Andrea Loewen Nair: Connect-Four Parenting


Alternative Education Options are On the Rise

New School Models are Putting the Focus on Kids

In the process of considering what is the best way for my own children to learn, I’ve spent time discovering more about what hurts and helps children when they are at school. We are in the midst of exciting times in education where hundred-year-old methods are now being examined with a critical eye. It’s also a time when the level of stress in kids is higher than before. Perhaps the combination of these two things will finally bring about real change in education as a whole.

Children these days seem to have to juggle many things, which are increasingly taking focus away from the business of being kids: playing, resting, being curious, and building relationships.

I was at a learning conference for the Acton Academy schools recently, where a couple of the owners and I chatted about how many students in traditional schools are so preoccupied by people management, big feelings, and stress that they are unable to fully attend to their learning focus. In addition to this, they can’t be who they really are because they have to spend so much energy handling everything thrown at them each day.

Children have more homework (even though research still fails to prove any benefit to this practice), competitive activities, scheduled playtime, and screens than ever before. They are also experiencing the pressure of not being able to learn at the pace they need.

Learning content based on a calendar and schedule dictated by a group of adults can be quite stressful for those who don’t learn at that pace. I imagine that there aren’t too many children who learn at the exact rate for which the material has been prescribed.

Too often young people are being moved through a system of education that zaps their creativity, motivation, and natural love of learning.

I’m hearing that teachers, often overwhelmed with the challenges of pushing or pulling kids through this content given their vast differences, are sometimes using threats, removal of much needed recess time, and giving extra homework to try to get them through the material. I don’t believe that kids understand the content any better when they’re being dragged through it.

Even though I was a teacher in the public system for ten years, I pulled my children out of traditional school and started homeschooling them. I knew homeschooling wasn’t the answer for us so I used a year of trying it to consider what our options were moving forward. I really wanted them to be able to focus on learning and not the out-lying dynamics that focused their attention on keeping themselves together.

My question was this: what school environment would let my kids be who they are, learn at their own pace, stimulate critical thinking, be a positive environment, and help them discover their natural gifts?

I was looking for a system that was focused on the process of learning – not the content of it. We can look almost everything up so we don’t need to learn how to “know” anymore. What’s more important for my children is that they learn how to learn and how to just be.

When we started to look for an alternative form of education, I really wasn’t surprised to discover that homeschooling is on the rise. Also, that concepts like “micro-schools” using “disruptive education” are taking off at a rapid rate.

Within these models, the students have a great deal of influence in the programs! This is called: student-centered learning or learner-driven education.

I was particularly excited to discover the Acton Academy program, which we ended up choosing as the system for the school we started. While at a recent SXSW Edu chat in Austin, TX, I had the opportunity to hear the founder of Acton along with five veteran owners discuss their program.

They spoke about the joy their students experience in being on a “hero’s journey,” with the happiness, failure, peaks, and valleys associated with this kind of path. It was amazing to think that children and teens would have the opportunity to look at life this way.

They also spoke about how much the students thrive when they have a big say in their education. An owner from Chicago talked about the “freedom shock” the kids have when they go to an Acton Academy because it is a student-centered environment. He said there’s a period of time where they keep looking at the adults for direction until they realize they can make decisions for themselves, get up when they need to, and take responsibility for their learning. He said the parents experience similar shock when they don’t have homework or projects to push their kids through. I know that the parents of the kids in our school are sow thrilled they don’t have to deal with homework and “busy work” anymore.

The adults are there as “guides” more than “teachers.” An owner from Guatemala City remarked that their community feels like a family and they enjoy spending their energy on supporting each of the kids and talking about all kinds of important real-world concepts. For example, he shared that he views success as, “The ability to live in the present, fulfilled.”

Jeff Sandefer, the co-founder of Acton Academy (and the Acton MBA program) stated that they have 2,500 applications for new schools waiting to be reviewed: 100 are coming in per week! I’m not surprised given what we’ve experienced with the success of our program in the first year of running one in London, ON, Canada.

It’s heart-warming to know that it is possible for young people to learn with less stress and more excitement. I have heard that some parent councils and school administrators are considering how alternative styles of education might be used to some degree in the public system.

Viewing education with the goal of supporting children will help each of our kids keep their love of learning and gain skills beyond academics like empathy, compassion, and reasoning.

It’s exciting that parents now have more choices to help find a program that is a good fit for their child’s personality and to avoid situations where the child’s focus is continually taken away from learning.

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