Smart Review | Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today

By Eric Nentrup

I hadn’t seen Mr. Niespodziani since 1994, so it was a chance meeting we’d cross paths while riding my bike in a rare tour through my hometown. But there he was—one of my former teachers—as recognizable in his garden as he was in the front of his classroom.

I wheeled over to the curb, removed my helmet and shades, and reintroduced myself, doing the humble thing I wish all my former students would do: “Mr. Niespodziani. It’s Eric Nentrup. I don’t expect you to remember me, but it’s great to see you again.”

Of course he remembered me, he claimed. I hoped it was true—no different than when I remember my own students from the past. Still, offering a name and forsaking presumption are welcome tokens.

We small-talked under the hot afternoon sun until I got around to the appropriate moment to express my gratitude. “Thanks” for the impact he had on me then, and for the impact he had on me farther down the line as I switched careers in my 30s to become an educator. He appreciated my sentiment. We soon said so long, and I hopped back on my bike to finish my loop through town.

I continued my reflection after saying goodbye. Mr Niespodziani did have a significant impact on me. He and Dennis Lindsey. The simple reason is that—together, across departments—they created instructional experiences that transcended what would have been traditionally considered “safe” offerings according to the Indiana Department of Education Academic Course Guide. Most memorably, I took two electives from Ed and Dennis my senior year: World Religions and The Bible. At the time, I was quite interested in religion; having heady yet practical workshops for this interest was invigorating. It felt like a preamble to college, and it also was a glimpse at interest-based learning long before I even considered making a career of education. I was glad they took the risks they did, that they were pioneering in their methods, and that their leaders gave them margin to be the experts they were. In doing so, they impacted scores of people.

In the present, two other educators I’ve been fortunate to know are doing something similar in their collaborative impact, but from a much larger platform. Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger’s new book Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, published by ASCD, says what needs to be said in a non-confrontational, positively pro-education manner. There’s no bashing of the status quo here, but there’s also no support for the behaviors, culture and methods we’re all aware need to come to an end. Their tone isn’t conciliatory in this fashion, as can be the case with so many other books in our field–rare indeed is it to find a book that contains both in balance, that is also written in an accessible manner.

Learning Transformed by Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray strikes that balance. Both educators have been on a non-stop worldwide tour speaking from their own experience and passion for pushing our field forward. And, in their new book, the two bring together their shared findings in consulting with their peers, their schools and districts, and the historical footers of our pedagogy and practice.

Sheninger and Murray speak candidly about what will carry us forward and, inversely, what will impede our mission success. Superintendents reading Learning Transformed this summer will occasionally murmur a, “Yeah, I know,” from a stance of needing to finally act upon the instincts to initiate change amongst their daily operations and yearly planning. Some, who are looking for a way to end the hand-wringing over hardware and software purchases that affect every member of their learning community, will be grateful for the simplified evaluation process for demystifying a six- or seven-figure enterprise-level decisions, which they can bring to the board for budget approval. Others yet will find in Sheninger and Murray’s words a sense of motivation; that they’re no longer interested in contributing to an obsolescing model of delivering teacher-led instruction with all its underpinnings. They’ll see what the authors see: there is no sacred cow in education except for the golden calves of our own making. These contrivances of our field can be undone, and with less effort than it took to create them in the first place.

Spoiler alert: There’s no spoiler here. The book is organized around the 8 keys the authors have identified as essential for mission success:

  • Key #1: Leadership and school culture lay the foundation
  • Key #2: The learning experience must be redesigned and made personal
  • Key #3: Decisions must be grounded in evidence and driven by a Return on Instruction (ROI)
  • Key #4: Learning spaces must become learner-centered
  • Key #5: Professional learning must be relevant, engaging, ongoing, and personal
  • Key #6: Technology must be leveraged and used as an accelerant for student learning
  • Key #7: Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture
  • Key #8: Schools that transform learning are built to last, as financial, political and pedagogical sustainability ensures long-term success

Ultimately, the authors are sounding the alert for the specific types of change that need to occur, and backing it up with research, numbers and influence, dispelling the myths of the state of the profession in some ways and bringing up the risks we’re facing elsewhere. Case in point: graduation rates are on the rise and have been most of the new century. But we’re now losing interest from students who inherently know the bygone approach to institutional school is irrelevant to them in the present. This is captured in the studies referenced by Sheninger and Murray. Too many students aren’t showing up because “many students, particularly at the high school level, don’t feel individually known or cared for while at school.”

Consequently, we know we’re losing talented practitioners who don’t see the profession as sustainable. Evidently, cheerleading how great our teachers are isn’t enough to keep them at the chalkface.

Speaking of chalk, a significant portion of the book is committed to explaining how learning spaces (and the ways they should be equipped) are no longer up for debate. Myriad examples from Murray’s work with the Future Ready Schools project and Sheninger’s consulting with districts abound. We see use case after use case where successful implementations of operational and pedagogical shifts and new technology bear out successes all over the country and at various scales.

Though such tactical shifts can challenge bandwidth (both human and network), the authors don’t leave out addressing the importance of social justice needs too. They touch upon poverty, gender and race inequities with a sense of purpose, asking the reader to examine and abandon preconceived notions about which of our students can pursue certain interest-based or personalized learning paths. The equity issues need just as much (arguably more) attention as reviewing bids from various vendors for capital expenditures.

But looking beyond the success of our students and teachers within our classrooms, and of our schools within our districts, Learning Transformed calls for us to bridge from our field to our larger communities. Sheninger and Murray are making a considerable effort to unify the entirety of our most popular subtopics.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to intentionally designing schools to transform learning, nor is there only one right way to do so. The key to transformational change and intentional design is to build,” they say. This intentionality is grounded in the idea of achieving an admirable return on instruction, raising the morale and prestige of our field, and modernizing our capacity for change. This makes a credible and achievable case for improving the whole of education for our kids over the long haul.

Aside from the rich set of references, what makes Learning Transformed a different read is the honesty with which Sheninger and Murray communicate. Not that other authors are dishonest, but these are the measured statements of professionals who have determined there’s no sense contributing to the theoretical without offering application that is as accessible to a rural single-building school as it is to a booming metropolis district serving 50,000 students. The managerial insight provided scales for all types of schools, and it’s as though that’s the intent more than simply offering listicles or tips for accomplishing specific outcomes.

Taken as a whole, Learning Transformed will become “My Career Transformed” for thousands of educators. And for the families they serve in their community, this means that years from now, students will be thanking their former teachers for doing things differently and impacting their lives.

As the authors say throughout, we’re part of the solution.

For more book reviews, see:

Eric Nentrup is an eLearning coach in central Indiana and advocate for teachers and students. Follow Eric on Twitter with @ericnentrup

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