Are They Learning if They're on a Screen? Self-Directed Learning is Active Learning

This morning I received a call from a parent whose teenage son attends a nearby traditional private school that is not working for him, and she wanted to know if Abrome could work for her family. She had two primary concerns: (1) could he get into a top college if he left "mainstream" schooling, and (2) would he spend all day on screens if he came to Abrome. 

It was pretty easy to address the college admissions question, as we have done so time and again in our public presentations and blog posts (e.g., hereherehere, and here). However, she was not reassured by my answer to the screen time question. My answer was maybe.

At Abrome, we trust young people to take control of their learning experiences, and we see their choosing how to spend their time as critical to enabling and preparing them to lead remarkable lives. For some Learners, particularly older students who are transitioning from hierarchical, age-segregated, curriculum-based school settings, they may initially spend what seems like an inordinate amount of their time on screens. This is in part because computers (and iPads, phones, etc.) are common tools of society, and most young people want to play with the tools of society; and in part because they need the time and space to shed the bad habits and mindsets that develop from traditional schooling

The belief that school children on screens is a bad thing is misplaced. First, short of certain addictive disorders, limiting or prohibiting students from accessing technology during school sets them back in preparation for a future where technology will be intertwined with daily life and most careers. Second, there is a belief among many adults that screen time is for zoning out, and that being on screens means that students are not actively learning. This belief is likely colored by our generation's experiences plopped down in front of a television watching whatever came across the tube. 

The reality is that when young people are able to engage in self-directed learning, even if they choose to spend that time on technology, they are much more likely to engage in active learning than their peers who are in class in traditional schools. Today, young people have control over their interactions with technology. When they play games they are much more likely to play games that allow them to manipulate the conditions in which they play (e.g., Minecraft, Roblox). When they get bored they are much more likely to move onto something that captures their attention. And for many young people, technology provides the one outlet in their lives where they have the opportunity to experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose (experiences they are not getting in traditional schools).

At the end of the day we would prefer that Learners not spend all day on their computers, but we will not prevent them from doing so. And the reality is that they do not spend all day on their computers. Our Learners, like the overwhelming majority of humans, want to interact with others. At Abrome they have the opportunity to spend all day in front of screens, but they choose to also read books, play board games, take the dogs for walks, and run around in the back yard. They find time to test the pH, ammonia, and nitrate levels in the fish tank. They make themselves lunch, work on puzzles, and create works of art. They sit around and talk, and laugh. And they even find time to do more academically oriented tasks such as working through multiplication tables or debating topics in articles that they have read. Instead of saying maybe, I considered that I should have said maybe, but unlikely. But what I really should have said is that self-directed learning is active learning, and the medium for that learning is sometimes a screen.