What do we really mean by "guides Don't Answer Questions"
Deep Dives - a new series where one a session our head guide, Mr. Luke, will dive into a different system or process at Acton to shed light on the system and revisit the 'why' behind it.
If you asked any Hero at Acton what the difference between a teacher and a guide is, I can almost guarantee that they would begin with, “Well, guides don’t answer questions.”
This is one of the first things that many people learn about Acton and it is one of the critical ways in which Acton is different. The irony however, is that it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of Acton’s learning design, including the heroes themselves who can mistake "guides don't answer questions" to mean "guides aren't here to help." This couldn't be further from the truth.
I speak from experience on this because this is something that we as a staff at Acton have spent the better part of a year now wrestling with and trying to fully understand. My hope with this post is to share some of what we have come to understand about guides not answering questions - especially why we hold such a strict standard and what this really looks like in practice.
"It’s true that guides DON’T answer questions, yes, but the flip side of that is that we DO - commit to remaining Socratic 100% of the time. Being Socratic means more than just avoiding questions. It means that the way we respond to questions is by offering choices, tools, or additional questions with the purpose of igniting curiosity and equipping learners to solve their own problems."
This is the goal, but like most things at Acton, the day to day is sometimes messy. So if our attempts to be Socratic come off as a little snarky or simply frustrating, I think part of that can be attributed to the fact that its a new and unfamiliar thing and part of it comes down to the fact that as guides, we are all still very much in the process of honing this really difficult skill. Don’t get me wrong here - I’m not trying to make excuses - I’m saying we know this is a craft that takes years to hone, and we are always working to better our craft.
But I can also assure you our goal really is exactly as I’ve described above and we are committed to working really hard at developing these skills so we can build a true learner-driven community where every learner is trusted to make good decisions, develop resourcefulness and initiative, and become a lifelong learner.
The question has been raised by owners, parents, guides, and heroes alike across the network, does answering questions really mean NEVER answering questions or does it simply apply to 'learning questions'? Surely it's okay for little things like, “How are you doing today?” or “What’s that password again?”
Two thoughts on this:
Exceptions like this would make my life A LOT easier!
But what’s the cost? To me, it's like telling white lies. They may seem better than the truth in the moment, but what's the cost in the long run?
I’ve talked to a hundreds of people about Acton over the past few years, and when I try to explain how it works one of the most common responses I get is something along the lines of, “This sounds great, but the kids can’t really be in charge of all that? It would just be chaos!”
It’s hard for people to believe that adults would really step back out and trust the heroes with so much freedom and so much responsibility.
The reality is the only way we’ll ever be successful at building a strong learner driven community is if the learners (and parents/families) can trust us to truly remain Socratic and not overstep the bounds of the commitments we have made. Every time we don’t it erodes that trust and impedes the process. It creates a slippery slope with more and more potential to overstep. (Think white lies)
The most famous saying of Lord Acton, the Victorian Era politician and writer who is the namesake of our school and network goes like this, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
So another part of the reason for such a stark rule (guides are Socratic 100% of the time) is that the only way for the guides at Acton to avoid the slippery step of overstepping our authority is to stay well back from the edge. In this sense, the practice of guides not ever answering questions is a truly critical component of the life-blood of the culture we are building.
One of the biggest roadblocks we’ve had to work through on this as a staff is the sense that this all sounds great in theory, but in practice, it's sometimes really hard to do without coming off as a jerk. So last year we made exceptions. But as we continued to wrestle with this, we’ve found that it really is possible to remain Socratic 100% of the time while also being warm and encouraging and building connections in the community!
"...it really is possible to remain Socratic 100% of the time while also being warm and encouraging and building connections in the community."
To understand what I mean, I’d like to invite you to step into my shoes for a moment and imagine this: It’s about 8:15 AM and you’re standing at the door greeting a steady stream of learners as they get dropped off at school to start a day filled with important work. Lots of smiling faces. Energy, life, excitement. It’s a great way to start the day. But inevitably, this complex moral dilemma plays out: A smiling hero shakes your hand and says, “Good morning, Mr. Luke, how are you today?” I get that for most people, this isn’t exactly a crisis, but as a guide who signed a contract explicitly stating you won’t answer questions, this situation poses a problem. It seems like you have a couple of options:
Just answer the question. Sure, you made a promise, but it’s just a little one. No big deal right? Surely, they don’t really mean that guides don’t ever answer any questions…
Refuse to answer. Take their warm friendly greeting and throw it back in their face. Guides don’t answer questions. Period.
Give an awkward, sort of snarky sounding non-answer like, “How do you think I am this morning?”
What would you do in my shoes?
If I’m completely honest here, I’ve probably done versions of all three of these at some point. All might seem to have their merits, but if none seem terribly satisfying, that's actually good - because in reality none of them are the response of a true Socratic guide.
It’s true that guides DON’T answer questions, yes, but the flip side of that is that we DO - commit to remaining Socratic 100% of the time. Being Socratic means more than just avoiding questions. It means that the way we respond to questions is by offering choices, tools, or additional questions with the purpose of igniting curiosity and equipping learners to solve their own problems.
Here’s something really important that needs to be clear: We actually want learners at Acton to ask lots of questions. Research shows that children around the age of 5 ask an average of 100 questions per day. And then they start school and that number simply falls off a cliff until about age 11 where many children are essentially asking no questions at all.
So at least a part of our goal in remaining Socratic is to honor and encourage children’s curiosity. Our intent is to communicate the idea that a question asked by a learner is an awesome thing and that one question should lead to more questions. We want to trust and equip them to go out and search for the answer and hopefully uncover even more interesting and exciting questions along the way.
We’ve found that when we simply answer questions, we are robbing heroes of incredibly valuable opportunities to follow their own curiosity, make their own decisions (and learn from the consequences), or draw others in and make important connections. We want them to ask questions, but in the process to gain the confidence to search for answers themselves.
What Makes Learning Happen | Laura Sandefer on the Socractic Method
Pay special attention from 3:49 - 11:13
To show you what I mean here are three different examples of how a Socratic guide might respond to different sorts of questions:
Learning Questions: “Mr. Luke, I’ve been working on this Math problem for like 20 minutes and I can’t figure it out.”
Not Very Socratic Response: Well, have you done 3B4G?
Socratic Response: Wow, It sounds like you’ve been working at this for a long time. I’d call that some serious grit. Tell me a little bit of what you have done so far that hasn’t worked?
(Depending on how they answer offer options/ A-B choices like the ones below)
Would it be more helpful to take a break and come back to math in 15 minutes OR go back now and read through the instructions and problem slowly and carefully one more time?
Do you think it would be more helpful to review the video and hints in the practice section or do a Google search for dividing with complex fractions?”
I know that Angie just finished that unit and Fred is on the same one - would you like to check in with one of them to see if they have any insights?
Process/Information Questions: “Mr. Luke, what time is PE today?”
Not Very Socratic Response: Guides don’t answer questions. Figure it out yourself.
Socratic Response: Great question - That’s awesome that you’re planning ahead and trying to stay on time. But as a Socratic guide, I’m not going to answer that question because I trust you to find your own answer. Would you like to check the schedule on the wall or ask a fellow traveler in your studio?
Personal Questions: “Mr. Luke, how are you today?”
Not Very Socratic Responses: See the three options given at that start of this post
Socratic Response: Thanks so much for asking! Your curiosity about me shows a deep kindness that I admire. But you can trust me as a Socratic guide which means I care about you enough to not answer even little questions. I’d really love to hear about how your day is going so far OR if you’d rather, you could head out back to the playground to find somebody who looks like they really need someone to ask how they are doing.
And perhaps a final note - The concern was brought to us recently by an AAL parent that guides not answering personal questions builds walls between heroes and guides and makes us distant or unapproachable. If you’ve thought this as well - you’re not alone. It’s something that has been brought up and discussed across the world-wide Acton network. But our heartfelt belief is that those bonds can be built without violating the promise to not answer questions. When a hero asks a personal question:
We can honor and encourage thoughtful questions (“Thanks so much for asking, it really shows how much you care”)
We can use it as an opportunity to build trust, a critical foundation of any relationship (“I made a promise to remain Socratic and you can trust me not to answer this questions”)
We can use it to foster a deeper connection (“I’d really love to hear about your weekend” …followed by more probing questions, and when the window presents itself still share about ourselves)
We can turn them back to the community at large (“I’d like to challenge you to go ask three heroes you haven’t talked to in a while the same question”)
We also have other ways of sharing about ourselves - mostly in sharing testimony and stories in launches - and in reserving it to these special times it makes these revelations all the more valuable and meaningful. There are many other small ways that we as guides can build warm, meaningful relationships with heroes - greeting heroes by name or learning and remembering details about their lives and families, for example, while still remaining completely Socratic.
Everything we do at Acton is built upon the central belief that every person who walks through our doors is a genius on a hero's journey to find a calling and change the world. Having truly Socratic Guides instead of teachers is a critical part of the recipe for making learner driven education work. We are so grateful to have such an awesome group of learners and families that are willing to both dig into this hard and important part of Acton and also to challenge us as a staff to grow in our own understanding of how and why we guide Socratically! Onward!
Mr. Luke is our Adventure Studio Guide & Team Lead