Leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times

Edutech 2015 was a conference and exhibition devoted to all things digital. I had the opportunity to listen to Eric Sheninger (@E_Sheninger), who is now a Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Eric’s presentation inspired me to write the following article for my school’s professional development journal, which was released today. One of my peers complimented the topic and suggested that there are a lot of teachers out there who would benefit from the strategies mentioned within. 

In 2010 Eric was Principal at New Milford High School, which he described as being like every other school in that region of New Jersey (USA). ‘We had no money, our school was old, and we were very good at making excuses about not moving forward’.

He recognised that the first problem with the place was himself. He was the Principal. He had to take action. He had to take action and keep taking action. In three years Eric revolutionised the learning environment and headed a series of change initiatives that made the school a globally recognised model for innovative practices. 

Eric said that he had a lightbulb moment when he discovered Twitter. He used the social media platform as a personalised learning network, shared ideas and realised what he could do to turn his school into a place that worked for students. He said ‘I’m not smart, I’m resourceful. I use the tools available to connect with people smarter than me.’

He was driven by the belief that his role was to remove the excuses, remove the obstacles and let others innovate. ‘If students are not able to learn the way we teach, then maybe we need to teach the way they learn’.

Eric acknowledged that the teacher was the real catalyst for student outcomes. So he helped them learn how to work smarter, not harder. According to Eric, the two hardest lessons for teachers were:

  • Learning to give up control: It’s hard to shake the mindset.
  • Learning to trust the students: Trust is transformative.

What did they do? They worked to make the classroom relevant to the lives of their students. They focused on the basics: teaching, learning and leadership. 

They also harnessed technology in a way that fitted the scope of the school. Students were afforded opportunities to use real world tools to do real world work. They created artefacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery. They were given the responsibility to choose the right tool for the right task.

 The school learned quite quickly that technology was not a silver-bullet; it wasn’t going to transform everything they did. Consequently, one fundamental rule that became accepted by all teachers was ‘Make sure the pedagogy is in place before the technology’. They learned that pedagogy is the driver, technology is the accelerator. 

Another hard learned lesson for everyone was ‘It’s not about right and wrong answers, it’s about where can we do better.’ As a teacher, how do you know your students are actually learning? Is the instructional design right? How do you know the technology is actually having a positive impact?

 Within three years there was a 180 degree flip. They created a school that started to work more for the students and the shift in results exceeded all expectations. My real takeaway from this was the critical role of leadership. All teachers are leaders in an innovative learning environment.