Curriculum Opinion

‘Digital Leadership': An Interview With Eric Sheninger

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 06, 2014 8 min read
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This summer, I’ll be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts (ones on Student Motivation, Implementing The Common Core, Teaching Reading & Writing, Parent Involvement, Teaching Social Studies and Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year have already been published) and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators (Meenoo Rami was the first, co-authors Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch were the second, Warren Berger was the third, Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker were the fourth, and David Berliner and Gene Glass were the fifth).

For today’s author interview, Eric Sheninger has offered to answer a few questions about his book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms For Changing Times.

LF: In your book, you make a case for school leaders to embrace technology as a tool for educational change. Could you give a short summary about why -- in the face of so many other demands on a principal’s time -- this is where they should be putting their energy?

Eric Sheninger:

Society continues to evolve at a feverish pace and many of the changes that we are witnessing are a result of continuous advances in technology. Whether we like it or not technology is re-shaping the word and changing how we communicate, tell our stories, and learn. It goes without saying that it should also impact how we lead. As a principal in a small school my hands are in virtually every pot. The major job duties that I attend to include classroom observations, walk-throughs, teacher evaluations, master scheduling, budget preparation, meetings, attendance at after school events, etc. I have every excuse in the book not to take on something else that will take away time and energy that can be spent elsewhere. That’s the think though - we need to look at what our main responsibilities are as school leaders and see where technology allows us to do what we are already doing, but in a more effective and efficient manner.

When looking through this lens technology does not become an add-on or yet another task we need to add to our already saturated places. It becomes a natural compliment to the work and tasks that we are already engaging in. The outcome, however, is much more profound. Technology, when focused on professional goals and responsibilities, allows us to arrive at the same outcomes as traditional methods, but with more effective results. If we really want to create schools that work for kids as opposed to us, authentically engage stakeholders, and optimize our own learning then we as leaders need to evolve in step with societal changes resulting from advances in technology.

LF: You talk about Michael Fullan’s “SIx Secrets of Change” -- Love your employees, Connect peers with purpose, Capacity building prevails, Learning is the work, Transparency rules, and Systems Learn -- as a framework for school leader to use as they begin to expand technology use in their schools. It also seems to me that it could be useful in efforts to implement any kind of transformation.

There are lots of “guides” that profess to help leaders innovate in their organizations. What in particular attracts you to Fullan’s work?

Eric Sheninger:

Fullan’s work is grounded in common sense principles that allow change to evolve during the implementation process leading to sustainability as opposed to forcing it through mandates and directives. As leaders we must understand that change is a process that can only succeed if it is embraced by an array of stakeholders, especially our students. Educators and leaders need to understand through experience the true value that technology has in order to improve or enhance the work we are doing. Fullan’s work provides a framework that will place leaders in a better position to collaboratively lead meaningful change.

To start the process we must be the change that we wish to see in education. By identifying the problem(s), developing a plan of action, and anticipating future changes the stage is set to ultimately change school culture. The challenge moving forward with technology initiatives is recognizing the various roadblocks that will have to be overcome. If education is good for one thing it is making excuses not to move forward. As leaders we must be in the business of moving schools towards finding solutions to problems as opposed to succumbing to the myriad of excuses that plaque the change process in education such as time, money, infrastructure, and lack of collaboration.

LF: In reading about your work and the work of people you describe in the book, I wondered about a couple of issues and how you deal with them, or how you would suggest others deal with them.

First, you talk about your school having a “Bring Your Own Device” policy. How would that work in a low-income school where many students don’t have a device to bring, or have one that isn’t a high-end Smartphone?

Eric Sheninger:

We have just finished up our third full year as a BYOD school and over the years have yet to deal with a complaint related to this initiative. As a blue-collar district we have our share of socio-economic challenges most notably the fact that not all of our students have Internet enabled devices. There are also numerous cases where students that do have devices forget of chose not to bring them to school. In any case it is our job as a school and mine as a leader to create an equitable environment to the best of our abilities.

With that being said our mobile learning device culture focuses on three basic foundational elements to ensure equity:

1. Teacher reminds students the day before to bring their device if the lesson calls for every student to use to satisfy the learning outcome

2. School owned technology is supplemented to increase equitable access to ensure 100% of the students have an Internet connected device

3. Teachers use cooperative learning strategies to create an environment where groups have access to an Internet connected device to accomplish the specified learning task.

There are also other situations where non-smartphone devices are used to check for understanding, review prior learning, and informally assess (i.e. Poll Everywhere). The bottom line is that my job is to create not only an environment where student-owned devices are embraced for learning, but to also make sure no student is left out or feeling inferior to his/her peers. I routinely refer to the work of principal Daisy Dyer-Duerr who has successfully implemented BYOD in a school where over 87% of her students are low-income.

LF: Secondly, how have your teachers effectively dealt with the non-academic temptations offered to students by how ubiquitous tech is in your school? In many ways, student devices have become the new “marshmallow” in the famous marshmallow experiment and, as in that experiment, the temptation turns out to be overwhelming for many.

Eric Sheninger:

For the past three years we have worked diligently to create a culture where we have given up a certain amount of control and trust our students to use devices appropriately. Educational initiatives have been implemented across the curriculum in the form of yearly assemblies and learning-focused tasks in class to teach digital citizenship and responsibility. Our school emphasizes that student-owned devices will be used to enhance learning, increase productivity, and conduct better research.

The focus on a culture that supports the use of mobile learning devices and appropriate pedagogical techniques in the classroom have reduced this temptation, but not eliminated it. For change in this area to occur we must recognize that this is not a solely a technology issue as there have always been off-task behaviors prevalent in our schools since the beginning of time. Remember the days when archaic technology in the form of a pencil and paper was used to satisfy the same non-academic temptations? My point here is that proper policies, procedures, and support structures must be researched and put in place before adopting a BYOD initiative. If this is done then BYOD can and will succeed in any school.

LF: You refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of “Outliers” as leaders. Can you share how you believe what that means and how those qualities might be important in a school leader, and also share if you think that’s a universally-needed criteria? It feels to me that with all the constant new programs and standards that barrage teachers, sometimes it would be nice to have a school leader who just wants to make the system incrementally better instead of trying to change the world.

Eric Sheninger:

Becoming an outlier is not about changing the world, but changing a school culture in ways the bring out the best in our students and teachers. Gladwell defines an outlier as someone who, for one reason or another, is so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that he or she is puzzling to the rest of us. An outlier in this case is the leader who pursues a bold vision for change beyond the normal boundaries of the education system. It is about tackling the status quo head on to flip a century-old model of education that no longer serves the purpose that it was established to serve. We can chose to make the system better as it is defined for us or go in a different direction based on our experiential knowledge from years of work in the profession. That to to me is an outlier. A leader who is brave and determined to do what’s best for kids even when new programs and standards not aligned with a new vision for teaching and learning are mandated with any regard as to their shortcomings.

LF: Thanks, Eric!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.