Focus on student learning and transform schools

When Eric Sheninger was a principal at New Milford High School in Bergen, N.J., he said, he spent a lot of time taking away students’ devices at school. “Our excuse was that it had no benefit to learning,” he said. “What we don’t know, we fear, and we make excuses.”

His “ah ha” moment came when he took the device of one student, who told him their school was like a jail. “He was right,” he said.

Sheninger spoke at the Technology Leadership Network’s luncheon on Sunday at NSBA’s annual conference in Nashville. Now senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, Sheninger realized that technology could be used to engage students, if done right. He transformed New Milford, despite the several challenges that the school faced. “We had no money, a diverse population, and aging infrastructure,” he said.

He cautioned not to use challenges as a way to justify keeping the status quo. “Education is good for making excuses, and challenges morph to roadblocks. If something is important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Change needs to happen because the world is changing, he said. The learner has changed.

He pointed to his own children as examples of this change. His son loves Minecraft, the runaway game hit among tweens and teens. On a typical Saturday morning, he said he hears five different voices, but only one child, playing Minecraft with children in three different states. “I watch what they are doing: communicating, collaborating, and creating a product that has value. They are not doing it for a grade; they are doing it because it’s relevant, meaningful, and fun.”

But Sheninger’s son and daughter hate school, he said. “Schools and many educators are not changing.”

Change and transformation is less about technology use and more about focus on student learning, he said. “To move school forward, we must get uncomfortable. We must start by giving up control. And we must start trusting our kids to use technology in appropriate ways. It’s not about adult learning. It’s about our kids and how we empower them to take control of their learning.”

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