Kids are taking charge of their own learning as educators grapple with their new roles.

Tina Barseghian

For as long as anyone can remember, adults have played the role of information owners, meting out what they believe kids should know. Whether it’s the classroom teacher imparting expertise in American history, or a parent explaining the birds and the bees, adults have always tried to control what children learn.

Now, with open access to every imaginable kind of information found online, kids are happily seeking and finding it on their own — and on their own terms. The balance of power has shifted irrevocably.

So what does this mean for educators who are trying to figure out their role in this age of kids’ self-guided discovery?

“The control piece is really big, because if it’s acknowledged, it leaves educators with this empty hole,” says veteran teacher Will Richardson, the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. “‘Well, if we’re not doing that, then what are we doing?’ That’s where the conversation needs to be. But it’s a hard one to have. It’s very difficult for people to see themselves in a decidedly different role. But at the end of the day, we have to examine what we’re doing in terms of content in classroom. It should be more about learning, giving kids power to get content on their own.”

This power shift is at the crux of an education revolution that’s been gaining momentum online. But it’s not about the show-stealing headlines of “Waiting for Superman,” or Michelle Rhee’s vision of school reform that are dominating most of the education-related media.

This revolution is orchestrated by frustrated educators who believe the current school system must be torn down to the studs and rebuilt in order to keep up with the enormous cultural shift wrought by technology and the Internet. And though their own Twitter universe is ablaze with new ideas and practices – check out all the blogs, Tweets and voices on #edchat – it’s happening piecemeal, and under the radar of most teachers.

Pockets of Innovation

In spots across the country, innovative programs are leveraging the vast power of technology and the Internet. This Sunday night (February 13), PBS will air Digital Media – New Learners Of The 21st Century, featuring a few examples of these programs. The Digital Youth Network, for example, focuses on teaching kids to record music, create podcasts and videos; New Youth City Network structures the school day around rich sources of information, like the American Natural History Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and New York Hall of Science, among others. Like an extended field trip, students spend time learning about the neighborhoods, the city’s ecology, and practice skills like data visualization and collaboration.

There are dozens of other programs like these across the country, but they’re few and far between. Even basic access to the Internet is spotty in many schools, which block major websites like YouTube because of the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act in order to protect kids from unsafe sites. Those pushing for change complain that schools are throwing out the baby with the bathwater – blocking large swaths of rich, useful information online. While some educators push the boundaries by allowing their students to use cell phones in the class to get instant assessment, to take notes, look up information online, and so on, schools across the country still ban the use of cell phones in class.

“Learning through technology will not replace the need for teachers,” said Diana Rhoten, director of the Knowledge Institutions program and the Digital Media and Learning project at the Social Science Research Council. “It will change teachers’ jobs. They become more like coaches or mentors. But I think it will make their job more exciting and give them the opportunity to be pedagogues, which is ultimately more rewarding.”

Where to Start?

But the next step in this revolution is still undefined. Richardson, who travels the country spreading the gospel about harnessing the power of technology to teachers, superintendents and school districts, says that educators are confused about how to proceed.

“The interesting thing is that they will acknowledge that this shift is happening,” Richardson said. “But it’s hard to take that next step, and say, ‘Okay, so we really do have to change the way we do things at school, and away from content delivery to learning, and we really do have to change our roles as teachers to co-learners and supporters and mentors?’ It’s a big shift to make.”

Although Richardson and his peers have been pushing for the movement for as long as a decade or more, it’s still very much in its infancy. “We have to stop thinking that when one thing goes wrong, that we don’t have all the answers,” says Christopher Lehmann, of the museum-based school Science Leadership Academy in the PBS documentary. “What do we want our schools to be? What’s the most important thing we want our kids to learn?”

Depends on who you ask. Authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown might say it’s the ability to learn on their own, to create and be part of a community, to iterate and continue refining their own and others’ projects, to learn from their peers, to create their own learning patterns. All this happens when the teacher creates space and opportunity, and gives students control, they say in their recently published book A New Culture of Learning, Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

So what will propel the movement to burst out of the Twitterverse into reality? First and foremost, the vision needs to be clarified. There are plenty of pilot programs and school experiments to look to, but there’s no agreement yet on how to apply those best practices within the monolithic, rigid public education system. Especially given the enormous cultural emphasis, government funds, and schools’ and teachers’ successes attached to test scores.

“I think parents understand that schools need to do something different – but the ‘different’ doesn’t equate to anything really different at the end of the day because they want their kids to pass tests, get to college, do all the things that we define as traditionally successful,” Richardson says. “Parents say, ‘There are places that are experimenting on that stuff, but don’t experiment on my kid. I want those grades, I want those scores.'”

As for what’s next, here’s what some of these thinkers predict: The experiments will continue to proliferate and take shape around the edges, and eventually, if proven to be successful, there will come a tipping point that will drive the change in the public education system.

“Traditional approaches to learning are no longer capable of coping with a constantly changing world. They have yet to find a balance between the structure that educational institutions provide and the freedom afforded by the new media’s almost unlimited resources, without losing a sense of purpose and direction,” Thomas and Brown write. “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new.”

The Control Shift: A Grassroots Education Revolution Takes Shape 11 February,2011Tina Barseghian
  • Linda

    This type of learner based education is what Maria Montessori was promoting 100 years ago. As a Montessori educator it has my heartfelt approval. When a childs learning is self motivated it is learned at a more primal level. It is a more creative learning style for the student. Teachers in a Montessori classroom are merely tools who create the environment in which to learn. The children are active participators in their education.

  • Lizwisniewski

    I agree with Linda on Montessori. But it is not only the Montessori approach that has promoted teachers moving away from a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” This idea has been around a long time, in many guises (the constructivist approach for one.) This is not new to those who are a little knowledgeable of pedagogy.

  • Tim

    Computers are taking over. More and more apps are being built. Even Intel is getting into the Education Apps. Intel’s Appup has teaching apps like.

    If you have a student that can’t read, or need flash cards ,or you want to make lesson plans with your voice teaching your lesson on the computer. This app will be the app you want.

    The Learning Environment is changing and Apps like Teacherlesson as found away even to add link on the internet with the teacher voice.

    • Anonymous

      There are indeed parallels to be drawn with Montessori in terms of teaching. What’s changed, though, is the kids’ access to information through the Internet, which is changing the balance of power of information between teachers and students in traditional schools.

  • Kieran

    Lizwisniewski wrote:


    it is not only the Montessori approach that has promoted teachers moving away from a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” This idea has been around a long time, in many guises (the constructivist approach for one.) This is not new to those who are a little knowledgeable of pedagogy.


    This is true. Research over the last few decades makes it clear that the constructivist (or whatever you call it) approach works. The same can be said of deep learning, outcome-based learning, formative feedback, and other practices.

    The move to online, independent learning offers an interesting opportunity here. It’s possible to create online courses that embody good practices. With the Web, one well-built course can reach millions of people, inside and outside traditional schools.


  • Interpersonal relationships are integral to much creativity and learning. They are necessary for building the very indispensable skill of collaboration. And they fulfill a basic human need. To the extent that solo learning is embedded in collaborative learning, acts of cooperation and generative play, we will be educating people to live and work like and with people. Montessori approaches can be made to work this way, but sometimes over-emphasize solo learning to the detriment of children who need more social interaction.

  • Anonymous

    As an educator, I have to disagree with you on students these days being independent learners. It amasses me when students refuse to try and understand something they have just read, instead simply asking “what does that mean”. Or maybe, when they don’t know how to spell a word and ask you. All the while, these students are sitting in front of a computer connected to the internet. I’m not referring to grade school learners here; I’m talking about high school students that get good grades but need everything handed to them just like at home.

  • I’m including 2 blogposts that may help in this discussion. The first details the moment my students figured out that they don’t need me anymore as a traditional teacher. I knew I had to rethink my role at that point. The second outlines what I perceive my new role to be. The good news? My students still need me.

  • It is thrilling to read more and more about the education revolution. I too wonder what will take us to the tipping point. Will it be from more and more of us encouraging and connecting? Will it be from more dramatic self-sacrificial events like we have seen in Tunisia and Libya? I believe that many of us are actually working toward clarifying the vision as in the two posts below.
    However, we are currently a very small minority and those who would just deliver content are very uncomfortable with this new model. How do we help bring those folks along or do we in the words of Thomas Kuhn, wait until they die out? I don’t think we can wait that long in today’s world.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

    • At the moment I feel that I am walking in two worlds. I listen to discussions about teaching amongst my colleagues who haven’t yet begun to make the shift; these conversations startle me because they are so far removed from my current experience. I find myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I remember when teaching used to be like that for me.” I have no desire to return to that world. I think we must just keep forging ahead pushing boundaries. Eventually others will begin to notice, will begin to ask questions and will begin to experience the wonder and joy that this new model allows.

      • Heidi,
        Good points. I agree that our shining light may help win others over as they see our joy. Thanks for the encouragement.
        Best regards,
        RJ Johnson

  • NJEducationNow

    I love this article! It’s everything I have been thinking.

    As a middle school science teacher, I am trying new things incorporating the “home” and BYOD technology our students already have. Things are going extremely and I see a huge increase in interest from my students. The questions are coming fast and often. The kids are curious!

    If we remain consistent and continue experimenting and exploring with technology and the way our students learn new things, the “revolution” will become the new norm!

  • Norman McBrien

    This is great topic for discussion – too often the focus is on the technology and not on how best to apply the technology and the subsequent impacts.

    I works in industry, providing software solutions to education. We have identified the potential for students to take more control of their learning, and have built a solution on the back of this. Our view is that no matter how much content a student has access to, it’s not much use if they cannot make sense of the content.

    For educators, surely this means more focus on the process of learning, rather than content discovery and provision.

    I’d be interested to get educators thoughts on this – is this focus on the learning process happening anyway or will technology allow for a greater emphasis on better learning?

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