Leadership inspiration and ideas from FETC’s Administrator track

Takeaways from two superintendent speakers on leading districts through technology innovation
By: | January 17, 2020
Gregory Firn spoke on the intersection of innovation and impact, including special considerations for access and equity.Gregory Firn spoke on the intersection of innovation and impact, including special considerations for access and equity.

School- and district-level administrators had some tough decisions to make about their whereabouts during FETC® since the Future of Ed Tech Administrator track included nearly 200 sessions and workshops. Following are insights and actionable advice from two superintendent-led presentations at the show.

“Learning and Leadership in the Shift Age”

Speaker Randy Ziegenfuss is a natural fit for FETC®, since unlike many superintendents, he started in his district as a technology director and has never been a principal. He spoke on Thursday about how learning will change in the next three, five and 10 years as a result of technology.

At the helm of Salisbury Township School District, a 1,600-student school system in Pennsylvania, Ziegenfuss offered future-focused reasons to fuel the urgency for and shape the future of the transformation of learning and technology. Salisbury leaders are constantly thinking about how to transform the system—“not just reform or polish it,” Ziegenfuss said, noting that today’s kindergartners will graduate in 2032.

By “shift age,” he means the flow to digital, the flow of technology to the individual, and accelerating connectedness to humanity, using a phrase coined by David Houle. “Devices open up the world for us,” Ziegenfuss said. “Even people who are illiterate may be able to access and contribute and collaborate with people around the world.”

He offered videos for discussion of how the skills landscape is changing and how the world isn’t prepared for the change in careers.

And how about that magic number of 180 days in the school year? “It’s a construct that doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “We’re going to constantly have to keep evolving. We can’t stand still. Yet what are schools really good at? Standing still.”

Attendees discussed the five drivers of change (from a KnowledgeWorks forecast on the future of learning):

  1. Automation / AI. It will be critically important that kids know themselves better than the algorithm knows them, he said. And consider this: AI may know, for example, what part of a book a child skipped while reading.
  2. Civic superpowers. Young people are engaged citizens who are starting to have a voice. “When is the breaking point? Is it when kids say, ‘This is no longer working’ [in schools]?” he said. “There are areas of the country where that is happening.
  3. Accelerating brains. People today have increasing access to tools and insights.
  4. Toxic narratives. “How many kids are actually good at something but it doesn’t fit the traditional model of success?” he said. The system is focused on standardized tests and grades, and this needs to be addressed.
  5. Remaking geographies. Communities are reorganizing themselves around concerns such as climate change.

Salisbury Township’s Project Wonder middle school program brings sixth-graders and seventh-graders together around a “no grades” learning environment. They ask: Who am I as a learner? What am I interested in? Teachers back map that information into the standards. “It’s a different way of thinking about learning,” said Ziegenfuss, whose podcast is called “Shift Your Paradigm.”

He left attendees with the question: What is YOUR transformational vision for education, and how might it be influenced by the current context in which we are living and working? “We don’t all need to be futurists,” he said. “But we do need to be connected to the real world.”

“The Intersection of Innovation and Impact: Access, Opportunity and Equity”

Gregory Firn—a retired superintendent who led districts of all sizes in Texas, North Carolina, Connecticut, Washington state and Nevada, and overseas—offered perspective from having led systemwide digital transformation initiatives, including the design and implementation of robust human capital development programs. Attendees were asked to consider obstacles working against change and heard about strategies to execute a proven theory of change.

Firn, who is passionate about working for underrepresented groups, said it’s important to think about how many students are impacted by an innovation being considered. “My heart will bleed for students who are ‘differently abled,’” he said. “I think about all the innovations we started, and I wonder how much we really moved the needle and involved these populations in our schools.”

Part of the challenge is the focus district leaders tend to have on staying out of due process. “Less than 1% of superintendents in the U.S. have any background in special education,” he said, adding that by the time his office would hear from parents of students with special needs, it was because educators and other administrators “had stopped listening.”

Firn spoke of the need to consider what happens if an innovation doesn’t work. “You need a strategy for this. In working with educators, I found in bringing a change to the district, I needed to have a sunset or exit strategy to bring to that innovation.”

He stopped the pilot program stage. “I’m not using our kids as guinea pigs. We’re going to go all in,” he said. The project team came up with metrics that would determine if the initiative was working, and then also what would be done and when if the metrics are showing it’s not working.

Firn also spoke about the need to pursue excellence, not perfection. His advice:

  • Don’t let your need to be “right” ruin a relationship.
  • Earn the right to be heard and followed.
  • Never ask or expect anyone to do something that you wouldn’t do.
  • Be decisive—but always leave room to change your decision if the facts change.

And when considering various changes to introduce, consider how high or low it is on the innovation scale and how high or low it is on the impact scale.

Firn invited attendees to use PACE planning methodology as they consider innovation, as well:

  • What’s the PRIMARY objective?
  • What’s the ALTERNATIVE?
  • What’s my CONTINGENCY plan?
  • What’s my EMERGENCY plan?

A common liability with innovation is a lack of process. “We don’t have a complete assessment of the process,” he said. “We only have a beginning or an end.” So for the greatest chance at success with an initiative, be sure to consider the best way to get there.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.


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