In Schools of the Future, Students Learn Best by Doing, Vigorously and Digitally

It’s not about the computer; it’s about the learning.  Our students today both want and need to be active, engaged, collaborative, on-line, vigorous, empowered, creative,  solvers of real-world problems.   They need to be skilled and informed to do so, but they need to be challenged, motivated, and engaged in doing so.

The best learning has always been, since we were chimps, about practicing, experimenting, mistake-making, and overcoming obstacles as we have used the finest tools available in doing so.  Aristotle wrote that we learn best by doing, and it has always been true.

Yes, it is wonderful sometimes for students to listen to a compelling lecture told with passion and perceptive insight and compelling interpretation and anecdote and a story. Yes it is dynamite for kids to participate in intellectual discourse and debate, sharing and discusing ideas and appreciating fine dialogue.   And yes, there are fine pieces of writing that can still happen on paper. We don’t need to end, abolish, or abandon any of these things.

But as our “digital generation” comes to school, entirely familiarized with the use of digital tools on a daily basis to communicate, research, collaborate, plan, organize, investigate, create and publish, how dare we say to them they cannot use these same tools in school as they use outside of it?  Just as importantly, knowing that in their college and adult careers they will be expected to do so in nearly every work-place, how can we deprive them of developing mastery in their skilled use of these tools?

It’s not about the computer, it’s about the learning.   Harvard doesn’t want students to be listeners and responders; it insists now that its students be digitally empowered active participants in their own learning who are problem-finders and problem-solvers.

From Levin and Howland’s fine article,  Here and Now in the School of the Future:

Today, classrooms with computers are classes in virtually any discipline — Spanish, Shakespeare, physics, fine arts — and most of the students of these subjects are no more focused on the digital tools at their disposal than the gardener is on the hoe, rake, and shovel.

In these classrooms, the laptop “disappears.”  It is no more noticeable than a pencil.  At certain moments in the lesson, the teacher makes a cursory gesture indicating time to pull out the laptop, and students do so with a normalcy- time to log on and research, write and edit, communicate and collaborate, publish.   Nothing fancy; no need to pack everyone up and head to the computer lab, just a normal event: time to go to work on that problem and project, and actively dolearning.   In years past it might have been encyclopedia research time, or worksheet completion time: now it is on-line learning, vocabulary game-playing, and blogging.

It is the same, but it is better.   An encyclopedia can be static and authoritative (authoritarian?), not requiring closer analysis and not up-to-date.  On-line, students must be (and must learn to be, and must be taught to be) critical and acute:

  • is this the best of many sources available?
  • what biases may be present?
  • How current is this post?
  • How have people responded to it?

Rather than read one classroom encylopedia, they can review and compare many sources of information and draw new inferences.  And rather than worksheets, they can play with vocabulary in on-line engaging vocabulary sites– sites that actually make each question easier or harder depending on whether you got the previous one correct, so students are not wasting time answering questions they already know or have no way to answer.

Howland and Levin provide concrete examples, and note that students are not learning computers, they are learning subjects using digital technology more effectively:

In the cell biology unit of an introductory science course, students generate dynamic models with clay animation to explore and understand complex molecular processes.

In history class, students do history — assembling primary sources from a variety of media, including oral testimonies from witnesses and participants, from the ordinary people of whose experiences and memories and understandings history is stitched.

In English class, the once clearly delineated realms of discussion and composition have become usefully blurred by means of small-group, online collaboration in ways that encourage risk-averse students to take on meaningful and difficult subjects, and require everyone to gain further practice in writing and thinking.

At top I quoted Aristotle: the amazing thing about the digital revolution in education is that it is not only re-inventing education, it is reviving education’s best traditions and practices.  Our project based classrooms and all the ways in which our students are learning by engaging with real-world challenges, drawing from the wide world of information, and learning skills by practicing them for real audiences: these things were the hallmarks of the earliest classrooms, before there were classroom walls and school roofs.  Again, Howland and Levin:

The school of the future is better than the school of the past not because its students are digitally savvy or outfitted for the modern economy or Google-facile, but because it prompts, supports, and sustains student learning in traditional (as well as new) disciplines in more varied, intelligent, and effective ways. In this way, it builds upon, expresses, and improves so much of what has been true and rich about education for centuries.


  1. As a first year “computer teacher” for first and second graders, I found this article of great interest. Even with my little ones, I understand that teaching them “computer skills” is important. However, after being part of Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s Powerful Learning Practices (PLP) last year, I felt compelled to create a poster with a quote from this article.

    “Students are not learning computers; They are learning subjects using digital technology more effectively.”

    With this being my 16th year in the classroom after having taught Pre-K through 8th grade, including Spanish, my passion is not in the technology. It is in the learning, inquiry and curiosity of my students. I laughingly tell people that one month ago I was a “teacher.” Suddenly I am a “technology specialist.” At some point I think that all teachers will also be technology specialists, especially considering that many of our students already are.

    September 2, 2010
  2. Miss Morgan said:

    I appreciate this article. I sometimes get wrapped up in teaching my little ones how to use the computer and forgetting the capacity for learning. It’s important to learn HOW to use the hardware… but once that is learned they need to learn how to use the hardware to LEARN.

    September 3, 2010
  3. […] In Schools of the Future, Students Learn Best by Doing, Vigorously and Digitally | Connected Princip… It’s not about the computer (tags: education future schools web2.0) […]

    September 14, 2010
  4. […] In Schools of the Future, Students Learn Best by Doing, Vigorously and Digitally | Connected Princip… It’s not about the computer (tags: education future schools web2.0) […]

    September 14, 2010
  5. […] Techno-Literacy: Computers are a Tool, not a Solution; I think it aligns nicely with my piece, In Schools of the Future, Students Learn by Doing, Digitally.  The author says of his son, after a year of home-schooling using on-line learning tools: […]

    September 19, 2010
  6. Ed Berry said:

    I taught mathematics for 25 years. I have now been a HS Principal for 13 years. As a teacher, I was getting bored with myself (imagine how bored the students must have been). Graphing calculators came along and it totally transformed the way that I taught. I did not set out to transform anything. It just happened. More importantly, it transformed the way that students “understood” the subject. Working problems algebraically AND graphically totally boosted their comprehension. I see that all digital technology has the possibility to impact every subject area in the same manner as the graphing calculator did in math. We are in the process of becoming a 1-1 school. Some teachers will take off with this. Some teachers will change more gradually, but I feel that all teachers will find a way to use this tool to more effectively produce student concept understanding.

    October 1, 2010
  7. […] This is something I believe in passionately:  Give our kids these powerful tools, unleash them into the world of web 2.0, and empower them to discover, pursue their passions, communicate, collaborate and create.   (For more, see my In Schools of the Future, Students Learn Best by Doing, Vigorously and Digitally) […]

    November 16, 2010
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    January 9, 2011
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    September 4, 2011
  10. In Schools of the Future this is an nice article keep it up

    October 10, 2013

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