001 – Eric Sheninger, International Center for Leadership in Education
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My guest today is Eric Sheninger. Eric is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). He began his career in education as a high school Science Teacher, but realizing that his true passion was leadership, he went on to the district level and ultimately became the principal of New Milford High School. He has distinguished himself as a thought leader in education and won many awards. As a writer, Eric has an award winning blog, a great new book called “Digital Leadership”, and almost 70,000 followers on Twitter.
Eric Sheninger is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE)and Scholastic Achievement Partners (SAP). He also maintains a presence as a practitioner by serving as the K-12 Director of Technology and Innovation in the Spotswood School District (NJ). Prior to this he was the award-winning Principal at New Milford High School. Under his leadership his school became a globally recognized 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.
His work focuses on leading and learning in the digital age as a model for moving schools and districts forward. This has led to the formation of the Pillars of Digital Leadership, a framework for all educators to initiate sustainable change to transform school cultures. As a result Eric has emerged as an innovative leader, best selling author, and sought after speaker. His main focus is the use of social media and web 2.0 technology as tools to facilitate student learning, improve communications with stakeholders, enhance public relations, create a positive brand presence, discover opportunity, transform learning spaces, and help educators grow professionally.
Eric is a CDE Top 30 award receipient (2014), Bammy Award winner (2013), NASSP Digital Principal Award winner (2012), PDK Emerging Leader Award recipient (2012), winner of Learning Forward’s Excellence in Professional Practice Award (2012), Google Certified Teacher, Adobe Education Leader, and ASCD 2011 Conference Scholar. He has authored and co-authored the following:
He has also contributed on education for the Huffington Post, co-created the Edscape Conference, sits on the FEA Board of Directors, and was named to the NSBA “20 to Watch” list in 2010 for technology leadership. TIME Magazine also identified Eric as having one of the 140 Best Twitter Feeds in 2014. He now presents and speaks nationally to assist other school leaders embrace and effectively utilize technology. His blog, A Principal’s Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2013 and 2011 by Edublogs.
Steve: My guest today is Eric Sheninger. Eric is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) and Scholastic Achievement Partners (SAP). He began his career in education as a high school Science Teacher and coached several sports. Realizing that his true passion was leadership, Eric spent time at the district level and ultimately became the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey where he distinguished himself as a thought leader in education.
Eric has won many awards including the NASSP Digital Principal Award winner (2012), PDK Emerging Leader Award (2012), and becoming a Google Certified Teacher. He is also the author of “Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times”. His blog, A Principal’s Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2013 and 2011 by Edublogs and his twitter account now boasts over 35,000 tweets and almost 70,000 followers.
Steve: Eric why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you do as an educator.
Eric: Well Steve I’ve been the Principal at Milford High School for the past seven years. Um, also I’ve been in the district for the past ten years, and you know, my role really has been to try my best to create a school that works for kids as opposed to one that traditionally has worked well for the adults. So as a Principal, you know for the past five years, we really began in earnest to radically transform teaching and learning culture that you know sort of resonated with our students in a way that was more meaningful, more relevant, applicable and really created a situation where they enjoyed coming to school. Ah, my journey personally and professionally started five years ago when I decided to get on social media, something that I was resistant to, and at that point, you know, I discovered that you know social media provided a doorway to a world that I never knew existed And as I began to work and learn I discovered that, you know, that technology in itself is and will never be a silver bullet for education, but it’s that the people, the humans, that actually use the technology effectively to enrich the learning experience for our kids. It’s those people who effectively use technology that ultimately will be the silver bullet that education needs to right the ship. To put us on a better course to prepare students for success in a society that is rapidly changing due to technology.
Steve: You sound like my wife. She has been an educator for quite awhile, and she’s been doing tech education and she says the exact same thing that the technology is not the silver bullet. I’m glad you said that because after visiting with you guys earlier this year and seeing what Laura Fleming is doing as your technologist there in the library, I’m absolutely convinced that it’s people that bring the amazing changes because she’s done a fantastic job there and obviously you’re making a fantastic change in the school there. I wanted to ask you as I was listening it occurred to me how difficult was that shift to change from a system that favors the management or the adults in a school situation to a system that really fosters learning and helping the kids learn?
Eric: Well, the two hardest things we had to learn how to do was give up control and trust our students. And those two elements are extremely difficult for a model of education that’s entrenched in conformity and sustaining an industrialized education model. So you know once we were able to do that, initially it was very difficult because, you know, I guess I’m considered one of those early adopters. You know, when I sort of start drinking the Kool-Aid in 2009 there weren’t many other people that were drinking the Kool-Aid. Everyone was skeptical . You know, there were comments such as you know this is not relevant, it’s a waste of time, there’s no connection to teaching and learning, it’s not safe. You know if education is good for one thing, it’s good for making excuses not to move forward. So you know, again it’s my heart and mind said that you know what I think we can do better and we need to move in a different direction. And you know I just kept charging along and my job was to provide a shared vision and empower others to see the value in how new age tools could be effectively integrated to enhance learning experience for our students. And by, you know, not enacting any mandates or giving out any directives, you know we moved from a core group that I worked with that shared the same vision as me. They were given the support and over time, you know, the dominoes just began to fall and everyone else started to embrace through the autonomy, removing the fear of failure, consistent support, cheerleading, and just providing a slew of success stories, an example of how other schools and other educators were doing it, till eventually New Milford and my staff and students, you know, we became the epicenter of this movement, of what’s possible in education, of how you can successfully move a traditional school forward into the new age and still experience success in all that metrics that are used to evaluate schools. So it was a slow process not initially embraced, but now we know, as you have seen, you know there are so many facets and moving parts so that it became, you know, a part of our system that, you know, that are sort of litmus tests, a measure of successes. How many visits we host on a daily year of schools and educators coming in to see first hand without any you know dog and pony show the work that we’re doing. And I think that when you see what our kids are doing, what our teachers are doing, you talk to them, you can’t help but also experience the enthusiasm that we have and see the impact that it is having.
Steve: I definitely enjoyed my visit earlier this year, and I was impressed by just some of the phrases that were used and some of the ideas that I saw being enacted. Because you guys are definitely using some very current ideas and terminology to describe what you do. Um, so for those of who are, you know, pushing the envelope out here in the front of technology, um, we’re beginning to wonder a different kind of question. and I’m sure that you’ve thought this through a lot as a leader in education. So in this age where Wikipedia can sort of effectively improve our IQ by twenty points and we can Google the solution to a semi-infinite number of things on Google, how do educators measure student achievement? How do they push student learning forward in an age where knowledge is not really necessarily the quest anymore?
Eric: Well it depends on how you define student achievement, and how others define student achievement. You know, across the country many schools will be forced to be measured by Park or by Smart or Balanced or by their own system. But I think what we truly want to do is how do we measure the attainment and application of new skills. What skills does the real world demand? What is the job market looking for? And I think that as we develop criteria that effectively integrates technology where appropriate to allow students to demonstrate those skills in action is, you know, the real measure of achievement that we should be focusing on. And those skills that are commonly referred to as twenty first skills we call them essential skills at New Milford, you know, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, global awareness, digital responsibility, digital citizenship, entrepreneurship. So how we measure those I think is key, and I think that the best way to do it is through either a Rubert base system, or in the case of what we’ve done at New Milford taking the digital badge system that Laura Fleming has developed to acknowledge in formal learning of teachers and create a system that acknowledges the learning and skill attainment of students where they and, you know, once they ‘ve demonstrated a new skill through the use of a tool or just, you know, any other type of assessment they’re then awarded a badge that will go to a portfolio that could then showcase those new skills. You know, and I think one of the things that has helped us as we move forward in a digital age is sort of like you said. Information is out there, and any student can Google a fact or bring your own device initiative which has been in place for four years has created an environment where teachers can no longer ask questions that can be Googled, because students have access to the tools and devices. So I think technology also has put us in a position where we can sort of increase the rigor in our classes by creating more higher order level thinking questions where technology can be one tool that can be used to help arrive at the answer but it won’t just flat out give them the answer.
Steve: So has this approach also inspired your teachers to grow as well?
Eric: Yeah, I mean what we’ve done is really we’ve learned how to unlearn and relearn, and you know we sort of looked critically at professional development. And when you hear the word professional development it’s always something that’s been done to us. Something that we’ve wanted to do. It’s been forced on us, one size fits all, no relevancy, boring, no sustainability. To creating a self sustaining model that really is fueled by intrinsic motivation with the innate desire to want to learn to get better. So, you know, I think technology has not just peaked our interest but put us on a better path to create our own self sustaining models to learn and grow. And in turn, you know, we have been able to fuel our sort of innovative evolution by creating models that are much more relevant and applicable to our needs as educators. And we’ve done that in a variety of ways. You know, we started personally at the individual level with personal learning networks where we could, you know, educators could connect with like minded people using social media to engage in conversations to improve professional practice. That then evolved into, you know, our looking at how do we structure professional learning opportunities in our school. ‘We created the professional grow period where teachers are released two to three duty periods per week to follow their passions and learn about different areas that engage them; and, you know, through the professional grow period and the resulting learning portfolio that teachers create for their end of the year evaluations, innovation is flourishing because it’s all directed at the individual level. It’s not being micromanaged and or forced from a top down approach. And the digital bags platform that was created to acknowledge informal learning. It’s all about choices Steve. Teachers now have all these choices that they’re in control of, and the final option is we also created our own conference that provides the hands-on experiences that teachers need so that they can see how different tools fit naturally from a pedagogical perspective to improve or enhance learning. So, you know, our learning has changed so much because of our embracement of the different way of thinking and doing things.
Steve: Did the change that started five or six years ago that you are describing, is that something that was sort of a baby steps that evolved into an avalanche or was it just kind of a slow trudge do and things just started, you know, changing step by step? How did the change occur? Was it like a straight line or like an exponential curve?
Eric: Um, initially it was just a mistake. (laughter) It was a blip on the radar, because I did not see the relevancy, the value in how digital technologies could be incorporated into a traditional school setting. Once it clicked with me it was an uptick and then once it clicked with my staff and students it was exponential. And I think , you know, years one and two it was sort of like a steady incline and then years three and four it was an exponential increase because we created structures to support the type of learning that we wanted professionally. We tried to support for the pedagogical integration a variety of tools, and then we really started seeing cultural transformation on a variety of fronts and huge initiatives that were school wide, such as our radio device on Maker space. You know, things like that really now have become those emphatic components that are sort of nonnegotiables. It’s a part of what learning should look like and should be in 2014. And then we are constantly trying to anticipate other changes that need to occur before we have to react to changes that we are seeing in society.
Steve: As I’m listening to you and some of the things you’re saying it sounds like you have worked really hard to build a team in your school around this idea you describe like a small core group and then you’ve described other faculty getting in and the students. Is that how this was proceeded?
Eric: Change does not happen via the activities of one person. Change is a collaborative collective effort, because you can only move a system forward if all stake holders feel that they have sort of a stake in the decisions that are being made and that they actually see that their opinions are valued in terms of creating a school wide culture that works for everybody. You can’t move a school forward like we have at New Milford without the collaboration of a variety of different individuals and support on many, many different levels. But the collaboration is key you know. Creating a collaborative shared vision for change and then implementing a plan of action to determine if, you know, we get the desired results. And that’s the one thing I see in social spaces so often is people either get too consumed by making excuses why something cannot happen or by providing opinions on what others should do. You know change is not about position. Change is about action. Anyone can be a catalyst for change, but it is those actions that you take in the face of adversity and excuses and it’s those actions that ultimately determine whether, you know, a school can ultimately transform and be better for kids. But it’s the accumulation of actions that are taken collaboratively that really is, in my opinion, that exceeds a successful change.
Steve; So as you guys were considering the changes, and obviously you have taken action on these things did the topic of what is the purpose of an education come up in your discussion for the last couple of years?
Eric: Yeah, it’s pretty simple. The purpose of an education is to unleash a passion of learning amongst our students so that they can discover their strengths, their skill sets, and ultimately be successful in today’s society. You know, we shouldn’t be asking students, you know, what do you want to be when you grow up. Because chances are the jobs that are going to be available don’t even exist yet. We want to provide them with again those skills that the global job market demands. Because if we do that we are ensuring their success in terms of their future career aspirations. So, you know, education is about unleashing potential for learning. Unleashing one’s passion so that he can explore more in depth as to the exploration of experiences that develop those essential skills that are pivotal to allow them to perform a variety of diverse functions in a society that is constantly changing. And that is where our schools are failing our kids. This education is still based on a cookbook. It’s based on conformity to rules. It’s based on preparing students for an industrialized workforce that no longer exists when we need to foster inquiry, provide inspiration, allow students to chart their own path, to learn from failure, to understand that mistakes are probably the number one pathway to learning. And I think that’s, you know, education sounds simple but that’s what it really should be.
Steve: You’ve touched on the next thing that was in my mind to ask, and that is how do you help students learn how to gain skills that you are talking about?
Eric: Well, when you go back to what I said before, one you have to give up control, you’ve got to trust students and empower them to take ownership of their learning. When they take ownership of their learning that is sort of the ultimate level where we want to be. And in order for them to take ownership of their learning they had to be put in their situation and environment and taking their own risks with them learning from their failures, where they’re going to collaborate, communicate and critically to all those things. But ultimately they are going to produce a product that demonstrates conceptual mastery. They are going to be abole to create something that, you know, and showcase what they’ve learned in ways that a standardized test can never do. But in order to create that environment we need to understand that learning is messy, it’s not just based on moving from one content area to another. It’s creating a learning culture that takes all those different content areas and throws them all up against the wall and in essence creates an environment that is more reminiscent of the real world.
Steve: Wow. That’s quite different than what we see and hear from a lot of other schools and systems in our interactions, and it brings me to something that is kind of near and dear to my heart. Why did you invite your library specialist where I mean to start exploring Maker Education?
Eric: Well, you know, I think that the key to change is hiring people that are not only smarter than you but have a different perspective that aligns with the same ultimate vision that you have which is providing a world class education for students. And in the hiring of Laura, you know with all my staff, the message is simple, the task is simple. You know we want you to be great and really implement profound initiatives that provide a different means to the same end. That same end is learning, but the way that we have done it for so long is broken. It is not resonating with our kids. They are not seeing the connections from one area to another, and I think that, you know, with the Maker Movement it’s so simple yet so effective. And because it’s messy and not as structured as other learning activities scares people but allows students to tinker, invent, create, to learn in a way where it’s not being forced upon them, where they are allowed, they’re not feeling they are being assessed all the time and it’s going to impact their graduation. You know, it really allows students to push their own learning boundaries that are based on their interests, to create something that means something to them. And anything that means something to our kids is something that we really are obligated to implement. And it’s simple. At New Milford for the past, you know, five years or so, or even the past seven years, if your ideas can positively impact the life of a child, let’s go with it and if it doesn’t work let’s find a way to make it work. You know we focus on solutions as opposed to excuses. And you know with our Maker Space we were and still are constantly learning, you know, because it’s new. But the bottom line is kids want to be in that environment. They want to create things and the end results are impacted students’ decisions on what colleges they are going to attend, what career they want to pursue. Other students have gotten paid internships based on the work that they’ve done in the Maker Space. Those are true tangible results that we can say you know what this is making a difference. But if you really want to see the difference it is making come in there during a lunch period and just watch what the kids are doing which you’ve seen.
Steve: What was it about that Table Top Inventing Maker Space in Seattle that attracted you as you walked by. We didn’t have a chance to talk about that very deeply, and I’m curious what you saw.
Eric: Well again, first I was excited to hear there was a Maker Garage, because you know Maker Spaces even to this day are still foreign to the majority of educators across the country, across the world. But because we had one, you know, I was interested to see not just the type of technologies that were in there, but what the kids were actually doing. And that’s what, you know, when I came upon it was like being in my school on a larger scale.. You know kids were there because they wanted to and they were learning and they were using a variety of different Maker tools that I had never seen, but the end result is the same. Students were creating something, and they were constructing new knowledge based upon the work they were doing with tools to create something meaningful to them. And that’s where I saw the Table Top Inventing Space at the you know and NCCA was students excited to explore, create, invent, tinker to learn. And um, you know it made me reaffirmed sort of the environment we created at New Milford which we are, you know, doing by piecemeal. You know, we were creating it based upon things we were learning about, but the overall impact was the same.
Steve: Well it was sort of an accident that things turned out that way. I don’t remember if I had a chance to tell you that story or not, but the students were supposed to come help us man the booth and we gave them a little short crash course the day before the conference on how the tools worked. And their job was to, you know, invite people and help them learn to use the tools. What really happened was the students came in, they got so enthralled with the tools that they just sat down and started using them as a Maker Space right there on the exhibit floor. And again like you said completely by accident it turned out to be exactly what you were looking for, and what a lot of people were looking for was what does the Maker Space look like when students are engaged in learning. And I was so excited that that’s how it turned out, and I’m glad that we didn’t actually do what I had planned to do. What they did was actually much more interesting.
Eric: And that’s what’s great in the Maker Space. It’s all student centered and focused, and we put them in the driver’s seat and just observe the awesomeness that results.
Steve: Now we see that over and over again, which is why we’re so excited about Maker education. So I just want to wrap it up by asking you one last question. In your opinion do students who learn to build and invent new things have a significant advantage over students whose primary learning can be captured by a scantron test.
Eric: Well yes, because life is not a test. Life a test but it’s not a scan drive, and ask yourself when have any of us as adults taken a standardized test that has profoundly impacted the work that we do. We have not. I’ve been a principal for the past seven years. I’ve not taken a test to do my job. My wife is a guidance counselor for the last four years. She has not taken a test to do her job. You have not taken a test to do your job. So why do we force all these tests on our kids year in and year out. Ultimately the test is not going to prepare them to do their jobs. It is the experiences, the experiential learning that Making allows, that is again more reminiscent of the environment and situations our students are going to be in. They get to learn from failure, trial and error. They get to construct new knowledge. They get to collaborate and do all these things that they do not do on a standardized test. And I think that as we begin to integrate more Maker Spaces in schools at a variety of levels, and we get kids excited, and we learn how to connect other subject areas into the Maker Space which is what we’ve done at New Milford, it’s been a huge complement to our stem programs. I think then we will truly and others will see the potential of, you know, Maker education in today’s environment.
Steve: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule to talk to us. To wrap it up why don’t you tell us how we can stay in touch with you and what are the best ways for us to keep an eye on what you’re learning and teaching and then we’ll say good-bye.
Eric: The best way is my web site which is ericsheninger.com. That is ericsheninger.com You can find me on Twitter. I am mhs_principal Those are the best ways to get in touch with me.
Steve: Excellent. Thank you Eric, and we’ll catch you down the road and looking forward to the great new things you do as you move forward.
Eric: Alright. Great talking to you.