Posted in Virtual Book Club

Review – Learning Transformed by Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray

This review can also be found in the June 2019 issue of The Connected Educator.

No one can deny that our schools are not meeting the needs of all students, and in this fast-changing world, much of what we do is often ineffective or irrelevant. So much of how we run our schools is based on tradition and our collective memory of how we ourselves were schooled. We know we need to change, but schools are complex institutions and it’s hard to know where to begin.

classroom with desks in rows
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, Eric Sheninger and Thomas Murray provide a roadmap for change that’s both innovative and practical. The primary audience for this book is school leaders but, as the authors suggest, meaningful change comes from “leaders by action” rather than “leaders by title” and they can be anyone in the school community.

The authors devote a chapter to each of their eight identified keys to designing (or redesigning) schools. Each chapter breaks down the big idea (the key) into its elements and provides a research-based rationale for the advice and action steps given. Chapters end with an “Innovative Practices in Action” section where school leaders from around the country describe how they succeeded in bringing substantial change to their buildings or districts.

The chapter on leadership and culture contains many of the themes that run through any discussion of how to turn vision into action: communicating, building relationships, delegating (but not too much), modeling, reflecting, etc. We’ve heard these ideas before, but they bear repeating. Educational technology is discussed throughout the book, including a whole chapter on leveraging technology with advice for building an infrastructure and addressing some of the issues that we in Maine have struggled with since MLTI brought one-to-one computing to every middle school in the state.

The chapter titled “Designing Learner Centered Spaces” may be the most interesting and valuable in the book. Often when we think of school reform, we pay little attention to the effect the physical space can have on learning. This chapter cites research about school environments and gives practical tips for creating inviting and flexible learning spaces and avoiding what the authors call the “cemetery effect” where desks are in rows with the teacher in front. The theme of this chapter is that learning is not confined to the traditional classroom, and we can design physical and virtual spaces that provide students and teachers with variety and choice.

If you only have time for one chapter of this book, read Chapter 5, “Making Professional Learning Personal.” I have been on both the giving and receiving end of ineffective professional development practices, so this chapter resonated with me. Much of what passes for professional learning opportunities for teachers is a just a series of one-size-fits-all sessions where an expert is brought in to tell teachers how to do it better. It may or may not be relevant to an individual teacher’s practice and seldom has any lasting effect. Where teachers are given choice, their “development” is measured by the amount of time spent in coursework or in-service classes rather than by how they improve their practice. This chapter promotes a personalized plan for professional learning that allows teachers to combine a variety of learning experiences including¬† personal and professional networks, peer observations, coaching, Edcamps, and other formal and informal opportunities. Professional learning should be embedded in the culture of the school so it’s ongoing and expected, and its success is measured by outcomes, not hours.

The authors are experienced educators and administrators with extensive backgrounds in educational technology, and this book reflects their research and expertise, providing practical ideas for designing better schools for today and for the future. Thomas Murray will be a keynote speaker and presenter at the 2019 ACTEM Conference. Come hear him on Thursday, October 10 to learn more about how these 8 keys can help you and your school community transform learning.



Posted in Virtual Book Club

Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis

As a teacher, I often said that there are two kinds of administrators: those you work with and those you work around. In my more than four decades in education, I’m afraid most of the administrators I worked for fell into the latter category. Often they are good managers who impose order on a building or district. They oversee the daily operation of the schools while sticking to a budget. They hire and fire employees and preside over meetings. They make the buses run on time. But they’re not the educational leaders and mentors that I and most teachers truly want and need, and as the kind of teacher who tried to be innovative and take risks, I found myself hiding from these administrators rather than seeking their advice or feedback on my work. But occasionally I had the opportunity to work for administrators who were true educational leaders, and they all became mentors who had a profound effect on my teaching practice.

Faculty Meeting
Faculty Meeting flickr photo by Editor B shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In the book Hacking Leadership: 10 Great Ways Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students, and Parents Love, the authors, Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis offer advice for administrators who strive to be that kind of leader. They identify problems administrators will encounter in their schools and provide ways to address these problems that will promote a culture of creativity and collaboration and lead to better communication among teachers, students, and community. The book is part of the Hack Learning Series published by Mark Barnes, and it follows a format where each chapter identifies a problem and offers a practical solution (the hack). The chapters also include immediate and long-term steps school leaders can take, as well as ideas for overcoming pushback and examples of what success looks like.

The beauty of this book lies in its practicality. All ten hacks are steps any administrator can take. Many of them seem obvious (get out of your office and into classrooms) and others are solutions to problems that school leaders might not have identified yet (use social media to tell your school’s story before someone else does). Adopting even one of the ten strategies is bound to have a positive impact.

Much of the book is about building relationships and shaping culture, and in the introduction, the authors note “…the school leader sets the tone and has the greatest single influence on a school’s positive or negative culture.” I’ve often thought the greatest single step we can take toward real education reform is to make school a place where teachers and students want to be every day. The authors devote a chapter (Hack 2) to culture, but the other hacks are related to it. Certainly building relationships (Hack 3), centering school around the children (Hack 6), and helping educators learn from each other (Hack 9) are all steps that will lead to a positive school culture.

I think we often underestimate the effect that leadership (or sometimes lack thereof) has on a school or a district’s success. School reformers usually focus on teacher quality, but that’s just one small piece of the puzzle. There will always be great teachers and not-so-great teachers, but leaders affect the school as a whole and are responsible for students’ overall school experience. The hacks described in this book are steps administrators can take to become the kind of leader folks will work with, rather than around.