TES talks to… Eric Sheninger

27th January 2017 at 00:00
The US superhead tells Simon Creasey about his transformation from Luddite to ed-tech evangelist and why embracing the digital world is key to school success

Eric Sheninger used to spend much of his working week walking around his school, confiscating digital devices from students.

“I was basically the person who wrote the policy for our district on banning student devices and blocking social media,” recalls the former principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, US. “I wouldn’t say that I was against technology in general, I just didn’t have a clear vision on the value of technology to support student learning.

“Because of my fear, my misconceptions, and my fixed mindset, I really wasn’t open to innovative uses of technology. I spent so much time running through my building taking devices from kids.”

This was back in the mid 2000s. Today, his thinking is a little different. Far from being a pin-up for those fighting technology in the classroom and a trailblazer for those heads in England operating zero-tolerance policies, Sheninger has morphed into a digital pioneer and leading advocate of the use of technology by educators.

Under his leadership, New Milford High implemented a number of digital initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture of the school and improved its academic performance. This led to awards for the school and Sheninger, and global renown for the innovative practices developed. Such was the demand for Sheninger to show others what he was doing that he left his job in 2014 to spread the digital word as a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education.

Rebooting attitudes

So how did an ed-tech sceptic turn into one of its big-name pioneers? The change was prompted by two unconnected events. The first was an encounter with one of his students.

“As I took a device away from a student, he thanked me for creating a jail out of what should be a school,” he recalls.

Around the same time, Sheninger “accidentally” joined Twitter. “I got on Twitter and I learned how much I did not know and I also learned how far behind my school was in terms of technology integration,” he says.

The Eureka moment came at an opportune time: Sheninger was becoming increasingly troubled about how schools had developed during his career. He came to the conclusion that many had lost their way and had become like hamsters running on a wheel doing the same thing again and again, just to improve sets of numbers. Much to his chagrin, he felt his own school had fallen into the same trap.

Having banned tech, he suddenly realised that it might actually be the very thing that could “save” his school. He soon discovered, however, that embarking on a digital journey would be tough: there wasn’t an established framework to follow as few schools had gone down this route. There also wasn’t much by way of professional learning support.

The only solution, Sheninger decided, was for his team to start from scratch. “It was about looking at our culture, working with our kids, and all of us developing this vision and plan for implementation on what we felt the role for technology in the school should be,” he says.

He admits that, in the early days, he came up against some resistance from teachers. He got past this by carefully controlling implementation of the new strategy. Instead of involving all staff in the early part of the school’s digital journey, Sheninger turned to the team members he felt were the “most hungry” and who wanted to learn how to help the school to improve.

'We learned to unlearn and relearn the construct of education'

“So I took a group of teachers and we learned how to unlearn and relearn and sort of blow up the construct of education as we were taught,” he says. “We worked in this little cohort model to build better assessments, look at our pedagogy and learn how to integrate these tools in ways that would allow us to take student learning to the next level.”

Over time, the actions and successes of these digital leaders helped to persuade other teachers who were resistant to change to climb on board and made them less afraid to take some calculated risks and “change their professional calculus”.

This attitudinal shift enabled Sheninger and his team to introduce swingeing changes at New Milford High. In 2011, the school introduced a “bring your own device” (BYOD) regime, becoming the first in the state of New Jersey to do so. A makerspace – a kind of hybrid science lab, workshop and computer hub – was added to the library in 2013. The school also created a “digital badge” platform to acknowledge the informal learning of teachers – essentially meaning that staff can earn credit for CPD. Finally, teachers were given time during the school day to learn how to integrate technology.

Following this transformation, graduation rates and exam scores improved, and the school was heralded globally and nationally as an example for others to follow.

Sheninger is keen to stress, though, that the technology alone did not make the difference – it was using that technology well. “We made sure that if technology is not going to improve a lesson or learner outcomes, then we don’t use it,” he says.

Now charged with spreading this message – and the secrets of school’s success with ed tech – to others, Sheninger is finding the job tough. The barriers he regularly comes up against include infrastructure issues, a lack of financial resources and the availability of learning resources for teachers, school leaders, students and parents. While these issues are not insurmountable – he overcame them himself, after all – he thinks that schools need help.

Integral to prosperity

Controversially, perhaps, considering the anger government intervention in education can promote, he believes that politicians need to be part of the solution because the success of schools adopting tech is integral to the future success of young people, and therefore a country’s prosperity.

“I think they should help establish that vision and guidelines and encourage schools and educators around the world to not just embrace technology but ensure technology is integrated in a pedagogically sound way,” he says. “[This will mean] students will not just be able to do well on their tests, they will be better prepared with the skills, behaviours and mindsets to be successful in a rapidly changing world.”

But beneath this level of intervention, a good and relatively easy starting point for educators looking to go down the digital path is blogging and social media, according to Sheninger. He believes that regularly writing blogs as it is a fantastic medium for self-reflection, and being active on online networks ensures that staff “share, connect and collaborate”.

This is the start of the key process in making technology work in schools: being more outward-looking. “See what other schools are doing, both within your own country and beyond,” he says. “See how they’ve successfully implemented technology and find out those pain points and those challenges they had to deal with.”

However, just being outward-looking isn’t enough: to truly make the change, a shift in attitude needs to happen that calls into question how central a teacher’s own view of technology should be to the digital equation.

“Never lose sight of the fact that schools shouldn’t work better for adults, they need to work better for kids, so [you need to] bring them into the conversation,” he says.

Considering the scepticism about student voice among some teachers, this last part of the strategy may well prove the most difficult to conquer.

Eric Sheninger was a speaker at this year’s Bett, which runs 25-28 January

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