Award-winning edu-author shares his top leadership insights [interview]

Eric Sheninger

Author of books such as Learning Transformed, Eric Sheninger is a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this he was the award-winning Principal at New Milford High School. Under his leadership his school became a globally recognised model for innovative practices. Eric oversaw the successful implementation of several sustainable change initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture at his school while increasing achievement.

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Eric Sheninger (left), with superintendent Robert R. Zywicki (centre) and Trish Rubin (right) // @E_Sheninger. Eric Sheninger (left), with superintendent Robert R. Zywicki (centre) and Trish Rubin (right) // @E_Sheninger.

To discuss how school leaders can make the most of their roles, we sat down with Eric Sheninger; best-selling author, international keynote speaker and International Center for Leadership in Education senior fellow. Eric is based in Cypress, Texas, and was the award-winning principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey.

Tell us about something that’s amazed you in the last year.

You know, there are some incredible projects out there. I just released my sixth book - it’s called Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow's Schools, Today. In that book, we profile not only the latest research as to how technology and innovative practices are improving student learning and achievement, but we back that up with what we call “innovative practices and action” sections, or IPAs. These showcase schools that are utilising the latest research-based strategies to improve learning.

So as we look at that, there are many schools that are revolutionising their learning spaces. “We’ve seen schools putting wifi routers on the top of school buses.”You know, we think about all the amazing technology that’s out there, and we think about how pedagogy is changing. If the learning space is not changed, we’re wasting our money and our time our time on purchasing the technology and changing our practices. Research has shown that classroom design - furniture, layout, acoustics, temperature - can impact learning by as much as 25%, positive or negative. In our study, we found numerous schools that are just revamping their learning spaces so that they’re more collaborative, more brain-friendly and stimulative of multiple senses in students.

So that’s one aspect that we’re seeing a lot of change in the last year. Another exciting change that we’re seeing regards connectivity. You know, connectivity today is a right for every student. Doesn’t matter what their socio-economic status is, whether they come from an area where there’s lots of money, if it’s low income. And what we’re seeing is, schools understanding that connectivity is a right for kids. What they’re doing is innovating in a way that they provide internet access. We’ve seen over the last year schools putting wifi routers on the top of school buses. They’re putting them on the outside of their buildings, so not only can kids learn outside, but the community can get wifi access for free after the school day. Other schools are establishing wifi kiosks, standalone kiosks all over their community for kids to get access. Another innovative school has invested in creating their own cellular network, their own LTE (Long-Term Evolution) network, so that their kids can get access and really unleash the opportunities that the internet provides.

Those are just a few broad examples, but in Learning Transformed, we get into the weeds, into the specific schools that are doing it and how they’re doing it!

How has social media helped you as an education leader?

Wow, well we could be here for a while! Let me see if I can summarise it… We don’t know what we don’t know. Classrooms, schools and countries are silos. Rarely before social media did we look beyond our silo at scale to see what’s possible, to push our thinking, to acquire resources, ideas, strategies, get feedback.

For me as an educator, social media opened my eyes to a whole new world that I never knew existed. Social media helped me work smarter - not harder. Now I can access not only the best minds in education, like Sir Ken Robinson, or Robert Marzano or Michael Fullan, but social media allowed me to access practitioners that were doing the work in the trenches. I now have 24/7 access to teachers, leaders, schools and organisations that were the latest innovative strategies and getting results. So it changed my thinking; I would say that social media pushed me from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. I’ve now written six books - I wouldn’t have written one book without social media, because that’s where I got solicited to do so. As we utilise this tool, think about how we’re using social media right now to engage in this conversation. You’re across the pond, and we’re able to seamlessly connect! We can share those ideas, we can help each other no matter where we live.

Here’s a phrase I often use in my presentations, attributed to over a hundred different people: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Social media makes your room the entire world, and I would say to those that are resistant, give yourself 15 minutes a day. 15 minutes a day to engage, connect, learn and grow. I think the proof is in the pudding - the more we connect, the more we think is possible, and that’s how we can change education globally to benefit our kids.

You stay busy; how important is downtime for a school leader?

Downtime is critical. Critical! I would say that we have to make a decision - I make a decision to use social media 90% professional, 10% personal. Now, I’m not one to say “Oh, I’ve gotta go on a digital detox! I’m gonna shut down for a week, a month...” Come on, if you have to do that, “Social media pushed me from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.”you can’t balance your digital life with your personal / professional life. My thinking is this: Give yourself the fifteen minutes a day for social media, or whatever you allocate yourself, but when I’m home on the weekends I’m present with my kids and my wife. At certain times during the day I’m working, but if I wasn’t travelling today, come a certain time I’d put technology away. It’s about finding that balance and understanding that with all the benefits that technology provides, we have to be empathetic educators and leaders. We have to understand that the face-to-face communication, the being present for our conversations, listening, engaging is so important. We have to find that balance.

My call-to-action for educators is, you know how to allocate your time better than anyone else. Don’t let the technology component consume your life to the point where you can’t interact face-to-face, because that’s really what defines our humanity, and our humanity is being able to look each other in the eye, see expressions, elicit expressions that have nothing to do with a piece of technology.

What are your favourite methods for enhancing a school community?

Well, you just led into my other book that just came out! In April 2017, book number five was published, and it’s called BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning. If we want to strengthen the relationships with our community, we have to build a certain level of trust. Without trust, there’s no relationship. Without relationships in place, no significant learning will occur. BrandED is about all the amazing learning that happens in our schools, across the world.

There can be bad news when PISA scores come out, or we’re not doing well on our standardised exams, but in education we know that greatness happens all the time. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. When someone else tells your story, it’s not necessarily the story you want told. In the digital world, it’s like a jungle. Define, or be defined. So if we want to build those strong relationships with our community, we need to harness the power of storytelling. Showcase how we’re not preparing kids for something, we’re preparing them for anything. Showcase how we’re how we’re achieving, how we’re focusing on other methods to reach the hidden greatness in our kids. Talk about how we’re communicating, collaborating, creating.

Now, we think about this concept of ‘BrandED’; branding in business is about selling, it’s about business. In education, BrandED is not about selling, it’s about telling, in order to build those powerful relationships. So if we want to get our community involved, we’ve got to think about crafting amazing stories about the work we do, using a multifaceted approach that combines face-to-face communication and social media tools - Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, school apps... It’s about using all the means that we have to make learning more transparent. When people truly know what’s going on within the walls of our classrooms and our schools, we can build more support for the admirable, noble work that’s happening across the world. Not only that, the work that schools in UK are doing, the success that you’re having there, can empower educators in the United States, in Australia, across the world! You know, we have an obligation to become the storyteller-in-chief, which means knowing that greatness occurs every day, and developing a consistent strategy to get that news out. That is how you build community relations in a digital age.

Tell us about something that’s commonplace in the US and should be adopted by the UK.

Before I answer that, I’ll say that the problem we’re having - not just here in the United States, but across the world - is implementing innovative ideas and strategies at scale. So we see many isolated pockets of excellence. What we have to be cognisant of is: “Are we preparing kids for a world that no longer exists? Are we taking a critical lens to our work in order to give kids the skills, mindsets and competencies to be successful in a world that is changing at an exponential rate?”

So, with that being said, we’re seeing an influx in schools using micro-credentials and digital badges to acknowledge the learning of students as opposed to grades and marks. We’re also seeing schools leverage open education resources such as entire courses from the likes of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford. That’s something we did at my school four years ago. We let kids choose a course from the most prestigious universities in the world; they took that course in their own time, showed us what they learned we graded them on a standards-based rubric and actually personalised their transcripts. So I think we see a little bit more of a push for innovative practices [here in the US].

There’s a real focus on makerspaces in schools, often in the US but also in schools around the world. There are places where kids can tinker, invent and make to learn. One other thing is that a lot of US “Blended learning makes learning more personal.”schools are going towards blended-learning, where they’re making learning more personal. The most common form of this is the ‘station rotation’ model, where you’ll have a teacher-directed station, an independent reading station, a station where kids are working independently on a formative assessment-type tool, and a group setting where kids might be working together through technology. This all gives the teacher more time to focus time to work on the strengths and weaknesses of the kids, as well getting more feedback on how they’re doing with mastering concepts.

In the next school year, what’s something EVERY school leader should do?

I think every school leader should ask their kids what they think about their school. It’s a very important question - if kids don’t understand why they’re learning what they’re learning, we’re not really preparing them to be successful. One of the hardest things for any leader to do is get that critical feedback from kids. We can’t be afraid of what our kids might say; as leaders, we’ve got to understand that we work for kids. We don’t work to appease our teachers, our parents, our communities. Finding out from kids how they feel about their school experience will give leaders an invaluable insight on how to begin to implement meaningful change that benefits everyone.

[This interview was originally featured in the Innovate My School Guide 2017/18]

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