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Self-Directed Learning Changes the Game: Questions for Founder Tobin Slaven

Self-Directed Learning Changes the Game: Questions for Founder Tobin Slaven

"Traditional school wasn't getting what our children needed for today's world, so we started one that does," explains the team leading Acton Academy Fort Lauderdale. Founder Tobin Slaven holds an M.Ed in Student Development and was an award-winning high school and collegiate basketball coach, university instructor, and admissions officer. For the last 20 years Tobin has operated in the business world, as a consultant and entrepreneur specializing in helping expert-based businesses create and launch "Offers That Sell Themselves." He co-authored the book Experts Never Chase, and is the host of several business-focused podcasts, including FamilyFriendlyFortLauderdale.com and K12ReimaginED.com. In 2021, Tobin and his wife launched an Acton microschool to serve learners in Fort Lauderdale.

What is one unique (or uncommon) feature of your microschool experience your learners and families tell you they especially value?

We have a tagline that we use on our website that says, "No Homework. No Tests. No Teachers." And while the last one may be the most important thing we do as a learner-driven school, it is actually the first one that often gets parents smiling. In traditional school environments, they are piling on more and more homework to try and make up for some of the learning gaps. For busy parents who have just finished their own long, hard day - this is just one more thing they have to do manage. Homework (or conflict around the completion of homework) is often one of the biggest sources of frustration for families.

I think at Acton, we have flipped that switch. The enrollment is an audition, with an expectation that the child will own their own education, and that we as adults (parents, school owners, and guides) will step back. Learner-driven hard because it often means allowing struggle and chaos, so that a young person can gain experience in making their own decisions (with resulting rewards and consequences). It is probably a counter-intuitive way of doing school (especially for former educators) but I think our parents value the difference. And I know that many of our learners, once they get a taste of that "with freedom comes responsibility" model, very few would be willing to go back into a traditional classroom.

What is one favorite aspect of your work that would have been especially difficult to deliver in traditional school settings?

I had to chuckle when I read this question, because one of my favorite roles is one that I am learning to let go - and that is coaching/mentoring.

In traditional school environments, teachers are split 20 different ways. A ton of time is spent on administrative tasks, classroom management, and a big portion to instruction. In a learner-driven studio at Acton, the adults are not allowed to teach or instruct. Heck, we are not even answering questions. The whole environment is set up as a full commitment to self-directed learning. It really changes the game, as young people understand that they can help one another, the peer-to-peer learning becomes far more interesting than anything the adults might share.

With regards to mentoring, at Acton we use Heroic stories and rubrics that help our learners think deeply about the values that matter to them in the pursuit of a meaningful life. But the opportunity to coach and give advice like "You should ___." is off the table. And as a former collegiate athletic coach and later a corporate consultant, that took some getting used to.

Please share a story about what success looks like in your microschool.

Last year we had a 6-year-old learner who was struggling with a concept in her math program. She worked on it for more than a week. It didn't make sense. She was very determined to make progress, but this one concept eluded her. One of our 8-year-olds walked by and noticed her struggling, so she sat down for them to work it out together. Shortly after, the 6-year-old went skipping away, with the tough-to-master lesson now in her rearview mirror. But for the 8-year-old it was an epiphany as well. She said, "you know I didn't really understand that myself. But now I do!"

That ability to work collaboratively, working out hard things with others, and also being able to teach or share what we learn, is a HUGE opportunity that gets overlooked in education. It is central to how we function in the real world as adults. It also happens to be one of the primary areas of focus for our vPAL project, which will put AI companions in the hands of each child.

What is one piece of advice you give new microschool founders?

As a Microschool owner, there are, and will continue to be many experiences which will challenge your commitment to the work. Sometimes the challenges are regulatory, or financial. Sometimes they are just emotional after a long, hard session.

The testimony I will share, is that at each of those key moments (like when we lost our first location to regulatory issues), we gathered as a team and really took stock of where each of us was in our commitment to the mission. We did some soul-searching, and we each arrived at the answer that this was the Hero's Journey that we chose and would continue to pursue. That renewal of the commitment on a periodic basis has been really important for galvanizing our small team.

Please describe one facet of your microschool’s experience that you’d like people to think of when your microschool comes up in conversation.

Here at AAFTL we've been blessed. We feel like we won the lottery, with a great location to grow, amazing guides in our Studios, and a wonderful group of Founding Families. I have no doubt that our little school is on a mission to change the world, and will continue to grow and prosper.
But I often think about what it would take to make our biggest impact outside the walls of our school. That is why we started incubating an AI-startup right inside our little school.
While others in the Ed-Tech space are focused on AI to replace teachers and tutors, what we think it more interesting is how children can teach what they are learning to their vPAL, which challenges them to reflect deeply on both what they learned, and how it is relevant in the real world.
This is not some distant, utopian future. This is the vision we're already delivering right now with the learners at Acton Academy Fort Lauderdale. In fact, that is one of our unfair advantages, we are incubating the world's first AI-powered Partner in Augmented Learning... a v-PAL... right inside the walls of our own school.
And this v-PAL is more than just a study buddy, it's a lifelong companion. Just like a child grows, learns, and matures over time, so does their v-PAL. It's designed to be there with your child right from their first day at school, learning and evolving with them through their entire educational journey.
Like a detective, it discovers how a child learns best and how they perform their best. It knows when your child is struggling with fractions, and finds new ways to explain them. It knows when your child has aced a test, and challenges them to reach for new heights. It understands when your child is feeling overwhelmed, and provides the kind of encouraging words they need to hear.

Always kind. Always supported. Never ignored. Never rejected.
We think this is an opportunity unlike any other, to build a world-changing platform that will have a massive impact on the everyday lives of children who might otherwise, give up on their dreams. I hope you will join me and our team in bringing v-PALs to every school, every homeschool pod, and one day soon... every family across the globe.
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