How Not Answering Questions Builds A Learner-Driven Community…
Charts are hanging on the door of each multi-age studio. The annual, ‘Guides Don’t Answer Questions’ game has begun and learners are encouraged to write down on the wall chart each time a guide slips up and mistankly answers a question. Guides are doing their best to hold the line and wisely respond to each of their eager learners. Students are busily working on completing their core skills and challenges for the week and the guide is quietly watching the energy level of the tribe build as confidence and initiative grows within each of the learners. Little Johnny hits a road block as he considers his work plan for the morning and calls out to his guide, “Hey, how much longer do we have for core skills and when does book club begin today?” Instinctively the guide opens her mouth to satisfy Johnny’s curiosity and begins her answer, which is quickly stopped the minute she sees her error, “Um… Johnny, which of the resources available to you would you like to use to find that answer, the schedule on the wall or your squad leader?” Johnny looks back in confusion, processes for a minute, then gets up and walks across the studio to remind himself of the daily schedule so he can manage his time and finish all his tasks before book club begins. Just as the guide is breathing a sigh of relief from passing Johnny’s test, little Suzy calls out about a math problem she is struggling with. “Can you help? I hate these kind of problems because I always forget what order the steps are in long division. Can you help me real quick?” The guide pauses, it would only take about 3 seconds to remind her of the ‘divide-subtract-multiply-bring down’ chant they learned from the math program but she knows better than to offer a quick ‘fish’ rather than teaching little Suzy how to ‘fish’ and empower her to not be dependant on an older person to solve her current math dilema. “Suzy, when you hit a road block like this, what helps you more, looking back over the notes you took from that section in your math curriculum, finding a similar problem you solved last week in your math journal, or saving that question for when we do Number Lab together later today?” Suzy thinks through her options and decides to look at a similar problem in her math journal – finding needed information quickly and enjoying her very own ah-ha moment. Relieved, the guide breathes a sigh of relief for her small success in offering choices in response to these two questions that left her learners with the confidence to create solutions to their own problems or setbacks, especially since she knows a guide won;t always be there for them to offer a quick answer.
The scene you just read occurs each and every day in one of the 300 Acton Academy learner-driven schools across the world. To someone who doesn’t fully understand the benefits of a learner-driven community, the mantra ‘Guides don’t answer questions’ may seem like a short-sided, misguided sentiment that simply frustrates learners and parents alike and allows guides to be snarky. However, to the owner of an Acton Academy that is working diligently to build a true learner-driven community where every student is trusted to make good decisions, develop resourcefulness and initiative, and become learners for life, the practice of guides not answering questions is truly the life-blood of the culture they are trying to build.
So, all of that begs the question, what even is a learner-driven community and what makes it more efficient than a traditional classroom? I am so glad you asked! I have been an educator for 20 years, the first 18 of my career were spent in a traditional adult/teacher-driven environment focused much more on how teachers teach than on how learners actually learn. As a teacher who cared deeply for my students, I tried nearly every single approach I could to engage my students; project-based methods, discussion-debate methods, lecture methods, collaborative methods. No matter what new teaching style I used, there were always a few learners I simply could not engage and who fell through the cracks. If empowering my students to embrace a lifestyle of deep learning was my goal, I was failing. So I began to search for a new approach. I became very curious about my students and started asking many questions. What engages them most? What are the biggest obstacles to their learning process? What types of environments make them resent learning and what types of environment put them in focused flow? In all of my searching, I came to one conclusion – students know how they learn best and when finally they take responsibility for their own learning process they are unstoppable. Then I began to wonder, what actions do I do as a parent or educator do that hinders them from taking responsibility for their own learning? I found two actions that had the most disempowering effect on my students: forcing them to use methods I thought were best and spoon feeding them answers I thought they needed to know. If you want a recipe for a disengaged, reluctant learner, those two actions are the way to go. But it gets even worse than that in the life of the learner. When they are continually subjected to an adult/teacher driven environment, they begin to quickly adopt a victim-mindset in regard to not only their own learning journey, but towards their whole life journey as well. And that is the last thing any parent or educator wants to feed into the life of their student. Waiting upon an authority in your life to give you basic answers regarding scheduling your day and completing math problems feeds directly into a powerless victim mindset that carries over into your work and social interactions as well. A wise educator helps every student learn that the moment you take full responsibility for every area of both your learning journey and your life, is the moment you have the power to learn or change any area of your life.
So, why is it so important that guides don’t answer questions? Because they are building in their learners the self confidence, initiative, and resourcefulness to resist a victim mindset and take charge not only of their own learning experience, but their whole life. Now that is a gift to any student.