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10 Ideas to Transform K-12 Education

Prepare kids for the digital economy

Why technology belongs in every classroom.

Phillips Academy head John Palfrey, coauthor of “Born Digital.”Dave White

Few would dare argue that we are doing an excellent job of educating high school students in America today. While there are some wonderful schools, many students will be ill prepared for the interconnected world that awaits them without a dramatic shift in our approach.

Improvement should take many forms. Teachers should get more respect and more pay. We need to support principals as they set high standards for students and teachers alike, and we need to support families as they work to get their kids to school well fed, on time, and with homework done. More time in school would help, too. These are the basics; we know that they work. The trouble is the political and economic will to get them done.


Beyond these fundamentals lies the urgent need to meet students “where they are” in their networked adolescent lives. I don’t mean we should join them on Snapchat, but rather that we should embrace a shift in pedagogy that takes advantage of the best aspects of new media to improve teaching and learning.

Technology is no panacea. Some teaching techniques — face-to-face, Socratic inquiry with a manageable group of students, for instance, or experiential learning in interesting settings — have a place in every school and work beautifully. But technology should be part of the tool kit to help us address the ways we are failing.

Technology has the power to engage students and make learning more fun. So much of learning happens outside of the classroom; we need to connect our in-school activities with our kids’ out-of-school interests. By emphasizing creative tasks and experimentation, we can ensure that children see school in a whole new light. Maybe they develop a love of writing poetry, producing music videos, or solving hard problems in their communities.

A great teacher can use technology to improve learning outcomes. One of the challenges every teacher faces is the wide range of starting places for students in a given class. Technology allows us to get out of the business of moving kids along based on “seat time” and means that we can focus on whether a student has mastered particular skills. In subjects like mathematics, sciences, and language, in particular, we now have tools to personalize learning like never before. Kids will learn more, feel better about their success as they watch it happen, and be able to make better use of the time they have with their teachers in person.


Technology can also be a means to a specific end: the acquisition of skills needed in the American economy. Maybe what unlocks passion in a young person is learning to write code — to bend an app or a Web page to her will. By learning to code and to hack and to run information systems, students prepare themselves for jobs that we know will be there when they graduate. Despite the myth that all our kids are “digital natives” in no need of instruction, we still have too few technologically able kids.

Great education is about more than mastering content; it is also about teaching character. Technology can be a means to that end, too. Every day, students are faced with questions of ethics and law as they use Facebook and Twitter, cut and paste digital materials, or consult Wikipedia. We can use these moments both to model and to develop strong moral character in our young people.


Technology on its own is not the point; but by applying it with care, we can breathe new life into our schools and communities and redefine what we mean by excellence. We will reach more students and prepare them better for the jobs that they will create and the lives of principle we aspire for them to lead.


Use the pull-down menu below to read more stories from the Globe Magazine special issue.

John Palfrey is head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover and chairman of the president search committee for the Boston Public Library. Send comments to