“The bottom line is, administrators who want their teachers to be innovative and engage in technology have to do the same.” – USA

“I have always been willing to try new ways of teaching and learning,” says John Robinson. “In the early 1990s, before the block scheduling craze hit education, I was one of two teachers in my school who agreed to teach a group of students for 120-minute class periods rather than the traditional schedule of 60 minutes at that time. You could say I went to block schedule before anyone else. What I truly learned from that time was that our fixation with length of seat time does not really matter.”

Robinson, principal of the newly renamed Discovery High School in Newton, North Carolina, did get something profound out of that time, however. “What made my students learn and achieve was what I did instructionally with them,” he says. “Having to teach students for 120 minutes meant that I could not rely on the old high school standby–the lecture. I had to get students moving and collaborating. It was the most enjoyable time I had as a teacher.”

Robinson continued to teach for more than 16 years. During this time, he pioneered the use of the Internet, distance learning and video conferencing at his school. “My high school spent upwards of $100,000 to install what was called then ‘The North Carolina information Highway.’ This allowed our students to take classes from colleges and universities in a classroom set up with high-quality cameras and conferencing equipment.”

The use of technology in education stuck with Robinson. “Fast forward to a few years later, I began experimenting with blogging and wikis as a school level principal,” he says. Robinson now blogs regularly on his personal blog, “The 21st Century Principal.”

Robinson’s new mission? A complete evolution of his high school – a new name, and a new mission. “We are undergoing Buck Institute training to move to an inquiry-based learning model where students engage in projects that tackle real-world problems,” he says. “We are also a technology-rich school, as well. Our school went to BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices) well over a year and a half ago, before the term BYOD even appeared.” Robinson and his staff continue to embrace new ways of teaching, by using Skype, Edmodo, Engrade, blogs, wikis, YouTube, and more.

Here, Robinson shares his thoughts on standardized testing, funding of education, and the unique role a principal plays in the ecosystem of a school.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I like to think through my willingness to engage in technology from the role of administrator has meant that my teachers are even more willing to experiment and innovate with technology. But the truth is, I think they would do it with or without me. I try to share with them as well. Our school has had to retool itself as a STEM school with few resources. Over the years, I have grown to having the reputation as one of the educators in the building that other educators can turn to for information and advice regarding its use.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

I don’t see anything magical in anything I’ve done. The bottom line is, administrators who want their teachers to be innovative and engage in technology have to do the same.
You can’t be an innovation cheerleader. You have to be willing to experiment yourself. Too often, administrators are too focused on advancing to the next tier of leadership, which means they’re afraid to make mistakes because those mistakes might prevent advancement. The risk is too high. Unfortunately, in our times, I think administrators who are successful are those willing to take the risks with their staffs and engage in exploration of 21st century technologies and learning with those.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I use technological tools like Edmodo, too. I just finished the year teaching a drama class while also engaging, as teacher and administrator, by using this social learning environment right alongside my teachers and students. We also used Engrade, and online grade book this year, too. My staff uses the collaborative web tools as well. We have held informal faculty meetings over Skype. We use online tools to share and collaborate. Many of my teachers also keep blogs outside the school building. We also get our students to create and use blogs too. Teachers use social media tools like Twitter in their classrooms. I use Twitter, our school Web site, and email primarily to keep our parents up-to-date. I also use social bookmarking to share resources I find with the staff at our school. I think all of our use of technology has slowly moved us to a more personalized learning environment, and when we complete the Buck Institute Project-Based Learning training, I think we will be able to move even more in that direction.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

There have been two obstacles recently. The first is a culture that wants to place so much emphasis on test scores. Test scores are useful. They provide us with important data. However, when the pursuit of test scores begins to dictate classroom practice, I begin to question whether we are really giving our students a quality education. Test scores are for measurement, not for determining classroom instructional methods. I fear too often we resort to becoming tests-prep centers, and my state has placed a great deal of emphasis on state testing since the mid 1990s. The second obstacle is lack of resources.
How can we provide our students with a 21st century learning experience when year after year we find our budgets cut, staffs cut, and generally have to do more with much less with greater accountability? We want to get our students engaged in technology, but technology is expensive. We want our teachers to move to a more 21st century style of instruction, but training is expensive. As most every principal does, I find myself fighting resource battles. One positive that has come out of this? Our textbook funds have been cut to almost nothing, which means our teachers have had to be resourceful and use other textual and non-textual resources. Perhaps the lack of money has hurried the death of the textbook in my school.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

One enormous positive in North Carolina is the fact that there are businesses and organizations actively engaged in trying to make education better. Our school systems have been able to form partnerships with all kinds of businesses through organizations whose purpose is to explore innovative educational models and ideas. Locally, we have one of those organizations in the Catawba Valley Champions of Education (http://www.championsofeducation.org/). This organization has done much to link education to business in our area and provides enormous support to our schools. Statewide, we just ended a several-year partnership with the North Carolina New Schools Project (http://newschoolsproject.org/). Our school owes its existence to this organization. NCNSP has been responsible for establishing innovative schools across the state of North Carolina. No doubt, I feel that their DNA is still a big part of why my school continues down the path of innovation.

What conditions must change in your country/region to better support education?

  • Economically, our region has to improve. The area in which I live lost enormously during the last economic crisis. Gone are the furniture, textile, and much of the fiber optic industries. There are too few places for people to work.
  • Confidence in public education: Many people in our area have had their confidence in public education shaken by all the negativity in the media. This means there are many who know little about the great things happening in our schools.
  • Funding: I know the arguments that “throwing more money at our schools won’t fix them.” The money won’t fix them, but the opportunities and innovative educational programs that money can bring will improve the education of all our students. Our public and policymakers must make a stronger commitment to improving education for all students.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Personalization: Technology gives us the ability to personalize the education of our students in ways we were not able to do 10 years ago. For example, technological personalization means I do not have to hold back those students who want to take calculus as sophomores.
Our students are slowly being able to learn when they are ready, not according to some arbitrary seat rules that say, “Calculus is a senior course.” Through online opportunities, students can take courses that will challenge them and engage them in areas of their own greatest interest.

Globalization:  Our students can literally be global citizens instead of just students in our buildings. I have seen students excitedly talk about being able to meet and interact with a class from another country using Skype. I have seen students excitedly talk about their international blog audience as they engage in global conversations instead of just what happens in their building. We have the tools to help students foster and build their own global, personal learning networks, if we allow them to, rather than block and filter them.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Two things:

* Be flexible: The world in which we teach is changing even faster than when I began teaching over 20 years ago. I have seen schools move from using VHS tapes to streaming video. I have seen schools move from using paper memos to email memos. Being a teacher in the 21st century classroom means being flexible and realizing how you do your job will always change.

* Be a learner yourself. I always envied in some ways those teachers who boasted that they pulled out the same lessons year and year. They claimed they had to do so little to plan. But now, I realize those teachers came from the old factory model where you were teaching standardized ways and creating standardized students. There’s no place for that kind of teaching anymore. Teachers have to be first and foremost learners themselves. As a principal I am the chief learner in charge, not instructional leader.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

As I mentioned earlier, the trend toward personalization in education is helping more and more students. To those seeking to standardize education this same trend is driving them crazy, but as we move to providing our students with personalized learning experiences we are finding them more engaged and responsible for their own learning. We are finding that perhaps one way to keep students from dropping out is to keep them plugged into personal learning. If we want to reduce drop out rates and get students to learn in the 21st century, learning must be personal. As far as a trend getting in the way of learning, testing and accountability with an overemphasis on test scores has the potential to prevent true learning from happening. Testing is not bad. As I mentioned earlier, tests provide us with important data. But it is not the data. Overemphasis on testing leads to the opposite of the personalization trend if we overemphasize it.  The test becomes more important than the learning. That’s why I am such a fan of project-based learning and other forms of authentic instruction.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

An e-reader. I have always been a fan of books. My wife constantly complains about the thousand or so books I have scattered about the shelves in my home and in my attic. Yet, with a book, you can teach yourself. While much of the word’s knowledge can be found through the Web and Google, I like being able to download a new book and immediately begin reading. Modern e-readers allow you to highlight, take notes, and even share out interesting quotes through social media. The modern e-reader is moving to make reading a more social activity, which historically, I think reading was. I would give each child an e-reader and subscription to download books for a year. Even though I came to e-readers slowly (I couldn’t get over the idea of being able to hold a book in my hand), I am now an avid e-reader owner. I own a Nook, two Kindles, an iPad and an Android tablet. On the tablets, I have downloaded all the major e-book apps. I can literally carry a library of a hundred books around with me. For someone like me, who usually reads five to eight books at once, it makes for a lighter load. I would give each child an e-reader and subscription because I still find joy in reading, and if you can read a book, you don’t need a teacher.

About John Robinson
Principal, Newton, North Carolina, USA

Birthplace: Concord, North Carolina
Current residence: Newton, North Carolina
Education: BA. English UNC Charlotte, MA. Instructional Technology Appalachian State University, MSA School Administration Appalachian State University, EdS Educational Administration Appalachian State University
Website I check every day:  Google Reader RSS Feeds
Person who inspires me most: Dalai Lama, his teaching to be compassionate and awake. This quote captures how he inspires me: “If everything is going well, you can maintain the pretense that life is a smooth ride. However, when you face really desperate situations you have to deal with reality. Another benefit of adversity is that hard times
can build determination and inner strength.”
Favorite childhood memory:  My sixth-grade teacher encouraging me to pursue my interest in science. She celebrated every time I brought in some creature such as a toad or tadpole. She encouraged me to read incessantly and explore my interests in biology and astronomy at a time when most teachers forced their students to fit molds. She was truly a 21st century teacher working in the factory model of the 1970s elementary classroom. When I brought my telescope, a small, inexpensive department store version, and
excitedly told her about seeing Venus and Jupiter and two of its moons the night before, she enthusiastically asked me probing questions about what I learned instead of telling me to get back to my chapter questions in the text book.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure):  Boston, Massachusetts – Vacation while my wife works. Unfair I know, but…
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Yesterday, my wife. Monique Robinson, a West Virginia coal mine region native, never ceases to get me to laugh. That sometimes sharp, biting insight at life gets me laughing.
Favorite book: I have so many! Pat Conroy’s South of Broad competes head to head with his book The Water Is Wide.
Favorite music: Karunesh, Celtic Woman, and believe it or not Journey, Eagles.
Your favorite quote or motto:  “Our lack of happiness depends mostly on the state of our mind, not anything external.” – Thich Nhat Hanh from the book Peace Is Every Breath

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