social, philosophical, and artistic issues. The Socratic method originated, as the name suggests, in ancient Greek philosophers’ methods of teaching and learning. Today, in some of Austin’s alternative schools the focus of “Socratics,” as students often call them, is on listening to all members of the group and finding common ground and new approaches, rather than trying to persuade or rigorously debate. During Socratics students try to develop a shared understanding of a particular essay, poem, or problem through analysis and creative interpretation, but the goal is never winning or losing a point but rather deepening the students’ own thinking.

As a newcomer to this way of learning, I wanted to understand how various students employ Socratic discussion in daily practice, so I interviewed three students who are fans of it. I am deeply grateful for the time they took to talk with me. I came away impressed by their ability to reflect on their own learning and communicate with a novice like me. The students I interviewed are Jesse Estes, age 18, who attends Skybridge Academy; Sam Sandefer, age 14, who attends Acton Academy; and Cade Summers, age 18, who attends KoSchool.

I learned through these interviews that the three schools’ Socratic programs have much in common as well as some differences. For example, Skybridge Socratics place emphasis on drawing personal connections to the issues and ideas under discussion. At Acton, focused Socratic discussions often explore ongoing, overarching themes like the “Hero’s Journey,” but Socratic questioning also takes place throughout the school day. KoSchool’s Socratic courses, much like college seminars, encourage students to delve deeply into complex texts and write clearly about them. I’ve edited my conversations with the three students to make these connections and subtle differences among their schools’ approaches clearer.

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

How would you define or explain Socratic discussions for a total newcomer?

Jesse: It’s an open-ended dialogue where you make sure everyone has a voice, and the goal is less important than the process.

Cade: Socratic is a more personal way to learn. Even if the group is divided somewhat in terms of the points everyone is making, you’re always connecting and learning from other people.

Sam: It’s really about learning to ask questions instead of giving and getting answers.

Can you talk about how the discussions work in practice? What’s a typical Socratic like?

Jesse: In our school, the student leader or the teacher/guide has a topic or question to consider, but then the floor is open to all students. Groups vary in size, but it’s usually about 10–12 people, which I think is optimal. We sometimes have as few as five people, but then discussion is slower. We each voice our thoughts in response to what someone else has said. Sometimes in philosophical discussions people do take sides, but in a lot of discussions there aren’t sides—there’s more of a spectrum. We do things mostly freeform and orally, but there is a whiteboard if someone needs to illustrate a point.

Cade: We practice Socratic dialogues in normal classes every day and I also host a “Bonus Socratic” after school. We usually have around 6 people, but it can be as few as 4 or as many as 11. The number doesn’t matter once you have a group that functions well. Michael—we call him a guide, not a teacher—often brings in a text, but students bring in poems and articles too. We might read the text, or part of it, to start the discussion. Then students just start sharing ideas.

Sam: We weave Socratic discussions through the day, not just in one particular time period. When you ask questions, you usually don’t just get one answer, you get another question to help lead you to an answer. So for example, if I ask someone about a math problem, instead of telling me the specific answer, the person might say: “What do you think the first step is in finding the answer?” Or they might say, “Could you try this? Or could you try that?”

Do you have any favorite discussions or moments during discussions in the past year?

Jesse: One of the best questions we had—and one that people kept talking about after class, like a running joke, was: If you have a boat and you take away one piece each year and replace it, until every piece is replaced, at what point do you have a new boat? We talked about this for three hours with no conclusion, but everyone participated and people changed opinions, and then kept talking about it after class.

Cade: I remember at one discussion a friend of mine was feeling a lot of anger coming into it, but having the Socratic turned the way he was feeling around. Discussion can help you alleviate some stresses because you can say what you’re thinking about issues—political or social or other things—and you can get some different contexts from other people and see things in a different light.

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

Finally, what’s the value of Socratic discussion for you, carrying forward after high school or with your family and community?

Jesse: You learn how to draw people into conversation and to really listen to and understand their points of view. I think I have a much stronger voice than I had earlier, and my perspective is wider. We’re encouraged to lead our own discussions during the semester, so you also gain leadership skills, and now I’m leading my own class. It’s inspired me to look at something related to leadership and teaching when I go to college.

Cade: Learning how to discuss and communicate is invaluable. I definitely spoke more when I started, but I’ve learned gradually to be more introspective and really listen. I think at home I take a more introspective approach now, too, and work on my ability to empathize and understand other people, including my younger brother.

Sam: I think it’s made me much more independent—so rather than relying on someone else to give me answers, I want to find them on my own.

Shelley Sperry

Joy is the bottom line: Entrepreneurial education in Austin

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Shelley Sperry is a staff writer at Alt Ed Austin. An entrepreneur in her own right, she also works as a writer, researcher, and editor at Sperry Editorial.

When you hear the term “entrepreneurial education,” you may first think about old-school extracurricular clubs that teach kids through hands-on projects—programs such as Junior Achievement and 4-H, or even the annual ritual of Girl Scout cookie sales. What I’ve learned by investigating schools in Austin is that entrepreneurial education is a big-tent concept that includes a diverse mix of well-established and brand-new ventures. Some find the label limiting, but it’s useful for identifying schools that share a few core similarities:

  • An emphasis on projects in which kids make, market, and sell products that link them to customers and the community outside the school
  • A holistic approach that integrates mind, body, and spirit in the learning process
  • Elimination of separate, “siloed” subjects (math, science, language arts, social studies) in favor of integrated learning of all content via entrepreneurial projects
  • Use of approaches from the start-up business world to structure groups, projects, and timelines
  • De-emphasis on teachers and direct instruction in favor of mentors and guides who help students make their own decisions
  • An interest in building kids’ sense of themselves and their work as tools for making the world a better place

Austin programs that fall into this big tent include Acton Academy, Kọ School + Incubator, Sansori High School @ Whole Life Learning Center, and WonderLab.

When I interviewed Jeff Sandefer of the well-established Acton Academy and Kristin Kim of Sansori High School, which will be opening to its first class in August this year, I was struck by the fact that both approaches emphasize the importance of each student’s personal journey toward self-confidence and self-knowledge. This is something I normally would associate with twenty-somethings rather than kids in elementary, middle, and high school, but it demonstrates an essential part of the entrepreneurial education philosophy. Kids are respected as capable, contributing members of the community, even as six- or seven-year-olds.

Acton Academy’s approach is built around the notion of the “hero’s journey” usually associated with classic literature. Sandefer argues that each Acton student should understand himself or herself as on a life quest, rather than merely acquiring a set of skills or facts.

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

“It’s more about learning to persevere, to fail and get back up, to treat people with kindness, and to listen before talking,” he explains. “We start with kids as early as six and go all the way through high school, cultivating these traits. They earn more and more freedom as they get older. They learn that the better you treat people, the harder you work, the more freedom you have.”

Acton’s Children’s Business Fair is the biggest such gathering in the country and has become a major community event in Austin each fall. The fair hosts more than 100 booths and brings together students not only from Acton’s elementary, middle, and high schools, but also from across a spectrum of Austin schools and homeschooling environments who want to create products or services and market them to customers while learning business, academic, and life skills.

With Sandefer’s blessing, other educators are creating schools based on the Acton model in other parts of Central Texas, throughout the United States, and beyond. The first graduate of Acton Academy Guatemala was recently accepted into the University of California at Berkeley with a triple major in math, biology, and biosciences.

Along with local and national business leaders who support the Kọ School, founders Michael Strong and Khotso Khabele believe that all people in the world should be able to live their lives creatively and productively. In other words, everyone should have the opportunity to behave like entrepreneurs: innovating and adding value to society. They believe that happiness comes from challenging work in which individuals create something meaningful, and they argue that the best path to this kind of life is through a Socratic method of questioning and learning how to teach oneself. The Kọ School + Incubator is designed to “blur the boundary between school and the outside world.”

WonderLab describes itself as a true incubator and is less a full-time school than a gathering place that puts like-minded, entrepreneurial kids together to help each other.  Students identify their own goals and the resources and skills they need to reach those goals, and then they form teams that are assisted by an adult guide. Team members support each other and work together for a few hours each week. But even in this very practical world of achieving specific project goals, the overarching philosophy is that kids will end up exploring and defining themselves. They will be “on the path to figuring out the intersection of their gifts, their passions, and what the world needs.”

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

Kristin Kim, who is bringing her Sansori educational philosophy to Austin this year in partnership with the Whole Life Learning Center, puts holistic learning at the center. “I give talks at colleges in the U.S. and U.K., and I hear that the students in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives and are searching. We can offer children a different way of learning so that one benefit is getting a clear sense of what they love and how they can apply it in the world. They leave high school with skills and with self-knowledge.”

Kim says that confidence and joy are the hallmarks of her approach. A sense of integration of the individual and the world outside the classroom seems to be crucial too. By way of example, Kim describes students who made beeswax candles for sale, which seems like a simple learning-about-business project, but became something much grander in its implications. Students learned important lessons in science, math, and language arts as they made and marketed the candles. “We also connected their activities with how the universe works through the structure of polymers and the ecology of bees, and connected it with their own physical bodies in terms of other cultures’ understanding of the medicinal value of honey.”

I still think the word “entrepreneurial” works to describe these diverse Austin schools, because each does develop in students a taste for creating and innovating, whether in business, science, the arts, or other pursuits. But I would also say that a “whole child” focus that brings a spiritual element to the table is just as important, and something I hadn’t expected.

As Kim says,  “What we’re doing is allowing students of all ages to experience learning not just through their brains or minds, but through their bodies and hearts. They then see themselves differently and understand the co-creative role of each human being. When you get a deep understanding of the unity between inner and outer worlds, joy is a natural consequence.”

Shelley Sperry

Learner-driven communities: The future has arrived

At a special open house during SXSWedu earlier this month, kids at Acton Academy explained to a crowd of adults—locals and out-of-towners alike—how their unusual school works. Concluding the event, cofounder and guide Jeff Sandefer spoke fervently about his vision for the future of education. Today Jeff joins us as a guest contributor to share some of those thoughts and a few glimpses of daily life at Acton.

I predict that the 21st century will see the rise of learner-driven communities, a disruptive educational force wherein self-directed learners, in a community tightly bound by personal covenants and contracts, use the full power of the Internet to craft a transformative, personalized learning path. Even better, I believe these learner-driven communities will be able to deliver a transformational education for less than $2,000 per student per year.

Sound like a fantasy? It might be, except that I’ve been amazed as I have dug deeply into the research of Sugata Mitra and his Hole-in-the-Wall experiments, where children in some of the poorest villages in Africa and Asia, armed only with an Internet terminal—and no teacher—have outperformed the best privates schools in their countries.

And I have seen it with my own eyes as a middle school guide at Acton Academy, an Austin-based school that uses multiage classrooms, the latest game-based adaptive computer programs for core skills, and questlike adventures for deeper learning in a studio increasingly run by the students themselves.

Our young people at Acton, each believing he or she is on a hero’s journey that will change the world, are learning that courage, grit, and perseverance matter far more than regurgitating facts that easily can be accessed on Google. They are mastering process and technique at a rapid rate, beginning to create personalized courses from expert knowledge, simulations, processes, and challenges that the Internet puts at their fingertips. 

In a learner-driven community, each learner chooses his or her own path and challenges, keeping track of multiple projects as early as age six using SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and time-bound) goals and seeking to earn a series of badges that demonstrate proficiency. The studio is completely governed by the learners, using a series of written covenants and a governance system developed from scratch every year.

There are no grades or homework, though every piece of work is judged or force-ranked by a rigorous peer review, compared to world-class examples, or in a public exhibition. Adults are forbidden from answering a question while in the studio, instead encouraging learners to find the answers on their own or in collaboration with their peers.

By earning badges and collecting work in personalized online portfolios, young heroes in learner-driven communities can prepare to earn apprenticeships at an early age, experimenting with which path might lead to a personal calling in life.

Just as importantly, because these communities are largely self-governing, fewer and fewer adults need to be in the room. This means not only that learning accelerates as it arms our Acton Eagles to become lifelong learners who can tackle real-world challenges, but it may also allow us to deliver a superior education for $2,000 per student per year, as opposed to the $9,000 to $15,000 annual cost per student of a typical traditional school.

Learner-driven communities: an emerging educational force that just might change how we think about learning in the 21st century.

Jeff Sandefer

Texas should tell parents about course choice.

Guest contributor Heather Staker, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that works to transform education through disruptive innovation, writes frequently on blended learning and other education topics. This post is adapted from one that previously appeared on the institute’s blog. Three of Heather’s children attend Acton Academy, an independent school in Austin that regularly makes use of online learning resources.

The author with students at Acton Academy

Do you know what the TxVSN is? If not, you’re not alone. I asked 25 neighbors in Austin with children in grades K–12 what the acronym stands for, and not even one person knew. That’s unfortunate because last year the Texas legislature passed HB1926, which requires districts to pay for high school students to take up to three year-long online courses per school year through the TxVSN—the Texas Virtual School Network.

Despite that opportunity, 24 out of the 25 parents in my informal survey said they were not aware that tax dollars will pay for students to take online courses. When I asked how well schools communicate online course options to parents, 88 percent of the parents said “not at all” or “poorly.”

This suggests that thousands of students who need an alternative to a face-to-face course are likely to miss out simply because of lack of communication. Do students in Amarillo know that they can take online Chinese? Do busy athletes in Dallas and San Antonio know that they can take online world history, sociology, and psychology if those courses don’t fit in their normal schedules? What about students who want a course about information technology—do they know that the TxVSN offers an option for those whose districts have none?

The fine print of HB1926 says that school districts must provide parents with a written notification of TxVSN policies every year. But districts are likely to downplay that requirement; after all, they have little incentive to pay for students to pursue anything outside their geographic boundaries. Although I am sympathetic to the challenge of breaking down time-honored boundaries and staffing structures, limiting Texas students to the learning opportunities within their local vicinities no longer makes sense when countless lessons and resources are now available online and worldwide. Districts will need some pressure from parents and the state to do a really good job of publicizing options to students, but with some respectful encouragement, I’m confident they will choose to give their students every possible opportunity rather than keep them in the dark.

The legislature has acted to extend course choice to students. Let’s leverage that opportunity.

That’s my cheerleading for HB1926. Now for my criticism. Although HB1926 broadens course choice, Texas is nowhere near where it should be in terms of bringing digital opportunities to our children. For one thing, the TxVSN is pretty weak. Check out the site—it ought to look like the Amazon.com of learning opportunities, all listed in one clean, simple, user interface. Instead it’s a clutter of bureaucratic paragraphs and government FAQs. Dig a little deeper, and the range of courses is limited and uninspiring. I hope that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will take a clue from Silicon Valley about how to build a consumer-facing portal. As Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean and make it simple.”

One essential feature of the site should be information about which courses are any good. Do students find them engaging? Do they learn anything? Was it even worth it? Let’s have some transparency, openness, and student input about what this site is peddling.

Furthermore, I don’t see why state portals such as the TxVSN are even limited by state. Shouldn’t a Texas student be able to take a great Florida Virtual School or Michigan Virtual School course? In fact, Texas should grant credit to students who can ace the state’s end-of-course exams even if they learned the content from an outside site such as Khan Academy or the edX platform created by Harvard and MIT. Our interest is in helping Texas students reach mastery, not in overly controlling or limiting the pathway to get there.

These are primarily TEA issues. But the legislature has some work to do, too, to fix HB1926 next session. The law has all kinds of loopholes to limit course choice. Districts can deny choice, for example, if they think they offer a “substantially similar course.” The state won’t pay for more than three a year. And the maximum price for a TxVSN course is capped at $400, which means that the state bars students from certain premium courses purely because it set an arbitrary fixed price. Better to let the state commissioner of education negotiate prices.

Online learning is a classic disruptive innovation that’s changing the way the world learns. It’s shocking to me that so many shun the one innovation that arguably has more potential to broaden education access than any other since the dawn of the printing press. Texas should stop trying to limit and duck, but instead lead the way nationally in channeling online learning to its highest quality and broadest potential.

Let’s make learning options for our children as big and bold as Texas is. Our state has always been a leader, and it’s a shame to be laggards in bringing next-generation learning formats to our youth.

Heather Staker

Movers and shakers

Austin’s alt ed community has seen lots of movin’ and shakin’ this summer. Here’s a roundup, in no particular order, of some changes you should know about as you're looking for schooling options for your kiddos.

A new school serving ages 3 to 103 is forming in Central Austin, just south of the river: Integrity Academy at Casa de Luz, Center for Integral Studies. Led by executive director Ali Ronder, formerly of AHB Community School, and founder Eduardo “Wayo” Longoria, the school is currently enrolling (and hiring!) for the 2014–2015 school year. You can help shape the school’s future or just enjoy a stimulating discussion about how humans learn by attending one of Integrity’s weekly salons.

Taking over the helm at AHB is M. Scott Tatum, who brings a wealth of experience in arts education, administration, and integration. Meet Scott and learn what makes this part-time elementary school in Hyde Park special by watching its new series of short videos.

Bronze Doors Academy has a new campus and a new name. According to director and chief motivator Ariel Dochstader Miller, Skybridge Academy will continue the same liberal arts college–like program for junior high and high school students for which Bronze Doors was known, but with some additional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) opportunities made possible by its new location at the Stunt Ranch in Southwest Austin. As always, both full-time and à la carte options are available.

Accompanying Skybridge in the move to Oak Hill is its elementary school partner, the Soleil School. Cofounder and head of school Carly Borders says the new location on the Stunt Ranch will give her young students access to a ropes course, a pool, and more than 20 acres of beautiful land to explore.

Another unique school on the move this summer is Acton Academy. Construction on its permanent home on Alexander Avenue in East Austin is nearly complete. Laura Sandefer, Acton’s cofounder and head of school, invites you to check it out at the open house on October 24; meanwhile, take a peek at this architect’s rendering. It looks plenty big to house the academy’s current elementary and middle school students as well as the high school program slated to open in 2016.

The Olive Tree Learning Center, a Reggio Emilia–inspired preschool, recently opened its second campus, at 6609 Manchaca Road, near Garrison Park. Like the original Bouldin Creek campus, the new one is currently enrolling children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Director Michelle Mattalino says she is “very proud of the staff at both locations” and excited to fill the beautiful campuses with happy children.

Mariposa Montessori is also opening a second campus in South Austin. It will house this American Montessori Society full-member school’s new Lower Elementary program. Head of School Whitney Falcon recently reported that there were a few spots open for fall enrollment.

Progress School is expanding this fall to serve kindergarten through 5th grade. Located in Hyde Park, Progress offers “authentic education for natural learners,” with full- and part-time options as well as an after-school program. More exciting news from director Jennifer Hobbs: “We're getting chickens!”

Likewise, the Inside Outside School has expanded to serve kindergarten through 6th grade this fall, says executive director Deborah Hale. Its current enrollment of 24 will make up three classes—primary, intermediate, and upper elementary—on the school’s seven wooded acres in Pflugerville.

9th Street Schoolhouse is growing, too. The East Side home-based school will serve ages 5 through 9 this fall, with 8 students currently enrolled. 9th Street now has two mentors: founder Caitlin Macklin and Laura Ruiz.

Finally, the Whole Life Learning Center is rolling out a new nature-based one-day program called Mother Earth Mondays, which fosters a connection with the earth through gardening, wilderness survival skills, arts and crafts, games, and other fun activities with mentors Braden Delonay, Caroline Riley Carberry, and Leesalyn Koehler. In addition, director and founder Michael Carberry says he is excited to introduce the newest mentors for the Teen Mentorship Program, Kizzie, Etienne, and Adam, whose bios will soon be posted on the WLLC website alongside those of the school’s veteran staff.

Any questions or comments for these movers and shakers? Feel free to leave them below.