Image credit: Scott McLeod

Lyn Hilt is a connected principal in PA.

One of the most essential elements of the principalship is the expectation that the principal will serve as the instructional leader of a learning organization. It’s a challenge for any principal to find the ideal balance between leader and manager — let alone seize the opportunity to develop as a true instructional leader in a 21st century school. But that’s the job today.

Many principals and administrators struggle to familiarize themselves with the shifting needs of students, teachers, and communities in regards to 21st century teaching and learning. Some will readily admit to being digital immigrants and claim (sometimes in a defiant tone) not to understand  how technology and related changes in pedagogy can enhance students’ learning opportunities.

This begs me to ask, Is this acceptable? Can we, as leaders, accept that we do not know enough about the needs of the children in front of us, and therefore fail to prepare our teachers and students for their futures?

Of course not.

Is it necessary for an administrator to become proficient in using a variety of technologies? Understand how the tools work? Become truly “tech-savvy?” The answer, increasingly, is yes. In addition to daily interactions with my personal learning network, two recent reads and a meaningful experience at ISTE 2011 have influenced my thinking about the role of the administrator in 21st century teaching and learning.

The books

To better understand the ever-changing role of the principal as instructional leader, I turned to Marc Prensky’s Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Prensky details a process of “partnering” that recognizes the shifting roles of administrators, teachers and students spurred on by advances in technology. Prensky’s descriptions can help leaders, including myself, visualize these new roles and the relationships among them, and do a better job supporting student learning.

Another must-read is Communicating and Connecting with Social Media by William Ferriter (@plugusin), Jason Ramsden (@raventech) and Eric Sheninger (@nmhs_principal). A joint publication of Solution Tree and the National Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals, it’s part of the aptly named Essentials for Principals series and a fantastic resource for principals and teachers who want to enhance communication, collaboration, and creation through the use of social media tools.

Partnering refers to a new learning relationship

“Students want to learn differently than in the past. And that is why we need to partner. The key change and challenge for all 21st century teachers is to become comfortable not with the details of new technology, but rather with a different and better kind of pedagogy: partnering.” (Prensky, 2010, p. 3)

Partnering is not about technology, says Prensky, but rather about changes in pedagogy. He worked with hundreds of students who honestly shared their learning needs. Today’s students don’t want to be lectured to. They want to be respected, trusted and know that their opinions count. They want to follow their interests and passions and use the “tools of their time” to create. They want to share control. They want to work collaboratively with peers and connect with them often to share ideas. They want “an education that is not just relevant, but real.” (p. 3)

According to Bill Ferriter and his co-authors, school leaders must also acknowledge that

“Driven to share their thoughts, ideas, products, and experiences, students will demand classrooms that use social media tools and spaces as gathering points, bringing together peers and potential mentors with similar passions from around the globe.” (Ferriter, Ramsden, Sheninger, 2011, p. 69)

The conditions described above seem to be related to learning environments that administrators have great control over helping establish. So what should partnering look like, according to Prensky? The roles of the student and teacher are similar to those in a true project-based learning or inquiry-based learning environment. Learning conditions should allow students to follow their passions, do research and find information, share their opinions, practice new skills through motivating activities, create presentations in text and multimedia — all using available technologies. Teachers in the partnership are responsible for creating and asking strong, guiding questions for learning. Teachers’ roles include putting material in context, providing individualized support, creating rigor and ensuring quality.

What is technology’s role in this learning configuration? It is not the lead, but rather plays a supporting role. “What teachers do need to know is just how technology can and should be used by students to enhance their own learning” (Prensky, 2010, p. 3). The use of technology is mainly the students’ job. The teacher’s role is to coach and guide the use of technology for effective learning, which implies know-how of their own.


The third partner

If principals find partnering valuable and wish to see it in action in the classroom, they must serve as the third partner. Prensky recognizes that while it is not impossible for a school to engage in the partnering process without support from the principal, it is very difficult. Just as teachers and students work collaboratively in the classrooms, teachers and administrators must, through mutual respect and a focus on the shared vision, develop an understanding about what the partnership looks and sounds like.

Principals must be aware that when they observe classrooms, what may once have been viewed as “chaotic” may now be desirable, lively but controlled learning activity. They should look for students leading discussions, collaborating with one another, and taking control over their learning. They should recognize that this type of interaction has the potential to yield similar or better results than traditional direct instruction.

The role of the principal doesn’t stop there. Administrators must do more than support their teachers in this effort. “Partnering is a complex skill that must be learned and iterated. It requires a good deal of practice to get good at and master.” (Prensky, 2010, p. 163). By evaluating teachers’ competencies along the “continuum from telling to partnering,” the principal can provide professional development and support to teachers and guide them in their own learning.

Principals should work with teachers to help them become comfortable with relinquishing control in the classroom. They need practice in tolerating heightened noise levels, allowing for less rigidly structured classrooms, and accepting that students will be using tools and technology that the teachers themselves may not fully understand. Administrators must help teachers become more developed in preferred pedagogy, but not necessarily in the use of every technology tool available. Although technical support and training may be necessary at times, software tools are constantly appearing and evolving. An administrator needs to continually assess for student and teacher needs in this area and elicit input from staff.


Expanding the partnerships through sharing

Through sharing with others in my personal and professional learning networks, I am able to reflect and improve upon my practice. Prensky notes that “the predigital generation was not raised to share” while “the generation of digital natives has grown up thinking that sharing information is precisely how you get recognition and power.” (p. 165)

Consider your own learning organization. Is information being shared? Do teachers have knowledge of the successful practices of colleagues in neighboring classrooms, schools, districts, or states? We need to open up the lines of communication to share what we are all doing well, for the benefit of our students. Many schools are developing professional learning communities to foster this collaborative practice. How can technology assist principals and administrators in developing these learning communities?

“Effective principals understand that improvement in each of these areas — redesigning traditional learning sessions, creating collaborative teams that student instruction together, and providing mentors when appropriate — will have a direct impact on student achievement. The challenge rests in developing holistic models for professional development that are financially responsible, focused on the latest trends in education, and capable of empowering all educators to seek out additional avenues for learning. Luckily, social media spaces provide principals with a cost-effective solution to conveniently deliver and engage in relevant professional development opportunities.” (Ferriter, Ramsden, & Sheninger, 2011, p. 34)

In Communicating and Connecting with Social Media, the authors explore how Twitter, blogs, wikis, RSS readers, social bookmarking, and Facebook can become tools (among others) for sharing and creating professional development opportunities for teachers. They explore examples of schools that have successfully implemented these opportunities and have seen positive results in developing strong communities of learners. Consider the authors’ parting thoughts:

“Isn’t it time that we work to respect, rather than ridicule and ban, the spaces that our students are creating? Wouldn’t responsible teaching involve showing students how the social tools they have already embraced can be leveraged for learning — and couldn’t experimenting with the new spaces for communication and professional development leave you better prepared to find ways to responsibly integrate social media into your building’s instructional practices?” (Ferriter, Ramsden, & Sheninger, 2011, p. 74)


Becoming a tech-savvy principal

The role of the 21st century administrator working to strengthen an organization is no doubt overwhelming. But just as we encourage our teachers and students to push themselves and their thinking, we must do the same.

I had the privilege of serving on a panel at ISTE 2011 facilitated by Dr. Scott McLeod entitled, “What does it mean to be a tech-savvy principal?” Through back channels we were able to elicit responses and questions from audience members and virtual participants. One of the most prevalent questions asked was “How do we introduce our administrators to ideas like this? How do they get started?”

It becomes important to assess administrators’ comfort and proficiency levels on the technology leadership continuum. In their new book, Ferriter, Ramsden and Sheninger offer practical, easy-to-implement strategies and tools for helping administrators successfully develop a 21st century Personal Learning Network, something they consider an essential first step. They also include self-assessments and social media starting points for education leaders.

Administrators who wish to gauge their current state of effectiveness in serving as a leader in a 21st century school should consult ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards (NETS*A) and Performance Indicators for Administrators. Consider the five main domains: Visionary Leadership; Digital-age Learning Culture; Excellence in Professional Practice; Systemic Improvement; Digital Citizenship. Should we not want to grow our skills in all these essential categories? Administrators can use NETS*A resources to pinpoint areas of need and develop plans to grow professionally and personally in order to best support their schools.

Also reflect on the predictions found in the 2011 Horizon Report. They document, for instance, how cloud computing and mobile learning will play major roles in education in the very near future. This report also highlights the need for continued professional development to enable teachers to meaningfully integrate technology, and the great need for systemic change in order to allow and support innovative teaching and learning. How can we as administrators ignore these fact-based findings?

When working to set goals for schools and districts, consider the National Education Technology Plan (2010), which calls for “applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement.” The Plan’s content includes goals that address the infusion of technology into Learning, Assessment, Teaching, Infrastructure, and Productivity. Many districts have used this plan as a model for their own technology plans and have aligned it with local and state curricular goals and strategic plans.

For an administrator looking to embrace the inevitable shifts in education already beginning to take place, the path begins with personal growth and a willingness to learn. Start with one thing. Learn to do it well. Join Twitter. Build a PLN. Seek out information. Learn, connect, and ask questions. This isn’t going to happen to you. The need for change surrounds us, yet change itself must come from within. Until that mindshift occurs, you cannot begin to lead the principled changes (pun intended) that must come about in to the school organization.

Immerse yourself in learning more about the ever-changing demands of the principal as instructional leader. And share your successes with us!

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Lyn Hilt

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