A Strong Case for Uncommon Learning

It is not that our students are actually learning differently per se, but the environment in which they are learning is dramatically different – Sheninger, xi

Today’s schools are challenged with new demands of a global economy and with students who are more connected than ever before. While the world has changed, schools have remained relatively the same in their structure and pedagogical delivery methods. In Eric Sheninger’s newest book, Uncommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids, he not only explores the necessary changes needed in our schools to be more relevant and responsive to our students’ needs today, but he also shares strategic processes and ideas to turn theory into reality.

Throughout his book, Sheninger provides concrete examples from his former school, New Milford High School, as well as others from throughout the country. Each chapter provides rationale, research, and/or models for change, with comprehensive examples and resource links sprinkled throughout to highlight how these change have been done by today’s educators. At the end of each chapter, Sheninger highlights implementation tips before a summary of the chapter. Every school and every classroom can explore these ideas in order to build uncommon learning opportunities for all students in our schools.

While there are many initiatives that can be implemented in our schools to begin to offer opportunities for our students to grow and learn in different ways, these just scratch the surface of the more important theme of the book – shifting the culture of our schools to utilize technology as a tool to enhance learning and achievement. Sheninger emphasizes this aspect continually throughout the book, putting sound pedagogy above technology in every strategic process. “Pedagogy always trumps technology” (Sheninger, 43). Technology is a tool to enhance learning outcomes, and when used appropriately, it is not the tool that matters, but the learning and experiences we can provide for our students that matter most.

Pedagogy always trumps technology – Eric Sheninger


Sheninger begins the book with a clear description of the challenges schools face today, sharing the importance in changing from the industrial-age, compliancy model to a learning model where relevant, authentic opportunities, while uncommon at first, will become common as our school cultures shift. He explores the excuses often made by some educators, facing them head-on with the transparent notion that our students need more meaningful experiences in schools so that they can capitalize on their passions, learning, and growth opportunities. In addition, educators need to want to change their practice, beginning from within instead of with leadership mandates. Only then will the initiatives he describes in the book become embedded components of the school culture. “Culture shock is needed so that uncommon learning becomes the norm, not the exception” (Sheninger, p. 31).

Embedded throughout each initiative and example he provides in the book, transforming the school and learning culture is most prevalent, as this is the cornerstone for uncommon learning. “The whole premise of uncommon learning is to increase relevance, add context, acquire then apply essential skills, construct new knowledge, and enhance critical literacies. Regardless of what standards you are accountable for, uncommon learning initiatives with and without technology can be integrated seamlessly to foster deeper learning” (Sheninger, xvii).

Digital Learning Across the Curriculum

Sheninger begins with the most important aspect of uncommon learning – strong instruction infused with digital tools. This chapter highlights recent research that clearly demonstrates the positive role effective technology integration can have on student achievement, as well as multiple pedagogical models for integrating digital tools in our instructional practices. He defines digital learning, then details a few frameworks that can assist in its successful implementation, such as the SAMR, TPACK, Technology Integration Matrix, and the Trudacot. In addition to these frameworks, he also shares steps on how educators and schools can build digital communities with the rigor and relevance framework. At the forefront of all of these frameworks and questions stands the critical key – student engagement and the purpose behind infusing our curriculum with digital learning. This chapter focuses on strong pedagogy for today’s learner.

Makerspaces

The Maker Movement is highlighted in this chapter, highlighting its growing role in our schools and the uncommon learning experiences that can take place when a makerspace is developed at the school. Sheninger shares the story of how New Milford High School’s library media specialist, Laura Fleming, developed their makerspace, sharing how trust, support, and creativity have thrived and revitalized the once drab library. He details the opportunities that have come from this space, as well as the impact one can have at a school. Multiple resources and ideas are spread throughout this chapter to assist anyone who may want to begin planning their own makerspace.

Blended and Virtual Learning

Both blended and virtual learning models are fully described in this chapter, once again with clear examples of educators currently in the field and how they are transforming their instructional practices through blended and virtual learning options to better meet the needs of their students. These uncommon learning initiatives are grounded in personalization, collaboration, pacing, and differentiation, using technology as a means to meet the many needs of our learners. Sheninger also goes into depth on the flipped classroom, emphasizing how any educator can use interactive learning experiences to create more meaningful opportunities for their students, who are then empowered, owning their learning.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

In this chapter, Sheninger talks about technology hardware. While many schools are going with a 1:1 initiative, he highlights the more real-world application of bringing your own device, BYOD, making it a more cost-effective and more sound pedagogical option for students. “Why would we want to pigeonhole our students to one single device or platform? Is that reminiscent of the real world that we are supposedly preparing them to flourish and succeed in?” (Sheninger, p. 127). He walks through the strategic planning process of a BYOD initiative, offering examples from his school and others, while also discussing the question of equity in this kind of environment.

Digital Badges and Micro-credentials

This chapter highlights the importance of celebrating learning in adults and in students by using digital badges and micro-credentials. He once again uses the examples from his library media specialist, Laura Fleming, who effectively created a credentialing program for adult learning. In addition, he shares an example of a middle school science teacher, Alfonso Gonzalez, and his digital badging techniques he uses for his students. Both of these examples show great opportunities for our educators and students to provide evidence of what they have learned.

Academies and Smaller Learning Communities

Sheninger details many interesting examples of how different programs and learning communities can offer unique opportunities for students, catering to student interests and passions. The structures offer abundant choice for our students, engaging students in rigorous coursework specialized in real-life, hands on experiences. These uncommon learning structures are worth a look in the future if we are to better prepare our students for their future.

Connected Learning

Lastly, Sheninger shares his story of becoming a connected educator, and how his PLN opened doors for not only him, but for his school and students. “The power of connected learning is that we become the epicenter of our learning and determine what, where, and when we want to learn” (Sheninger, p. 181). Here, he shares the many social media outlets that can be used to build your own PLN, and become a part of your daily life.

 

Uncommon Learning is a must-read for every school and teacher leader. Sheninger emphasizes the cultural shift that must take place in our schools in order for our students to thrive in their futures. Along with an appendix full of more resources, Sheninger provides the reader with concrete examples that can flourish in every school, making the now uncommon learning common for our students. From his personal examples to those who inspire him, he calls leaders to action, inspiring those who read this book to put these practices in action. Not only does he fully describe these initiatives, but he also focuses on the strategy and plan to make it happen. “It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults…Now it is up to you to be the change that you wish to see in education” (Sheninger, p. 189).

 

Feature image adapted from image courtesy of Flickr, Waag Society.

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