Our 10 key beliefs about learning (and the research behind them)

As parents and school founders, Joy and I (Tyler) are constantly asking...

How does deep and enduring learning best occur?

 

To address this question at The Forest School: An Acton Academy, we've embraced 10 key beliefs about learning and development. They are...

  1. Everyone who walks in the door is a genius who deserves a Hero's Journey.

  2. Let learners choose.

  3. Protect, lift up, and inspire the community.

  4. A clear credo, rules of engagement, and personal covenants crafted by participants lead to a strong learning community.

  5. Feedback is critical, even if it sometimes hurts.

  6. Questions are far more important than answers.

  7. The best guide for a young Hero is a fellow traveler.

  8. Fail early, cheaply, and often.

  9. Learn to Do first, Learn to Be next, and Learn to Know will naturally follow.

  10. Powerful quests have a map, a destination, and mileposts.

These aren't just feel-good, catch phrases for us. Rather, they are evidence-based insights that too often get lost in the traditional model of "school."

 

We're happy to share key research principles from the science of learning that animate these beliefs and thus our approach.

Starting with...

 

Family and Community Connections

Education research suggests that learners learn best when everyone in the community—including learners, staff, and families—have high levels of trust, motivation, and shared drive for learners to meet their goals and realize their greatest ambitions.

This research principle is the key driver behind our beliefs that everyone who walks in the door is a genius who deserves a Hero's Journey, that our collective responsibility is to protect, lift up, and inspire the full community, and that the best guide for a young Hero is a fellow traveler.

 

Student Centered

Research says learning best happens when learners are driving instruction themselves, helping one another in solving problems, asking each other probing questions, and exploring and discovering new learnings based upon their own curiosities.

That's precisely why we let learners choose and why we think questions are more important than answers.

 

Authentic Learning

Learners learn best when their experiences are rooted in deeper learning strategies such as a case-based approach, discussion-based learning (e.g., Harkness Method and Socratic discussions), and real life and experiential hands-on experiences. 

At The Forest School questions are far more important than answers, and feedback from peers, users, and high performing professionals is more valuable than multiple choice answers. For these reasons, Socratic discussions, case studies of a diverse set of heroes, and real-world apprenticeships are some of our staple practices.

 

Working Memory and Deliberate Practice

The goal of learning environments should be to ‘exercise’ working memory in service of building long-term memory around important knowledge and skills. Deliberate practice is one of the best ways to exercise working memory. This involves practice that “focuses on a specific goal,” “targets an appropriate level of challenge,” and is “of sufficient quantity and frequency” to meet the criteria that have been set for success.

To build long-term memory around important knowledge and skills, we practice core academic skills and simulate real world tasks daily. In the mornings our learners encounter core skills, and in the afternoons our learners have a chance to use their knowledge and skills in creative ways.

 

Personalization

Even though it's currently a buzz word in education, personalization really is key. Learning environments are organized optimally when learners are able to progress through clearly defined goals with constant assessment, and to have a customized path that responds and adapts to his/her individual learning progress, motivations, and goals such that they have access to up to date records of their individual strengths, needs, motivations and goals. Progressing through mastery of competencies is more helpful to learners than seat-time or age requirements.

For these reasons, at The Forest School we guide learners to set goals, make their own pathways, and engage in powerful quests that have a map, a destination, and mileposts.

 

Inter- and Trans-disciplinary Content

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Learners addressing real-world scenarios in an integrated way, across contexts and traditional academic disciplines, and in authentic settings (at the right time, as mastery builds) will help with generalizability and knowledge transfer. To build fluency as well as the ability to respond accurately to problems for the rest of their lives, authentic practice is critical.

Therefore, feedback from experts and "users" is critical, even if it sometimes hurts. Our learners practice real-world work from the earliest ages and every single week.

 

Challenge and Risk Taking

Encouraging smart risk taking in supportive environments that enable learners to reflect on their learnings and to exercise a growth mindset is essential. This includes opportunities where learners push the limits, sometimes fail when striving to improve, and learn to embrace the circular nature of trial, error, learn, retrial, and pathways to growth.

At The Forest School, we don't shy away from adventure. We fail early, cheaply, and often. Simultaneously—to avoid unnecessary panic and stress at a young age—we gauge the challenge and always protect, lift up, and inspire the community.

 

Value and Relevance

No surprise here. Motivation is lacking when learners don't feel that what or how they are learning is interesting, uses their existing expertise, provides purpose, or is useful to their life or dreams. It is important that learners find the purpose for themselves -- and not be ‘told’ that they should value something. True education facilitates the discovery of relevance and usefulness.

Value and relevance are why we let learners choose (what's relevant to them) and why we encourage the Hero's Journey (what's inspiring for them).

 

Autonomy

Per research, empowering learners with genuine autonomy fuels their feelings that they are in control of their learning and advancement. Motivation is blocked when learners perceive that there are barriers to their progress in the environment surrounding them (e.g., time, people, system, resources, policies), such that they feel like they are not in control of their learning and advancement.

This is why we let learners choose and why we guide them establish a clear credo, rules of engagement, and personal covenants.

 

Sense of Belonging

Developing a sense of belonging—e.g., "I belong to this academic community"—helps learners develop a stronger, connected sense of identity thereby being more willing to adapt to norms and apply effort to tasks. Cultivating a belonging mindset also mitigates against stereotype threat, which is important in any environment. 

For these reasons, we believe that a clear credo, rules of engagement, and personal covenants crafted by participants lead to a strong learning community. Also, we believe that the best guide for a young Hero is a fellow traveler and that together we must protect, uplift, and inspire the community. 

 

Purpose and Passion

When individuals find their purpose / passion, they can—with the proper supports—develop self-determination, which can lead them down a path of accomplishment, prosperity, peace, and happiness.

That's why we believe so strongly that everyone who walks in the door is a genius who deserves a Hero's Journey.

Lastly...

 

Enrichment

Learners need and deserve the opportunity to pursue excellence outside of traditional academics. They need a taste of the joy that comes from passionately pursuing greater skills and the cognitive and emotional enrichment that creates. To create that passion, we offer our learners a chance to be exposed to multiple different opportunities that enable them to learn outside the core academic content areas (i.e. go on field visits, tackle real-world projects, hear from guest heroes, engage in passion projects, etc.).

This is why we jump in and learn as we go.

Learn to Do first. 

Learn to Be next. 

And Learning to Know will naturally follow.

 

- Joy and Tyler

Tyler Thigpen