A New School of Thought

A New School of Thought

The Forest School Online is reshaping education to help students find their calling

Words by Paige Townley

Education is an investment in the future, and The Forest School believes students should be empowered to better determine its path. That’s the evolution behind The Forest School Online, an intentionally diverse, self-directed learning experience that seeks to increase students’ options, self-confidence, independence, motivation, and development of skills for lifelong learning. “We aspire to help young people find a calling that will change the world,” explains The Forest School Online Founding Head of School Maxwell Smith. “We deeply believe in this mission because everyone has a calling. School should be the place where learners explore and develop their interests and identities and then use their learning to better the world.”
This mission is rooted in the school’s sister in-person school in Fayetteville, Georgia, and it has blossomed into the online option that began just last year during the pandemic. “When we began virtual school last year, we and many of our families saw the benefits of the self-directed learning approach being provided virtually,” Maxwell adds. “We’ve seen the benefits of going virtual, and we’re thrilled to officially offer it as its own school, The Forest School Online.”

The Forest School Online offers three distinct Studios, an elementary studio for grades kindergarten through fifth, middle school studio for grades sixth through eighth, and a high school studio for grades ninth through 12th. In each studio, the online school implements the self-directed learning approach through a variety of principles. As leaders in their own educational path, students are directed by their interests and curiosities, which then shapes their academic path. “We don’t give students a pre-determined content for study,” Maxwell says. “Instead, we focus on the adaptive skills that will position them to be trailblazers in whatever field they choose.”

Through this approach—which the School has been asked about to present about at famed institutions such as Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and the National Association of Independent Schools—students are better aware of the importance of what they are learning because it’s rooted in real-world scenarios. “Relevance is always something that students are wondering in school,” Maxwell adds. “Why do I need to learn this? It’s a common question teachers hear, but at our online school, everything is directly applicable to the learners’ lives and their authentic goals.”
One way the school brings that relevance is showing them directly how their work and decisions can impact their neighborhood and community. The school intentionally creates opportunities for learners to present their learning in front of businesspeople and community leaders throughout each academic session. For example, one session’s quest was to design a golf cart trail, which students then presented to a neighborhood park organization that was considering the trail proposals. “It invests students so much more when they know their work isn’t just hypothetical,” Maxwell says. “It really changes the conversation, and it changes the way learners approach their work.” (You can watch students present their plans to the City Council here.)

In addition to hands-on projects, The Forest School Online also encourages students to participate in real-world apprenticeships—students are expected to find apprenticeships that relate to their interests and partake in them each year—and Socratic discussions and seminars, which are facilitated by guides. “Instead of teachers we have guides,” Maxwell says. “We use a different term because their role is very different from the traditional role of a teacher. They are there to provide provocative questions. Instead of giving answers, they respond with questions. Our guides push the learners to think and discover for themselves.”
As students think and discover for themselves and master their studies, they earn badges, which are required to graduate. Guides, community leaders, and even peers take part in this mastery-based educational process as they provide feedback on whether a student has earned a badge or not. “Because our grading system is mastery based, students keep working on something until they master it,” Maxwell says. “Just like in the real world, they get the time they need to master all of the content, and they are considered to have mastered it when they earn the badge.”

Besides mastering their skills and choosing their paths of study, students at The Forest School Online are also doing so in a global environment, a particularly special aspect of the school. “We truly have a global community of learners, and that’s the power of being completely virtual,” Maxwell shares. “The global perspective is something you can study, but to immerse oneself in it with learners from around the globe is a whole different type of global perspective.”