The 21st-Century Digital Learner

How tech-obsessed iKids would improve our schools.

How tech-obsessed iKids would improve our schools.

Young Minds, Fast Times
Credit: David Julian

I give presentations to educators at every level, all around the world. All of the teachers are earnestly trying to adapt their educational system to the twenty-first century. During my talks, however, I typically look out at oceans of white hair. Never -- I can't even say rarely -- is a kid in sight or invited to the party.

It is a measure of the malaise of our educational system that these old folk -- smart and experienced as they may be -- think they can, by themselves and without the input of the people they're trying to teach, design the future of education.

One of the strangest things in this age of young people's empowerment is how little input our students have into their own education and its future. Kids who out of school control large sums of money and have huge choices on how they spend it have almost no choices at all about how they are educated -- they are, for the most part, just herded into classrooms and told what to do and when to do it. Unlike in the corporate world, where businesses spend tens of millions researching what their consumers really want, when it comes to how we structure and organize our kids' education, we generally don't make the slightest attempt to listen to, or even care, what students think about how they are taught.

This is unacceptable and untenable. It's also dangerous. We treat our students the way we treated women before suffrage -- their opinions have no weight. But just as we now insist that women have an equal voice in politics, work, and other domains, we will, I predict, begin accepting and insisting that students have an equal voice in their own education. Or else our students will drop out (as they are doing), shoot at us (ditto), sue us, riot, or worse.

So, whenever and wherever I speak, I do my best to bring my own students to the meetings. I ask my hosts to select a panel of a half-dozen or so kids of different grade levels, genders, and abilities to talk with me and the audience. I ask only that the students be articulate and willing to speak their minds in front of an audience of educators. Some groups embrace the idea enthusiastically; others are wary. A few tell me they "just can't find" kids -- and this, from teachers -- or cite some rule that prevents kids from being there. Nonetheless, I persist, both hoping for an effective panel and believing that the group will provide a model for integrating student input about their education into schooling and planning.

Young Minds, Fast Times
Credit: David Julian

What do I find? Almost all the groups are pleased and surprised by the result. In fact, the student panels are generally the highlight of my appearances. This comment after a discussion in front of the West Virginia Department of Education is typical: "It was the best thing we've ever done."

By design, I typically don't meet the students until just before I speak, and my only instructions are to "tell the truth as much as you feel comfortable." I never know what the kids are going to say. One colleague told me, "That's really brave." I don't see it that way. I see the panels as an opportunity to hear what the students think -- whatever that may be. Listening to our students is always interesting and worthwhile, whether the kids are speaking their own minds (almost always the case) or whether they are channeling careful coaching they have received in advance from their teachers and parents (which happens occasionally, and is always quite obvious).

My approach, when conducting these panels, is to first ask the students a few setup questions:

  • What experiences in school really engaged you?
  • How do you use technology in school as opposed to outside of school?
  • What are your pet peeves?

The kids are allowed to pass if they don't want to answer, which takes some of the pressure off, and the audience is invited to join in later.

Every one of these panels is unique, but certain common threads emerge: The students generally express a variety of feelings -- gratitude for the good teachers they have, and frustration with the greater number they find not so good. They are full of ideas but often skeptical that things are going to change much.

So why am I, at the ripe old age of sixty-two, the person who gives students a voice? Perhaps it's because the students agree with what I have to say. (They usually hear my talk before the panel.) Perhaps it's because I communicate somehow to the kids that I truly respect their opinions. It turns out that not everyone can moderate these panels successfully, especially at first. It takes a willingness to accept whatever is said -- good or bad, agree or disagree. But it is important for educators to try, because they so rarely converse with their kids about how they want to learn.

When I first started doing these panels, I regret, I took no notes. But over the past year I have tried to write down as many of the comments as possible. I have heard some enormously insightful comments from the students, particularly about the differences between students and their teachers. "There is so much difference between how students think and how teachers think," offered a female student in Florida. A young man commented, "You think of technology as a tool. We think of it as a foundation -- it's at the basis of everything we do."

"A lot of teachers make a PowerPoint and they think they're so awesome," said a girl in Florida. "But it's just like writing on the blackboard." A student in Albany, New York, pleaded the case for using technology in the classroom: "If it's the way we want to learn, and the way we can learn, you should let us do it."

One teacher queried, "Do computers cut you off from the world?" Not at all, said an excited student: "We share with others and get help. Technology helps -- it strengthens interactions so we can always stay in touch and play with other people. I've never gone a day without talking to my friends online."

One California high school served up a dose of common sense: "Kids grew up around computers. They love them. Their computers are their second teachers at home." A student in West Virginia offered this nugget: "If I were using simulation in school, that would be the sweetest thing ever!"

Young Minds, Fast Times

More than half of all secondary school students are excited about using mobile devices to help them learn; only 15 percent of school leaders support this idea.

Source: Project Tomorrow. Credit: David Julian

Blah, Blah, Blah

OK, so kids love computers. They all agree on that. There's another thing they agree on: No matter where I go in the world -- the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, or New Zealand -- students are mind-numbingly bored in class. Listen up:


"I'm bored 99 percent of the time." (California)

"School is really, really boring." (Virginia)

"We are so bored." (Texas)

"Engage us more." (Texas)

"[My teachers] bore me so much I don't pay attention." (Detroit)

"Pointless. I'm engaged in two out of my seven classes." (Florida)


"The disconnect between what students want and what they're receiving is significant," said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, which tracks youth culture. "Student frustration is rising."

I've heard some teachers claim that this is nothing new. Kids have always been bored in school. But I think now it's different. Some of the boredom, of course, comes from the contrast with the more engaging learning opportunities kids have outside of school. Others blame it on today's "continuous partial attention" (CPA), a term coined by Linda Stone, who researches trends and their consumer implications. Stone describes CPA as the need "to be a live node on the network," continually text messaging, checking the cell phone, and jumping on email. "It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis," she writes. "We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything."

CPA differs from multitasking, which is motivated by a desire to be more efficient and typically involves tasks that demand little cognitive processing. We file and copy while we're talking on the phone and checking email, for instance.

Is this really new? I don't think so. In fact, I think it has always been the case. Excluding emergencies, or other experiences in which one's adrenaline is flowing, humans typically always have multiple things on their minds. Still others attribute the boredom to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but the T-shirt I recently saw a kid wearing in Rockefeller Center belies this theory: "It's Not Attention Deficit -- I'm Just Not Listening!"

It's none of the above. If you believe the opinions of kids around the world (and you ignore them at your peril), the source of the problem is abundantly clear, and it's this: Today's kids hate being talked at. They hate when teaching is simply telling. They hate lectures and tune them out.

I've heard teachers argue that some subjects and topics need to have lectures, but, in truth, this is only a justification for the failure of those teachers to change how they teach. It is absolutely not true; there are other ways, in any discipline, to get students to learn exactly the same material without lectures -- as well as without worksheets, something else the kids tell us they really hate.

There are better ways to help them learn, and students expect us, as the adults in the room, to know how to use them. They say, for example, "If you made it more interesting we would respond better." And, "If you give us a goal to get to, we'll get there."

Students universally tell us they prefer dealing with questions rather than answers, sharing their opinions, participating in group projects, working with real-world issues and people, and having teachers who talk to them as equals rather than as inferiors. Hopefully, this is useful information for teachers and other educators -- and it is important that educators realize just how universal these opinions are.

Young Minds, Fast Times

Nearly two-thirds of secondary school students want to use laptops, cell phones, or other mobile devices at school.

Source: Project Tomorrow. Credit: David Julian

"My Brain Is Exploding . . ."

For me, though, the best part of the student panels is always hearing the kids' answers to my final question. I ask about their experience that day and whether their soapbox proved useful. "How do you like being able to talk to your teachers and supervisors about your learning?" I ask. I truly love their answers:


"I like the fact that we become equals. Students do not get the opportunity that often to share their ideas. If students and teachers could collaborate, a lot more would get done." (Anaheim, California)

"A lot of students care -- you just don't realize it." (Poway, California)

"Most of the time, the teachers are talking and I want to go to sleep. But now my brain is exploding." (Poway, California)

"Don't let this be a onetime thing." (Poway, California)

"I think it's important that you take time to see what we feel." (West Virginia)

"Now you know what we think and how we feel. Hopefully, that will go to the heart." (Texas)

"I waited twelve years for this." (Texas)

"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it!" (Texas)

"As a general rule, you don't hear from kids unless they've gotten into trouble." (Anaheim, California)

"Both groups [teachers and students] can learn from each other." (Anaheim, California)

"If you don't talk to us, you have no idea what we're thinking." (Hawaii)


Clearly, the kids find it valuable to share with their educators their opinions on how they want to learn. Although skeptical, they hope those teachers and administrators who are trying to improve their education think so, too, and listen carefully to what the students have to say. Again, quoting the kids:


"It would be good if teachers have this conversation with us on the first day. But often, they don't change anything." (Texas)

"I hope this didn't just go in one ear and out the other." (Texas)


Have there been any quantifiable results in terms of real changes to the students' daily lives? It's hard (and probably early) to tell, although I do know for certain that the panels have had an influence on the administrators in the audiences. Many superintendents have invited me back to do the talks and panels again for their principals and teachers. Australian administrators distributed a three-CD set of the kids' discussions to every teacher they supervise. My great hope is that, once modeled, these types of conversations will be repeated frequently in our schools, in the United States, and around the world.

Bottom-Up Input

After hosting dozens of these conversations, I realize one thing: We just don't listen enough to our students. The tradition in education has been not to ask the students what they think or want, but rather for adult educators to design the system and curriculum by themselves, using their "superior" knowledge and experience.

But this approach no longer works. Not that the inmates should run the asylum, but as twenty-first-century leaders in business, politics, and even the military are finding out, for any system to work successfully in these times, we must combine top-down directives with bottom-up input. As the students have told me on more than one occasion, "We hope educators take our opinions into account and actually do something!" Until we do, their education will not be the best we can offer.

Marc Prensky is a speaker, writer, consultant, and game designer in the critical areas of education and learning. He is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning and Don't Bother Me, Mom, I'm Learning.

This article originally published on 5/22/2008

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Comments (66)

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Kara Yoder (not verified)

A balance

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There needs to be some kind of balance. Yes I think it is important to hear from the kids. I want to know what they are thinking and what is interesting to them. I think it is important to incorporate their interests into your classroom. However, as the teacher you need to take what they want, mesh it with what you know needs to be taught and come with something that carries both of those elements. Kids are kids and they will often want to do what is fun, but sometimes you need to do work and it is isnt always going to be fun. Maybe I have not been a teacher long enough to figure out how to make all teh things that we need to learn for SOLS super fun and how to accomodate all the different needs of my students, but I feel that it is hard to try and make everyone happy with how you are teaching a particular subject matter. I think students input should be an important part of the lesson planning, but it cannot be the end all be all.

Kara Yoder (not verified)

Teachers Make the Difference

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I agree that the teacher is the one that ultimately makes the difference as to whether or not a child likes a class and works hard. Technology is important and I think that it is extremely helpful in engaging students, but you can have all the "cool stuff" you want, but if you are not reaching the kids, then it doesnt make a difference. I think the kids really want to know that their teacher values them, cares about them, and respects their thoughts and opinions. Wanting to know how kids want to learn is really letting the kids know that you CARE ABOUT THEM! Kids will work hard for you when they know that. Whether you have a lot of technology or not. My first year of teaching I taught at R.E Lee high school. I had all the lower classes because I was the newby. We never had ANY technology. However, they worked for me and cared about how well they did because they knew that I cared for them. I also tried REALLY hard to incorporate hands on activities. They definitely did not do well with worksheets or lectures.

Debbie (not verified)

Lots of GOOD points! Those

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Lots of GOOD points! Those of us that love kids already engage them, ask them... sometimes the problem is that they have nothing to say about the subject because they have no background information or they haven't invested anytime into the prep that has to be done to converse about it. Most teachers are no longer in charge of their curriculums or the pace that they have to be presented. I listen to my students, the problem is that the Powers to Be"don't listen to me, we are told what to do just like the kids. Maybe you need to include some superintendents, administrators and politicians to sit in on your talks and listen to the panel of students.

Myriam Faulk (not verified)

Paradigm shift in Education

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I am totally agree that teachers must be willing to make a paradigm shift in their teaching style. Drastic changes need to be done in the way of teaching so we do not loose our students and instead we equip them to face the future.

J. L. Morse (not verified)

What it takes to engage students has changed drastically

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Good point that engaging the learner has long been considered good practice. I think the point is that WHAT IT TAKES to engage the student has shifted drastically.

It wasn't Ferris Beuler's teacher they were referring to. Today's students are equally bored by the vibrant, energetic instructors trying to engage their students in interractive discussions of real-life applications directly in the student's chosen field.

My Engineering Technology students used to be thrilled to get out of the classroom and labroom to see real-life applications in industry. I recently took an electronics class to visit a local company that makes automated manufacturing systems. We were in luck that they happened to be testing a near-completed system in which two MASSIVE robots interracted, handing parts back and forth at fairly fast speed. Students had opportunity to interact with the engineer and the technicians carrying on the testing. The engineer--who clearly loves his work--revealed the computer interfaces and industrial electronic components and mentioned simple electrical concepts which the students had been working on in their own labs. The company even had part-time jobs available for students. I was floored when, at the beginning of the next class meeting, one of my best students announced that the tour was extremely boring, and others seemed to echo his summation. They didn't value it at all--thought it was a waste of time.

Debbie (not verified)

Math Education

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I agree wholeheartedly. Being in control of their lives also greatly helps discipline. When students have decided what is important and how they will act, then they have ownership and goals are met.

Debbie (not verified)

Math and Technology

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I also teach at an at-risk campus (math), but am finding that many more students have computers and Internet access then just a few years ago. In my classroom, instruction moves at a fast pace with student participation throughout which keeps them engaged. The only down time they have is waiting for others students, 1-2 minutes, to finish a problem. Active involvement is the number one key to keeping students on track and helping them excel in learning. I never have as much time for my students to use technology as I would like!

I think the very idea that students are invited to sit on a panel and truely express thoughts about school is a phenomenal tool. If our students know we care, they feel important and achieve more.

Super article that I would like for all teachers to read!

Michelle Schaal (not verified)

Techno kids

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I love the article and it is true to today's students. The only snag I have run into with more savvy rooms in my own personal school experience is, most of my students are low income with no phone, no internet, and some with no running water. That is not to say that I can't still introduce and engage those students will all the cool tools, but, I have to follow up then on promoting: higher education, getting better jobs and wanting to have those experiences for themselves and their children, in order to break the cycle. I am struggling with that issue.

Kimberly Stanley (not verified)

Digital Minds

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I thought that this was a very interesting article. Yes, I believe that students should voice their opinion, but more in the upper grades (high school and middle school) They have a more independent base of knowledge. Do I think we should listen to elementary students too? Of course. Maybe they should have a choice to help them brainstorm and brighten their thinking skills at such a young age.

Garrett Brisdon (not verified)

Professionals & Best Practise

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It is becoming increasingly clear to me and to my colleagues, through articles in Edutopia and other resources, that both Project-Based Learning and the effective use of technology in the classroom provide strategies and tools that are part of current best practise in education. Happily, in our experience with a couple of innovative secondary school courses, we are finding that engaging, 'real-world' projects provide opportunities to appropriately integrate technology, as well as for kids to have input into how they do it. The tech connection may be what is used during the project to accomplish it and/or it may be what is used to present the results of the project when it is completed. We are also finding opportunities to partner with the local tech industry as part of some projects.

For example, we have just launched a major project in our Science 10 class in the 'Sustainable Ecosystems' unit. In part 1 of the project, students will be researching online to solve a poisoning scenario (an environmental contaminant). In part 2, they will be doing water tesing in the lab using simple materials. In part 3, we are partnering with 'Cantest', a local water quality testing company, to do a comprehensive analysis of our local water supply for contaminants. We have found local industry generally very interested in this kind of relationship with schools and are usually happy to provide subject matter experts and equipment at no charge. At the end of the project, we have given our student teams permission to present their results in whatever way they prefer that meets project criteria so that they can employ as much or as little tech as they have time and interest for. One of the groups is doing theirs as a powerpoint presentation and another is going to produce their own 'youtube'-style 4 minute video, for example. We are blogging the implementation of this course if anyone would like more info: http://ageoflearning.blogspot.com/

In all of this, our teachers remain central as the guides, mentors, cheerleaders and evaluators that our youth need and deserve. Plus, it's a lot more fun this way!

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