FETC: Driving successful learning by embracing the unknown

Keynote speaker Eric Sheninger says districts must be willing to embrace change, technology and a more personalized approach to truly empower students
By: | February 19, 2021

Eric Sheninger

If the past year has taught educators one thing, it is that they should be “Preparing for the Unknown”.

That was the message imparted by keynote speaker Eric Sheninger Wednesday at the virtual Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) and the title of his session that looked at how educators must start to think differently to meet the needs of learners.

While the COVID-19 pandemic upended the academic experience for millions, it may have unlocked key strategies that can lead to better overall outcomes for students – namely a recognition of more personalized learning and the importance of voice, choice, pack, path and place.

“When we think about the No. 1 inhibitor of change, it’s ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’, and we get comfortable,”said Sheninger, Associate Partner at the International Center for Leadership in Education and a former teacher. We eventually will be in the Fifth and Sixth Industrial Revolutions. We have to be honest about where we are to get to where our learners need us to be. We can no longer say, maybe we’ll use technology. Kids need digital skills. They need job-specific skills. We need to take that critical lens to our practice. The time is now to transform teaching and learning.”

Although students need rigorous learning, Sheninger said they also must be allowed to tap into interests that are meaningful to them and encouraged to think critically across multiple disciplines to handle unpredictable, real-world situations.

“It’s about preparing them for anything, regardless of their grade level,” Sheninger said. “When learning is relevant and rigorous, students will develop their own questions.”

The right use of technology tools in true “learning and growth zones” can make a difference in creating a culture of learning that is equitable for students, he said. Ensuring all kids have access to internet and devices isn’t the elixir to more positive outcomes; it’s how they use the devices that can be game-changing.

“Just because we give our kids devices doesn’t mean that’s an equitable experience for all learners,” he said. “The key is to give all of our kids what they need, when they need it, where they need it. That is personalization. But often what we see is all kids doing the same thing, the same way, at the same time.”

So how can instructors make learning more personalized? How can they use pedagogies to motivate students? How can they make curriculum more inspiring?

Sheninger notes how the five elements of personalized learning – voice, choice, pack, place and path – can drive change in the classroom:

  • “Voice: There are so many tools out there, where kids’ voices can be heard where they all can respond.
  • Choice: Choosing the right tool for the right task. Choosing what learning activity best meets their needs. Choosing where to learn.
  • Pace: If learning is the goal, who cares how long it takes?
  • Place: It can be a virtual place, face to face or hybrid.
  • Path: Knowing that learning is not linear, putting our kids on the right path, which is their path, which should not be the same as every other single kid.”

He said station rotations, choice boards and playlists are three strong methods that both adhere to standards and offer targeted instruction that allow learners to self-regulate, work at their own pace and advance skills for the future. Choice boards in particular give students the ability to select their own paths while applying knowledge in relevant ways.

“It comes down to good instruction, good teaching …. giving kids choice, mixing it up and challenging them,” Sheninger said. “Ultimately, it’s what the learners do with the technology that truly matters.”

One major benefit of those activities is that they free up time for teachers to work with students who need one-on-one guidance the most. Time being precious, Sheninger said districts also need to advocate for their teachers to get professional learning to help improve student outcomes.

“Effective professional learning is not a drive by, one and done. Its job-embedded. It’s ongoing,” he said. “We have to look at different layered ways that we can support educators – ongoing workshops, getting educators to amazing conferences like FETC, thinking about how we create mentoring programs.”

Ultimately, that training will help drive student success.

“All kids have greatness hidden inside of them,” Sheninger said. “It’s the job of an educator to help them find and unleash that greatness. It’s amazing what our learners can do when they are given the opportunity.”

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