Why we started Acton Taipei.
If someone had told me two years ago that I would be starting a school for my daughter, Madeleine, I would have laughed at the idea. Madeleine was thriving at her international school – making friends and coming home smiling everyday. I felt assured that her education was in good hands.
Then, one day, Madeleine came home and said, “Mom, I’m stupid. I can’t read like the other kids.” My heart sank. It was like a slap to the face. I had enrolled my five-year-old in an international school because I thought their “play-based” curriculum would shield her from exactly such hurtful comparisons. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that what was most important at this stage of her life was that she felt good about herself and kept her innate curiosity intact. I didn’t care that she was on reading level one, while her classmates were on reading level six.
I had failed my daughter. I had incorrectly assumed that a cookie-cutter education would suffice for my beautiful, special child. At home, I could see sparks of genius in her, but the international school I had sent her to had already convinced her that she was not good enough. They had not nurtured her interests and talents, instead focusing on arbitrary grade-level standards, leaving her ready to give up on learning before her sixth birthday. I scrambled to find an alternative.
I used my Ph.D. research skills and embarked on a quest to find the best, most progressive, state-of-the-art educational model out there. I had an intuitive idea that whatever was next for my daughter had to be truly personalized and student-led. It had to be revolutionary and turn learning upside-down so that students would become the teachers. I spent more than a year doing this research and, during that time, Acton Academy came up again and again.
Acton was so interesting to me because it had figured out an open secret – so much of what is learned in school can be taught better and more efficiently using online resources. For example, Khan Academy teaches the exact same math skills covered in conventional math lessons at schools, BUT it can do it faster and more comprehensively. How? Khan’s adaptive questions pinpoint where students are getting stuck and adjust accordingly, by giving more practice problems or suggesting students watch certain video lectures again. Students don’t need to move on to the next topic until they’ve mastered the current topic just to keep up with the rest of the class. The content is personalized to each student.
The greatest thing about it was that taking advantage of online learning frees up the teacher to pay attention to other, arguably more important aspects of the student – those qualities that cannot be quantified by standardized testing. It was exactly those qualities, such as compassion, grit, and perseverance, that I felt was especially important for my daughter. Online learning also frees up more time in the school day for students to tackle real-world, hands-on projects, such as writing plays, starting businesses, planting community gardens, giving them more authentic opportunities to express and nurture their interests and talents.
All of it sounded so beautiful in theory, but would it actually work on my Madeleine? I tried a little experiment and signed her up for an online phonics program to see if it would help with her reading. For eight weeks, we spent 20 minutes every night playing online phonics games. Five weeks later, I went to pick my daughter up at school and she ran over with the biggest smile, holding a book proudly in her hand. She showed me the book and her teacher, grinning from ear to ear, said, “She moved up a reading level today!” Madeleine had not moved up a single reading level in the previous seven months of school. I won’t lie… there were tears of joy that day.
A few weeks after that, Madeleine proceeded to blow me and her teacher away by whizzing through another five reading levels before the end of the school year. Her teacher was amazed and exclaimed, “I have never seen a student move that fast through reading levels!” It was exactly the success that my daughter needed to have before the end of the school year. She stopped making the self-defeating comments that had so worried me and regained her natural eagerness to learn. I knew that Acton Academy was what I wanted full-time for my daughter.
And now, on the eve of a new school year, I feel incredibly grateful and excited to embark on another journey, this time not just with my own daughter, but with a group of intrepid founding families and an incredible guide, ready to tackle 21st-century learning the Acton Academy way in Taipei!