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.  

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Agency (Essay 3 of 6)

While this essay series focuses on the problem of bullying, I would like to take a step back for a moment and address self-motivation, which is critical to academic and life success. Self-motivation is what makes or breaks many people once they come out the other end of the schooling apparatus, whether it be high school, college, or graduate school. There are many people who do well academically in school, only to fall on their faces in the “real world” because they never learned how to take control of their lives and drive toward a self-defined goal.[1] Following a syllabus and neurotically studying to perfectly answer every question that will be on the test might give one a perfect GPA, but it leaves little to no time for young people to author their own lives.   

Self-determination theory (SDT), made famous by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, states that there are three needs that are essential for the psychological health and well-being of an individual: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness. When these three needs are not met over a sustained period of time, there are significant and substantial risks that an individual will suffer mentally, physically, socially, and emotionally. And in traditional schools, autonomy is virtually absent. That lack of autonomy undermines self-motivation which does not bode well for the future happiness and success of students. It is also a major driver of bullying in schools, which destroys psychological relatedness and further undermines the well-being of students.  

A decade old research study conducted at W. F. Boardman Elementary School in Oceanside, New York, focused on SDT to identify the causes of bullying in the school.[2] What they found, similar to most traditional schools, is that there were very few instances in which their students could act autonomously in their learning, even though teachers thought they were providing their students with ample choices and opportunities for self-expression. Most remarkably, this study focused on the bullied, and not the bullies, and lack of autonomy, real or perceived, was a common factor for those who were most bullied. A lack of autonomy in education can easily be extrapolated to a lack of autonomy over one’s life, and those who feel they have the least control over their lives seemingly become easily identifiable targets for bullies.

In addition to grooming the bullied, the lack of autonomy in school grooms the bullies as well. First, we know that those who have been bullied are much more likely to become bullies themselves.[3] Hurt people hurt people is a cliché that bears true in bully-infested schooling environments. Second, there is ample research that shows that a lack of autonomy over one’s life promotes dysfunctional behaviors, many of which manifest themselves as bullying. While education researchers have touched upon this dynamic, prison researchers have done a much better job addressing the matter. The only American institutions that provide people with less autonomy than schools are prisons, jails, and parts of the military (e.g., basic training), each of which are also plagued with bullying.

Research by Anthony Bottoms highlights that while dysfunctional behaviors were common in prisons, the more prisoners were prevented autonomy in their daily lives, the more likely they were to engage in dysfunctional behavior, including violence toward other inmates.[4] Further, Bottoms highlighted the success of the Barlinnie Special Unit in Scotland for violent offenders. Breaking with convention, this unit provided greater than usual prisoner autonomy in spite of their more complicated prison population, and significantly brought down dysfunctional and violent behaviors, including bullying.[5]

Student autonomy means handing the reins of education over to the learner. It does not mean there is no role for adults, but it requires that adults abdicate their role as authoritarians who dictate where, when, what, and how students learn. Student autonomy allows learners to make the decisions that are relevant to their education, and gives them the belief that their approach to learning will have a significant impact on the outcomes of their learning.

While lots of schools may give lip service to the idea of autonomy, very few have offered even a small sampling of it to their students. They may allow students to choose a topic to research, who they can work with on a project, or the format of the end product that they will be graded on, but such narrow options do not equate to student autonomy. One place schools can look to within their system for proof that greater autonomy is possible in learning are individualized education plans (IEPs). IEPs have traditionally been reserved for students that have been labeled as learning disabled, but schools should expand them to all students. IEPs are an attempt to personalize learning, and the most effective IEPs allow the student to have greater ownership over their education by given them an opportunity to provide input into how they will learn, what they will learn, and how that learning will be assessed. Unfortunately, the structures and practices of schooling prevent even the most forward thinking traditional schools from taking increased autonomy as a tool to promote learning to its logical conclusion.

Because the schooling system treats children as though they are incompetent and ignorant people who are incapable of taking control of their education, they promote a sense of learned helplessness. This behavior or belief that develops in young people, in addition to handicapping their ability to learn, leaves them vulnerable to being bullied by others, or to developing into a bully as a means of externalizing control on others since they have no control over their own lives.  

Giving students full autonomy in education can help undo the harm to the bullies and the bullied, and it can prevent future bullying. This is a step that all schools should eagerly embrace. However, doing so would require them to let go of the structures and practices they were all trained to employ, and that they are evaluated on.


(1)   Our measure of “doing well” academically differs from that of most educators and parents. Their measure of doing well means getting the highest grades and ranking the highest among one’s peers. Our measure of “doing well” entails deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that allow young people to lead remarkable lives. However, it should be noted that far more young people in the traditional schooling system are not doing well relative to the tiny few who are doing well.  

(2)   “Interrupting the Cycle of Bullying and Victimization in the Elementary Classroom”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 86, Number 4, December 2004, pp. 288-291.

(3)   There is a chicken and an egg aspect to bullying. Bullying requires the bullied and the bullies. However, once the cycle starts, there are ample numbers of people who were bullied waiting in the wings to become bullies.

(4)   Bottoms, Anthony E., William Hay, and J. Richard Sparks (1995). “Situational and Social Approaches to the Prevention of Disorder in Long-Term Prisons.” Long-Term Imprisonment: Policy, Science, and Correctional Practice. editor. Timothy J. Flanagan. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

(5)   Some may take issue with our use of prisons as a way to highlight the point about the lack of autonomy in schools. While we do not intend to minimize the inhumane treatment of inmates in prison, it should be noted that there are many parallels between schools and prisons. Both are hierarchical institutions where the students/inmates have no choice but to follow the directives of the staff. There are punishments for non-conformity (e.g., dress codes) and there are rules that cannot be questioned. Additionally, there are legal consequences for those who flee schools (truancy) and prisons.