Q&A with Mark Smith: Director of Quest Forward Academy Omaha

Pictured: Mark Smith, Director of Quest Forward Academy Omaha

Jenn: Tell me about your education and teaching experience before Quest Forward Learning.

Mark: I received my Bachelor of Science in Science Education and taught high school chemistry and physics for 5 years. Then, I went back to school to complete a Masters of Science in Educational Leadership. With that degree, I had the opportunity to work as an administrator for 9 years in Omaha, Nebraska and then 4 years in Fremont, Nebraska.

Jenn: How is being an administrator for a Quest Forward Academy different than any of your other experiences?

Mark: Quest Forward Academy is definitely a different experience. In this position, I’m taking on more responsibility relating to managerial duties. Although there was a little bit of a learning curve for me, I feel as though I’m getting the opportunity to experience more aspects of educational administration, which I otherwise might miss out on in a different position. I’m also working harder than I ever have.

Jenn: How did you find out about Quest Forward Learning?

Mark: I had never heard of Quest Forward Learning until I received a phone call from someone I didn’t know. This individual was calling around various school administrators looking for one who would be interested in opening a new school. Initially, I didn’t give much thought to the prospect, but I eventually decided to hear out the proposal. I was hooked after that conversation with Ray Ravaglia (Quest Forward Learning’s Chief Learning Officer) who went into detail about the Quest Forward Learning vision. During my Master’s program, I conducted a study on alternative educational models, which inspired me to pursue this opportunity to adopt one at my own school.

Jenn: What do you see as the biggest problem in education today?

Mark: The main problem in education is that we tend to focus on the acquiring of knowledge and do too little to help students develop habits of mind. We know that a large percentage of jobs that today’s students will eventually hold do not even exist yet. This means that I can’t simply give students a specific set of knowledge and feel that they are adequately prepared for life. They need to be equipped with mindsets and habits that allow them to retool themselves throughout life as the need arises.

Jenn: How do you think Quest Forward Learning addresses this problem?

Mark: Quest Forward Learning intentionally places skills, habits, and mindsets at the center of what the students do. It restructures the learning model so students are getting in the driver’s seat of their education and teachers are playing a supporting role. This allows the teachers to function more as coaches and mentors instead of the information experts. The new educational format enables students to drive their own discovery, which provides them with a better understanding of the process of learning as a way of life.

Jenn: What positive changes have you seen in Quest Forward Academy in Omaha?

Mark: I have been very pleased with the growth we have observed in our students in the first year. Our students have really begun to take ownership over their learning. They think about learning in a new way. For example, at the start of the year students would often turn in some work and ask, “What grade did I get?” Now, they turn in work and ask, “How did I do on this?” It is a subtle, but very meaningful, change in how students view the work they are engaged in. Now, learning is not simply a series of checkboxes to get through to receive a diploma; rather, they are really beginning to grasp that learning is relevant to them.

Jenn: How do you picture Quest Forward learners when they graduate?

Mark: I imagine Quest Forward learners would naturally question things— Not in a “gotcha” way, but in a truly inquisitive way. They will be able to make connections that others might miss because they will already be used to interacting with content in a holistic, multi-disciplinary fashion. Theywon’t be afraid to take risks and try something new, because they know how to navigate uncharted waters. They will be able to set goals and self-evaluate themselves along the way to achieving those goals. All of these qualities are going to set our students up for success in their future endeavors.

Jenn: How could you explain Quest Forward Learning to a mentor or school considering implementing our methodology and technology?

Mark: Quest Forward Learning leverages web-based technologies to allow teachers and students to interact differently than what we are used to in traditional educational settings. No longer are learners engaging in a sit-and-get style of academics, instead students are active owners of their educational experience. Similarly, teachers are shifting out of their traditional roles as the center of attention in the classroom. Quest Forward Learning mentors don’t spend their time at the front of the class directing large-group activity. They are able to spend the bulk of their time interacting with individuals or small groups. This allows their feedback to students to be personalized and authentic, rather than just another letter grade. Together, mentors and learners develop a cooperative role in the learning process and share an individualized voice in the process of learning.

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