I was struck by a passage I was recently reading in Courage to Grow, the book by Laura Sandefer chronicling her and her husband Jeff’s journey to the founding of the first Acton Academy. The passage goes as such:

“Witnessing the chaos is so difficult for me,” Jeff told me one night after a particularly trying day. “It’s just disheartening when the studio turns messy and mean. Some days I just want to give up.”

It was time to add more clarity and structure, some risks and rewards. Jeff designed and introduced a crude economic system based on poker chips. “I am always setting up games and inviting students to play,” he said. “If they don’t work, I design a new one.”

Jeff organized the Eagles into three-person squads. Each Eagle received three chips per week. Each infraction of studio rules that governed “listening” and “respect” triggered the loss of a chip. If everyone wasn’t in place for the opening discussion at 8:30 a.m. or the studio wasn’t pristine by the 3:00 p.m. closing, everyone lost a chip. If every member of a squad had a chip on Friday, the entire squad received a treat. Squad members could loan one another chips, but only if there were consequences in place for the loan.

The poker chip game translated into equipping Eagles to better understand and use the power of Eagle Bucks. They had never practiced how to use them, and like with any new system there was a learning curve. There were days when Eagle Bucks caused personal conflicts between students and there were days when they worked like a charm to keep the group working hard and holding boundaries. As time went on, they decided the system, even if flawed, was much better than needing to revert to having adults order them around.

I myself have had my share of frustrations and even doubts. Games that end in arguments… Eagle Buck requests for petty reasons… I know these learners can be kind and supportive, so what’s missing from the equation?

I think it has been the need to direct them towards the notion that we’re all in this together. That we both succeed and fail as a community. Prior to last week, for an example, we were conducting Studio Maintenance under the guise that if someone’s job isn’t complete, then the studio would just have to be dirty. Now we’re trying the tack that if someone’s job isn’t done, the community loses an Eagle Buck as a whole - a method implemented by Jeff Sandefer himself when the community was inclined towards chaos and lack of cooperation. If it is squeaky clean, then we all get a reward, perhaps extra free time.

Our wonderful Head of School, Malin, lent me a great book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. He spends a great amount of time describing how struggle and failure creates new neural pathways in children, increasing focus and perception. For this reason, Japanese schools design their curriculum so that every day is a struggle and a challenge. Contrary to that, American schools are designed to move the students along without resistance or stress.

We’re going to have to learn to not be afraid of struggle and stress. What we should be afraid of is taking the wrong lesson from struggle - that it is to be avoided. Instead, let us try to learn that struggle creates literal growth, while ease and comfort stand in the way of it.

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