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The Right Road

21st-Century Teaching Means More Than Using Technology

It is increasingly common for schools nationwide to issue devices to a generation of students so digitally native that it is called “iGen.” Technology in classrooms can be a tool to enhance learning, but it cannot replace the context of personal relationships that are fundamental for inspiring, supporting, and challenging students to learn, grow, and achieve their best. Thus, the hallmarks of a 21st-century classroom are less about whether students use tablets or laptops and more about how teachers promote critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving. Independent schools are often at the vanguard in this arena. With a strong emphasis on student-centered learning and innovative teaching, many boarding schools have launched specific initiatives to ensure that their curriculum and pedagogy combine forward-thinking with the latest neuroscience discoveries to guarantee that the student experience is as relevant as it is rigorous.

Humans are social creatures, and as such, our brains are generally wired to seek out and respond to interactions with others. Educators have long recognized how this phenomenon affects learning, and now researchers are providing empirical data to reinforce this principle. An analysis of 46 studies, published in the Review of Education, showed that strong teacher-student relationships are associated with increased student engagement, improved grades, and fewer disruptive behaviors. By contrast, parent backlash to an online learning system shows what can happen when the cart is put before the horse. School districts nationwide have begun exploring an online program that proponents say offers individualized learning as students move at their own pace through videos, web pages, and assessments. Some school districts have then canceled the program after parents complained that students spent hours online with almost no teacher interaction. Students using the system sit side-by-side in classrooms, but their learning paths are isolated. In addition to the loss of teacher mentoring, these students miss out on the nuance and color that comes from classroom discussions with peers.

Today’s students must be prepared to consider any topic from multiple perspectives and glean the best ideas to apply to a challenge. Throughout their futures in college and career, they will need to be effective in multiple modalities—working independently, collaborating in groups of many sizes, sometimes being a leader and mentor and sometimes learning from others. The most successful classrooms will integrate a variety of teaching tools to deliver a rich, varied experience. Technology is one piece of this puzzle, particularly when it is used to promote higher-level orders of thinking and cohesion as a learning community. In English, for example, a teacher can project student-selected imagery to spark classroom conversation about symbolism. Or a science teacher may conduct polls at the beginning and end of class to gauge comprehension. Some schools offer online courses in which students exchange ideas with peers from around the world. Technology can also support rote learning and offer strategies to help students to cope with learning differences.

The work boarding schools are undertaking in thinking and learning is exciting. These schools have always been about community and connection. They continue to deepen this commitment even as they evolve, incorporating new technologies alongside best practices and contemporary research. As a result, these independent schools founded up to a century ago remain on the cutting edge of how to best serve 21st-century students.

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, including day schools and boarding schools, from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for addressing different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at