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.

I turn again to Howard Levin and his fine colleague Jonathan Howland at Urban School for another fine expression of this critical conceptualization of technology and learning.  I am taking now from the wisdom they express in an excellent piece, highly recommended, in NAIS Independent School last winter: Here and Now in the School of the Future.

There they make the point: computer learning is not learning to use computers anymore, it is about computers being used to learn.

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.

This is Levin’s oft-made observation: in digitally empowered learning, 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 do learning.   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 is 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 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.   This is better learning of key content and skills, not learning to use computers.

Back to Howland and Levin:

We need to proceed, therefore, with a widely acceptable premise and standard, a sort of touchstone for technology: the rationale for using digital tools in school is to enhance and improve student learning.

It is not about the computer, it is about the learning.  We know from Tony Wagner and others, as oft-stated here, that our students need, in the words of Partnership for 21st century skills President Ken Kay, to learn the Three R’s and the 4 C’s: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.   That is the goal, that is the outcome we seek, that is what we at St. Gregory are measuring as we complete report cards with our “Essential Goals for St. Gregory Students” and as we assess our students’ higher order thinking skills with the College Work Readiness Assessment.

These skills, these 4 C’s, these powerfully important things are what our students need to learn, and it is these that digital tools such as laptops or smartphones in classroom best make possible.   It is about the learning, it is about what students do in classrooms to practice and develop these 4 C’s, or Seven Survival Skills, or Egg.

So focused are we on the rise and influx of digital tools, we have embraced a misleading assumption — that students need to use technology. An alternate set of concerns posits an altogether distinct strategy: What do students need in order to learn math, language, science, history, and art? What are the teaching practices we can develop to deepen and improve learning in these disciplines, and what are the digital tools we can employ, or invent, to enhance and extend learning in each of these and other areas?

And I love the discussion of change in schooling: evolutionary yes, but in the evolutionary form that Steven Jay Gould (a Harvard Prof of mine!) labeled punctuated equilibrium:

Slow growth with fast machines. Evolution. Or rather, “punctuated equilibrium”: rapid development of teaching and learning practices followed by periods of consolidation, sharing, and refinement. In the “school of the future” — a phrase we use loosely to mean the sort of school we should actually have in the here and now, as well as in the years to come.

Next they provide concrete examples, and note that students are not learning computers, they are learning subjects using digital technology more effectively.  Note too: they are doing learning, vigorously:

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.

The next section from Levin and Howland unites several of my favorite topics in learning,  linking together the learning of higher order thinking and critical 21st essential skills with use of digital tools and the active “doing” of learning by on-line collabortion and publication:

The gains realized here are not mere efficiencies but rather fundamental enhancements to learning and performance. In the history class, for example, this form of “authentic doing” can generate source material for projects that become available to a wider audience through a form of web publication, but equally significant is the shift in the student’s posture from passive receiver to active maker, from student of history to historian.

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.

Thank you Howard and Jonathan for this fine and inspiring piece.  It’s not about the computer; it’s about the learning.