07/12/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Reimagining the Classroom

A few days before the 4th, at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival in a discussion about learning, Walter Isaacson, who is helping build curriculum for K-12, mentioned that although we've been teaching the declaration of Independence for 200 years, it is surprising to see how many children don't understand that Thomas Jefferson (et al) wrote the Declaration at the time that England and the colonies were the same country.

These subtle but important gaps in K-12 learning, coupled with the national drop-out rates, are alarming indeed. But there is hope, with many different directions to begin to re-imagine the classroom.

Whether you are building a curriculum, or teaching with the aid of electronic tablets or other e-tools, you can see, in real time, what each of your students is grasping (or not grasping). The traditional system, that Benjamin Franklin established 200 years ago, was not designed to see, where one student is behind, or where another kid is bored before it's too late.

Do you recognize this traditional teacher-with-30-children scenario? The classroom where the teacher teaches from the textbook, to the middle level, not able to spend extra time with the students who need some more input, or give the bored students extra lessons? Of course you recognize it because public school has been like this for 200 years.

What to do? The number of ideas put forth are staggering -- everything from "let's toss out the whole system and privatizing," or "throw money based on standardized tests until we miraculously get rid of the problem," to "better teacher training" and on.

I'm thrilled to have discovered the textbooks to tablets scenario. One of the classroom tablet makers, Amplify, is on the way to bridge the gap between the bored students and the ones left behind. A teacher teaches from the magnified tablet at the front of the classroom, while the students follow along and answer questions on the tablet (if you are a shy student, this solves your public speaking freeze). It solves a host of ideas.

Some rejoice at the idea. Some freak out that robots or computers will replace the teacher and a malevolent "Matrix" will follow. I was a little apprehensive at first, too. Like most people, I have lasting gratitude for those few teachers who changed my life and would reject the idea that the good teachers disappear. They are indeed irreplaceable.

But stop for a second and remember the teachers that really screwed with your psyche, turned you off from a subject by their sheer apathy or fowl attitude? A tablet is one way to mitigate the damage these teachers do to students. Don't like the teacher? Spend more time learning from the tablet -- and via the tablet, your peers.

Administrators in schools can see real-time how students are responding in classrooms. Most teachers want the best for their kids. Most teachers do the best with what they've been given and hope that students learn.

Let's give teachers the option to use tablets and other electronic tools. For example, if the teacher doesn't have access to a tablet yet, he or she can use Khan Academy. "I wish I had this when I was studying calculus. Because the textbook is the most annoying," says my personal guide to the ideal learning lab set up at the Aspen Institute Campus.

Max Heim-Salgado is a sophomore in high school who seems more like a sophomore in college. He's passionate about e-learning tools because they've opened doors that would still be closed had he not discovered them online or the e-classroom. In some subjects that are not his favorite, he opts for more shorter-timed lessons that let his brain absorb the info without recoiling. He is one who benefits from good teachers and good internet.

Max believes that the tablet, Khan Academy, and others help him think outside of the box and learn to solve real problems: "The brain is like a sponge. You can use a textbook to fill the sponge, but it's filled and quickly drained."

The world of interactive, electronic learning tools give Max the ability "use the sponge to mop up a mess, then move on."

Thanks Max, my e-learning lab tour guide, and Joel Klein, Former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein spoke with Walter Isaacson about, and the dozens of educators who are moving mountains to re-imagine the classroom.