Elements of Acton DC: Socratic Discussions

  • Mastery learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Real-world projects
  • Identifying strengths and passions
  • Socratic discussions

Socratic Discussions: What They Are

Socratic dialogue stimulates critical thinking by facilitating inquiry and debate. In a Socratic discussion, a guide sets up scenarios and asks questions. The guide may launch and moderate a Socratic discussion, but the students lead it by asking most of the questions and answering each other.

How We Use Socratic Discussions at Acton DC

We believe that asking the right questions is as important as knowing the answers. Each day is launched with a Socratic discussion to highlight the focus of the day and build energy, bring up a community need, or just inspire and encourage students. Launches often begin with a story or video that sets the framework for the discussion. Or a guide might simply read a quote, such as this one by Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The students might then grapple with whether they believe what you do, what you say, or how you make someone feel has a more lasting impact.

In addition to the daily launches, core skills and project times begin with Socratic discussions to reflect on the purpose of the activity. Outside of discussions, guides employ the Socratic method with students throughout the day by not answering questions. The purpose of this is to build and reinforce independent learners who are able to answer their own questions by consulting the four “B”s: their Brain, a Board (information posted on a white board or bulletin board), Blinks (books or links), or a Buddy (another student).

More on Socratic Discussions

Here are some helpful resources on Socratic discussions:

Brewing Up a Socratic Summer
Acton Academy cofounder Laura Sandefer provides a “cheat sheet” for parents interested in having Socratic discussions at home. Sandefer writes, “The true purpose of a Socratic discussion is to come to new or deeper understandings of oneself, others and the world through an authentic wrestling with thoughts, information and ideas. And the real adventure is that you have no idea where you will end up.”

A Socratic Launch
In this video, Acton Academy cofounder Jeff Sandefer leads a Socratic discussion about entrepreneurship with the elementary students in Austin. Sandefer and the students begin with a review of the Socratic rules of engagement.

Elements of Acton DC: Real-World Projects

  • Mastery learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Real-world projects
  • Socratic discussions
  • Identifying strengths and passions

Real-World Projects: What They Are

Real-world projects engage students in solving problems or in creating products as would be required in the real world. Whether it’s starting a garden or building a rocket, real-world projects allow students to be active learners in something of interest to them. Teachers act as guides and let students take the lead in asking and answering their own questions, collaborating, and critiquing their work. In addition to being fun for students, studies have shown that real-world projects increase students’ long-term retention, collaboration skills, and ability to problem solve.

How We Use Real-World Projects at Acton DC

At Acton DC, we believe that learning requires students to get out of the classroom and engage with the real world. Real-world projects, or quests, as we call them, can take from several weeks to a couple months to complete and can focus on any subject. For example, students might role-play a historical event and have to make decisions with real-world consequences. Students could be British colonists facing the choice of whether or not to declare independence from King George. The real-world consequences of being subject to a far-away and not democratically elected ruler, in the form of proclamations from King George, could include a ban on talking during work time or playing music during free time. In another project, students might be scientists in a robotics and electricity lab where they are challenged to figure out if water can be used to generate electricity. A math project could require solving math riddles or figuring out math magic tricks.

More on Real-World Projects

Here are some helpful resources on real-world projects:

Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning
This Edutopia video explains the five essential components of project-based learning (real-world connection, core to learning, structured collaboration, student driven, and multifaceted assessment) and illustrates each with footage of students in action.

Examples of Quests
Acton Academy Austin's blog Our Hero's Journey features many of the quests the middle schoolers there have done. For example, in The Speech Quest, students not only stepped into the shoes of a historical figure to deliver a world-changing speech, but also budgeted for and arranged travel to the city where the speech was made.

Interview with Acton DC Founders on KidFriendly DC

"A few years ago, we discovered Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, and we were just blown away. The students there love to learn, love school, and love to challenge themselves and each other. It’s such a joy to see."

Read more about why founders Nicole Spencer and David Kirby felt compelled to establish an alternative to traditional schools and what makes Acton Academy of Washington, DC different in this KidFriendly DC interview.

Elements of Acton DC: Self-Directed Learning

  • Mastery learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Real-world projects
  • Socratic discussions
  • Identifying strengths and passions

Self-Directed Learning: What It Is

Self-directed learning puts students in charge of their own learning process. In a self-directed learning environment students are responsible for setting learning goals, monitoring progress, and evaluating their work.

How We Use Self-Directed Learning at Acton DC

Students at Acton DC learn how to set daily, weekly, and session learning goals, which they monitor and report on. Once they become adept at goal setting and tracking, they are able to choose what to work on during core skills (math, reading, writing) time. For example, one Acton DC student could choose to work only on math for three weeks before switching to writing, while another might prefer to spend time on math, reading, and writing each day. However a student chooses to divide his/her work, all students monitor their progress to ensure they are balancing the core skills and challenging themselves.

More on Self-Directed Learning

Here are some helpful resources on self-directed learning:

Self-Directed Learning
A summary of self-directed learning, including some of the benefits, such as fostering students who are “motivated and persistent, independent, self-disciplined, self-confident and goal-oriented.”

20 Tips to Promote a Self-Directed Classroom Culture
This list of tips for supporting self-directed learners includes making it safe to fail, fostering peer support, and removing limitations.