From the Principal's Office: Schools That Work For Kids

My son, Nicholas, is your typical child growing up in the 21st Century. He loves to play outside, swim in the pool, golf in the NYC Junior Golf League, have friends over, and feast on McDonald’s. Then there is the technology aspect of his life, which is a very big part. Who am I to deprive him access to an array of engaging tools that his generation is growing up with? It would be hard to, even if I tried, as the Sheninger household has 30 connected devices in it. He has his devices, which include access to an iTouch, laptop, Nintendo 3DS, Xbox Kinect, and Wii U. Just like his daddy, my son loves his technology. Even though he plays a variety of games with his friends by far his most favorite is Minecraft.

Image credit:

On a typical Saturday morning for example, you would think that there is a play date going on in our playroom where the Xbox is. You literally hear at times five different little voices. Once you enter the room though you see only my son who has connected with his friends in numerous states through the Xbox. Not only are they all engaged, but also they are collaborating, communicating, solving problems, strategizing, and thinking critically to create their own unique world. What I just described in the last sentence is commonly referred to as 21st Century Skills (we have called them essential skills at my school for the past three years). However, I believe that these skills are paramount to success in the 21st Century and beyond. My son and children around the world need these skills as well as experiential learning opportunities that allow them to follow their passions while unleashing their innate desire to be creative.

Some of the best learning and bonding conversations I have with my son are when he explains his rationale and thinking that have gone into creating various Minecraft worlds. His learning is evident as he meticulously explains the structure and function of the different worlds he has created. One of the best designs I ever saw was a McDonalds that he created. It had the golden arches as well as the color red associated with the company’s brand. Now you couldn’t order a Big Mac or Happy Meal, but he had it designed in a way that you could grab a turkey to satisfy your hunger. As a parent and educator, seeing his creations, discovering his methodology, and basking in his enthusiasm never gets old. In my opinion, this is learning at its finest, driven by authentic engagement, passion, and creativity.

Here is the major problem though. The structure and function of the majority of schools in this country is the exact opposite of the world that our learners are growing up in. There is an automatic disconnect when students like my son, regardless of their grade level, walk into schools due to the lack of engagement, relevancy, meaning, and authentic learning opportunities. Our education system has become so efficient in sustaining a century old model because it is easy and safe. The resulting conformity has resulted in a learning epidemic among our students as they see so little value in the cookie-cutter learning exercises they are forced to go through each day. The bottom line is that they are bored. It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults.

Creating schools that work for students requires a bold vision for change that not only tackles the status quo inherent in the industrialized model of education, but also current education reform efforts. Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, many schools and districts have become so engrossed with alignment and preparing for the new aligned tests that real learning has fallen by the wayside. In New York Common Core, scripts for lessons have become the standard. We need to realize that this, along with other traditional elements associated with education, no longer prevail. How we go about doing this will vary from school to school, but the process begins with the simple notion of putting students first to allow them to follow their passions, create, tinker, invent, play, and collaborate. Schools that work for students focus less on control and more on trust. Most importantly, they are places where kids actually look forward to coming. The time for excuses is over and taking action is the only logical choice if we are committed to real change. Do your students enjoy coming to your school? If not, how will you change that?

cross-posted at A Principal's Reflections

Eric Sheninger will be the keynote speaker at the 2014 New York Tech Forum on Friday October 24, 2014. He is a NASSP Digital Principal Award winner (2012), PDK Emerging Leader Award recipient (2012), winner of Learning Forward's Excellence in Professional Practice Award (2012) and co-author of Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals and What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Science. He presents and speaks nationally to assist other school leaders in effectively using technology. His blog, A Principal's Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2011 by Edublogs.