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

Staying close to the fire

It’s cold this week here in Central Texas, but the folks at 9th Street Schoolhouse are keeping the fires lit. Founder Caitlin Macklin, our guest today, writes about her students’ latest unit of study and how you might try this kind of collaborative, interest-driven inquiry with your kids at home.


This encouraging dragon kite soars above our classroom.Over here at the 9th Street Schoolhouse, we are engaged in a continual effort to close in on meaningful learning. We also seek to develop 21st-century skills and a lifelong love of learning in our students. To this purpose, the older class has started working based on a more open-ended learning model for our unit study. Unit study is a 45-minute chunk of time during our morning class lessons. For the next couple of weeks until the winter holiday, our unit will focus on student-driven, curiosity-based questioning. Students will become seekers, hot on the trail of inquiry, researching the answers to these questions via internet searches, supplementing with written reference material, and contacting knowledgeable people as well.

This is how it will work:

Students will be generating questions in a small notebook. The notebook—dubbed our Book of Wonderings—will be carried back and forth between home and the schoolhouse. In fact, we recommend that they keep it in a pocket at all times, because you never know when curiosity will strike! It is their responsibility to generate at least one question per day on their own time. Questions should be about things students want to know, are curious about, and have a genuine interest in finding out. They may be broad or narrow, easy or difficult. At the heart of it, their questions should spark the fire of their interest and be Important To Their Lives.

“How can we make pom poms? Who invented books?”

During the unit study portion of our class lesson time each day, students will share their questions. We will alternate turns of whose question we will answer each day. Students will mainly use the internet to find out answers to their questions, also seeking out good books and people who know. They will keep a record of their findings on notepads and posters. Students will help each other answer these questions. Discussing what they find, how to search, and what does it all mean will create more lasting learning.

As their mentor, I will guide them to evaluate the validity of the sources they use and will encourage them to go deeper into their findings. If a question can't be answered in one session, we will keep with it until we are satisfied. Perhaps a question will spark a longer project for a student or the whole class.

We will share the findings and process of this unit with our community at our end-of-semester Showcase. Please follow our blog if you are interested in the conclusion of the unit.

The goals of this unit are to:

  • Develop critical thinking, reading comprehension, collaborative work habits, and interpersonal skills.
  • Refine the ability to question effectively.
  • Build technological proficiency.
  • Generate inner motivation through understanding that learning is an essential part of everyday life.
  • Connect students’ lives and what they care about to what is being learned.

This collaborative, open-ended research method is inspired by:

  • An amazing article from Wired magazine.
  • Sugata Mitra's research in child-driven Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs).
  • Most of all, it is based on the experiences Laura and I have had teaching in the classroom, and our desire to move toward the fiery source of interest that is at the heart of kids' passion to know. We continue to strive toward a Free to Learn approach, while maintaining a strong mentoring relationship and offering our own experiences and ideas to expand the kids’ growing edges. As educators, we have many questions and will continue to refine and research as we go.

Interested in trying this at home?

You can download the SOLE Toolkit from TED. Once you get started with your youth, here are some suggestions for what you can do to support your students’ process:

  • Begin noticing when your children have questions.
  • Help them develop deeper questions that they can bring to their explorations.
  • Encourage them to write these questions down in their Book of Wonderings (or whatever they choose to call their special book!).
  • Read about the inspiration for this project. It will give you good background info and insight into guiding the children to follow their own purposes for learning.
  • Observe your children, notice any changes in their enthusiasm for learning, or school, or life!

We would love to hear from you if you are engaged in this learning design. Keep in touch by commenting on our Facebook page. You can also post on the SOLE Tumblr to connect with the larger movement.

In closing, here’s a great truth from author Sir Arthur C. Clarke that Mitra references:

“If children have interest, education happens.”

For us, finding that coal of red-hot interest in each child is what it is all about.

Caitlin Macklin