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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Schools Prepared for Uncommon Learning?

By Eric Sheninger — December 08, 2015 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Eric Sheninger, a Senior Fellow and the International Center for Leadership in Education.

The world today is changing at a fast pace. We are seeing technology advance at a frenetic rate, which is having a powerful impact on our learners. It is not that our students are actually learning differently per se, but the environment in which they are learning is dramatically different.

The engaging aspects of technology today and ubiquitous access to information provide constant engagement to learners of all ages. They have embraced this digital world as it provides consistent relevance and meaning through an array of interactive experiences.

As a result the job of schools and educators has become exponentially more difficult as a natural disconnect results when students enter their school buildings. This disconnect manifests itself as the school environment is the exact opposite of this engaging world that our learners are now a part of.

If students cannot learn the way we now teach or in the conditions that are prevalent, maybe we need to teach the way they learn and create a school environment that more closely aligns with their world.

Uncommon Learning provides a process for schools to initiate sustainable change resulting in a transformation of the learning culture to one that works better and resonates with our students. It lays out the elements necessary for establishing innovative initiatives that will enhance learning while increasing relevance to personalize both the school and learning experience for all students.

Uncommon learning refers to initiatives and pedagogical techniques that are not present in scale in a typical school. If present they are more likely to be isolated practices that have not become systematically embedded as part of school or district culture.

These initiatives allow students to use real-world tools to do real-world work, focus on developing skill sets that society demands, respond to student interests, empower students to be owners of their learning, and focus on ways to create an environment that is more reflective of the current digital worlds. They take advantage of an emphasis on deeper learning that new national and state standards provide while allowing students to demonstrate mastery in ways that not only prove attainment but also afford them the ability to acquire and apply skill sets necessary in today’s digital worlds.

New standards are not seen as impediments but rather opportunities for students to demonstrate conceptual mastery in more authentic ways.

When it comes to technology in general, the overall goal is to support learning, not drive instruction. Where digital learning initiatives miss the point is a focus on how technology actually accomplishes this. Schools invest billions of dollars to purchase technology with no real thought as to how it is actually impacting learning. Uncommon learning moves past a bells-and-whistles approach to technology integration to ensure that the tools are having an impact on learning, which is monitored and validated through quality assessments.

The right culture focuses on technology as a tool to enhance learning in a variety of ways. When technology is integrated with purpose, students can create artifacts to demonstrate conceptual mastery, apply an array of acquired skills, illustrate the construction of new knowledge, and be empowered to take ownership over their learning. It also can increase relevance and make the curriculum more contextual. The right culture also provides learning experiences that are aligned to student interests and passions while preparing them to succeed in jobs that have not even been created yet.

Uncommon learning initiatives should and do complement the work that is already taking place in schools while allowing students to clearly see the value in their learning. Regardless of what standards you are accountable for, uncommon learning initiatives with and without technology can be integrated seamlessly to foster deeper learning.

Examples of such initiatives that are detailed in the book include the following:


  • Digital pedagogy for deeper learning: Today’s learners yearn to use real-world tools to do real-world work. Effective digital learning environments focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the tools themselves.
  • Makerspaces: These spaces provide cost-effective ways for any school to transform a dull or underutilized space into a vibrant learning environment. These spaces compel students to create, tinker, invent, problem solve, collaborate, and think to learn. Makerspaces can be created on any budget and motivate students to learn on their own time.
  • Blended and virtual learning: Traditional schooling, as dictated by brick-and-mortar buildings and mainstay pedagogical techniques, no longer meets the diverse learning needs of all students. Both blended and virtual learning opportunities can help to personalize and individualize instruction with technology.
  • Bring your own device (BYOD) and mobile learning: Many students now possess a powerful learning tool in the form of mobile technology. This chapter will address the potential challenges and advantages of implementing a BYOD initiative. Issues such as equity, infrastructure, policy development, digital responsibility, pedagogy, and tools will be discussed. The end result is creating an environment that empowers students to use the tools they possess as mobile learning devices to enhance learning, increase productivity, develop positive digital footprints, and conduct better research.
  • Digital badges and micro-credentials: Digital badges are beginning to be embraced as a means to acknowledge a particular skill, accomplishment, or quality associated with learning. Schools have begun to integrate digital badges to acknowledge the informal learning of teachers and formal learning of students.
  • Academies and smaller learning communities: These programs represent a bold vision and direction based on student interests, national and global need, and intangible skill sets necessary for success. Schools can create their own unique academy programs on a limited budget to expand course offerings, form mutually beneficial partnerships, and provide authentic learning experiences that students yearn for.
  • Connected learning: Educators today can learn anytime, from anywhere, with anyone they choose. This paradigm shift eliminates the notion of schools being silos of information and educators feeling that they reside on isolated learning islands. Connected learning shatters the construct of traditional learning options such as conferences and workshops as the only viable means for professional growth.

Click HERE to learn more about Uncommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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