Kids in the Driver's Seat: Learning with Technology

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By Richard Kassissieh

Over the span of decades, the practices of good progressive education have changed little: focus on the individual, teach from each student’s experience, and encourage students to construct knowledge. Over those same decades, though, the tools of learning have changed enormously. New technologies help create learning experiences never before possible. How do Catlin Gabel teachers incorporate these tools to teach students to construct knowledge together? How do these efforts support entrepreneurship, creativity, and risk-taking, especially in classes in subjects other than the arts?


Peek through a classroom door on a typical day, and classes do not look so different from the progressive classrooms of John Dewey’s time. A teacher sits with his students in a seminar-style arrangement, discussing Martin Luther King. The conversation moves from one topic to another, following the students’ interests. One student asks, “What did King think of the Vietnam War?” The teacher bends over his laptop and visits YouTube. A six-foot image fills the wall at the front of the classroom. The voice of King fills the room. “The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. . . . ”

It is 7:30 a.m. on a dark February morning. Ten students in a Winterim class gaze expectantly at a dark screen. A friendly face appears, but it is silent. The screen goes blank again. The students and teachers look worried. Finally, a voice with an Arabic accent inquires, “Can you hear us? We can see you.” Thus begins a live video conversation with a dozen teenage students in Gaza City. Students in both locations dare to ask authentic questions and reply from the heart. For two and a half hours, they challenge assumptions and change their minds.

Two 8th grade students huddle around a laptop, giggling. “Look, they replied!” “What should we say?” The students are exchanging messages of greeting with their peers in Martinique, weeks before they will board a plane and fly there. One asks, “Can we record our voices?” With laptop computers at hand, the answer is “yes.” The lesson changes direction, and within minutes students are leaving voice messages for each other. When the students arrive in Martinique, they will be long past simple introductions and ready to make the most of their visit.

A 5th grade student sits in class in front of a computer with a builtin camera, staring at an image of himself. On paper, he has written his own original story in Spanish. He begins to read the story, tentatively, awkwardly, to practice his speaking skills. He stops and plays it back to see how he did. Fifth grade students love to see themselves speak and then perfect their presentations. Put these two ideas together with a computer, and you create a powerful learning environment. Twelve minutes later, we return to the student, who by now has memorized his story and recites with confidence. “How many times did you record it?” “Five!” the boy replies. He thrives on this stuff.

A student contemplates a set of triangles on a computer screen. Lines, angles, and measurements abound. She takes the mouse and grabs one of the vertices on one of the shapes and drags it. Suddenly, the entire diagram leaps into motion—the numeric measurements change fluidly as the student moves the vertex. A smile lights the student’s face. She now understands the relationship between the hypotenuse and sides of an isosceles right triangle.


Working on robot control systems

A junior in computer science class stands over a board filled with wires and lights. The pride in a complex task accomplished shines throughout her presentation of what the tool does and how it works. Catlin Gabel offers four levels of computer science, with only one an Advanced Placement course. The content-centric curriculum serves as the foundation for individual ingenuity later on.

Sixth grade English has just begun. The teacher says, “Tell us what topic you have chosen for your final presentation.” Three excited boys ask, “May we make a movie instead?” These boys will work together to explore the subject from a new perspective and overcome challenges unique to their chosen format.

Two 7th grade students prepare for their “teach-a-class” moment. One says, “I heard of this site where you can create a flipbook. Let’s use it!” Not only do they teach a great class, but they earn “top flipbook” honors on


The school is justifiably proud of its award-winning robotics program. Part business, part engineering laboratory, the robotics team meets a challenge put forward by the national organization FIRST. Build a robot that can win in a competition involving dexterity, speed, and strength. Produce a communications and marketing plan based on a team web site. Misses Catlin and Gabel would be proud if they could see the ultimate project-based activity and witness the successes this group has repeatedly achieved.

The last day of the 4th grade immigration unit has arrived. A student stands up to make her final presentation. She describes a person who arrives at Ellis Island, attempting to enter the United States. However, the story is not real. Rather, the student has constructed the details of her character’s life using primary and secondary sources provided by the teacher. A wealth of historical information stored on the web served to enliven each student’s experience creating these characters.

Two 7th grade students share their newfound knowledge of the planet Mercury with their classmates. A colorful, dynamic presentation serves as backdrop. Cross-sections, mythology, and statistics crisscross the screen. Several faces in the room brighten as the visual learners in the room immediately grasp the material.

The tyranny of the blank page no longer haunts English students in the Upper School. Teachers use a web-based writing environment to provide students with a series of questions to guide their writing. Ideas rise and words flow. When the draft is due in class, the student submits the work online to an audience of his peers. Within the web-based tool, students write, revise, and critique. They always write within a community of authors.

What technologies will arrive next to amaze and entice us? We don’t exactly know. But we can count on the fact that Catlin Gabel teachers will think deeply about the potential of these tools. They will create opportunities for students to experience, learn their own way, and construct knowledge together. These students will continue to confidently take risks and chart bold, new directions.

Richard Kassissieh is director of information services at Catlin Gabel.