Hugh John catches up with Renaldo Lawrence, 'the quiet revolutionary'
There was an epiphany, vividly remembered. ”I was teaching PE in Grey Coat Hospital school in London and the network manager had two screens up in one of the classrooms, with two programs running simultaneously, Microsoft Word and PhotoDraw. And he dragged a picture from PhotoDraw into Microsoft Word. It blew my mind. At this point I had no idea what a computer did. I had done nothing with technology. I could barely spell the word ‘computer’.
"And this is why I tell teachers that if I can do it, anybody can do it. Anybody. All it takes is a willingness to do it and an investment of time."
Three days later Renaldo Lawrence discovered that the school’s ICT teacher would be moving on. “So I went to every single head of department in the school and asked them what they would want on a departmental site. And I spent that year in the library practically every day, teaching myself how to use a computer by building all the different departmental intranet sites. So when the job came up [cue broad smile] it was a no-brainer.”
Fast forward 13 years and Renaldo is an advanced skills ICT teacher at St John the Baptist Catholic Comprehensive School in Woking, Surrey. He's also an ICT consultant for one of Hounslow's CLCs (City Learning Centre), an Adobe Educational Leader, Apple Distinguished Educator and a Microsoft Innovative Teacher. He’s widely respected and admired within the teaching community as an innovator, communicator and enabler and – what you suspect pleases him most – a genuinely decent and caring guy. And what gives him added impact, apart from his imposing height, is his carefully spoken US delivery and demeanour, which more than hints at his wide and deep life experiences. It's a distinctively St Matthews, South Carolina, kind of gravitas.
'If I can accomplish something more effectively without technology, then I will'
When he declares that he has no interest whatsoever in the use of technology for technology's sake – “If I can accomplish something more effectively without technology, then I will” – you realise that much as Renaldo enthuses about the ability of technology to bring about positive change in a school environment, and much as he likes tailoring these technologies to the needs of his students, his primary focus is unerring.
"I can be the most creative person in the world but if it’s not helping anybody, so what?" he asks. And goes on to answer his own question: "All the 'stuff' that I create and produce is to make the students better students."
It's this "stuff" that's at the heart of his innovation. For the past decade, Renaldo has produced learning applications for laptop, mobile phone, iPad, MP3 player, web sites – any medium necessary – to ensure that all his learners understand exactly where they are in their learning, and what they need to do to succeed. He believes that technology, “properly managed, is a great way to deliver essential information to parents, students and fellow teachers.”
His latest application, developed for iPad and mobile phone is an interactive learning guide for students and their parents, created in Adobe InDesign. A video, which can be downloaded to students' mobile phones, contains an introduction to assessment criteria for each section of their coursework and a detailed account of syllabus requirements.
“We’ve got a help guide which includes a video which introduces everything to the parents," he says. "It explains to them what the application is, why we’ve created it and what we’re hoping to accomplish with it. And just in case parents have never been in the environment in which I have their children, we’ve got a slide show of the rooms where I teach and a 360-degree video showing what the sixth-form building looks like.”
Innovation, he suggests, “Is the ability to create something that didn’t previously exist that will enable you to serve the students, or to take an existing idea and reconstruct it to enhance its function. It allows people to learn how they want to learn. To choose the methods that suit them. But the even more important aspect is that ICT allows them to learn anytime, anywhere and anyhow.
"When people talk about innovation they seem to think that it has to be huge. It doesn’t. Innovation can be a simple way that I might do something in my classroom that means I understand the students better. That’s innovation.
"We had an incident last year where my students had to do some work over Christmas and I wasn’t going to be able to see them. So I built an Adobe Air application in which I could put all the materials that they would need to complete something for me. I gave it to them on a memory stick so they installed it on their home computers.”
'Renaldo introduced us to ICT at a level that we never dreamed of'
Renaldo’s lengthy tenure at St John the Baptist has given him the opportunity to reshape the teaching and learning of ICT throughout the school. “Renaldo introduced us to ICT at a level that we never dreamed of here in school,” says headteacher Ann Magill.
New furniture, modern technology and inspiring software in the learning suites, a new school network, the introduction of interactive whiteboards – all of these reinforced Renaldo’s message that serious change was under way. But the real transformation was that ICT was no longer simply the subject, it became one of the most powerful means of supporting and extending the learning.
His own website, www.rllearning.com, was created six years ago to complement the official school learning site. “If you’re going to create content for kids it has to be engaging and I couldn’t be as elaborate with the school site when it came to using Adobe Flash and other interactive content," he explains. "Students now use both sites for just about every lesson and we’ve gone from 28 per cent A-C grades at A level ICT when I started, to between 96 and 98 per cent.”
His website is a carefully structured collection of the resources needed to achieve those A-C grades. It can be used as both a learning tool and a source of information. Embedded video clips of each member of the school’s ICT department introduce visitors to tutorial pages, multiple-choice questions, exam revision pages, quizzes and MP3 and audio clips. “Kids are stimulated by animation, not by plain text," he says. "It’s essential for us to use the technologies that these kids use day in and day out, and extremely important that we have a lot of animation."
A conversation with Renaldo Lawrence is a trawl through creative possibilities, with keen observations of human perception that emphasise the role of multimedia. "I don’t see static billboards; I see things moving on those billboards," he says. "A lot of that came from working with the products that I use, for example Adobe AfterEffects and Flash.
“So now, in certain circumstances I can see the possibility of animation and I connect what is possible to a lot of programs. At the moment I’m using Reallusion’s Crazy Talk Animator and I’m using it to do some very creative things. But I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute, if I export that out as a movie and bring it into AfterEffects I can add some leaves that fall, put a man riding a bicycle going by.' So it’s not about one program, it’s about the ability to merge these programs together to create a lot of different things and to make this stuff available on as many devices as possible. Regardless of the software, it is about merging these tools to create the ultimate resources to help my kids be successful.”
And, of course, there's fun. Learning should be fun: “Most of all, the lessons need to be fun. I’ll tell you honestly why I’m so successful at what I do; because the kids have fun. They can use mobile phones in class; they can swing from the chandelier if they want. I encourage them to bring in their iPods and MP3 players. Sometimes in the middle of a lesson I’ll say ‘Stop, put your work in your folders, and for the next 15 minutes you can do what you want. If you want to play a game on the web, play a game.’”
'I’m not going to let them fail'
With more than a nod to Professor Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment, Renaldo Lawrence’s teaching methodology eschews the 'sage on the stage" model and leans towards collaborative learning. “My whole thing with teaching is to try to make myself null and void because that would mean I’d have achieved my goal of making the kids work independently without me," he explains. "In a 50-minute lesson I will explain to them what they need to do and then I walk around and help them out. I’ve discovered that they do a better job of helping each other because they talk each other’s language.
"So I often say ‘John, you just did this. Can you show Bob what you’ve done?’ And they go show. Sometimes I can go into the classroom and not say one word and every single child will be working. That comes because they don’t want to let me down. And I’m not going to let them fail either. And after a while they realise, ‘Hey, this guy, maybe he genuinely cares for me,’ and there’s an emotional attachment there and kids want to do things for you.”
Renaldo attributes his creativity primarily to his mother – “I’ve seen my mother being creative from the time I was born” – and latterly to his professional basketball career in the land of his birth, the USA. The creativity spills out in all directions, personal and professional. Current projects include a digital scrapbook of his son’s university career in the US, a digital magazine for his school’s languages department and the creation of individual eBooks for his students so that they can work “regardless of where they are”.
It was basketball which led to his first teaching post in London. Having played for the Los Angeles Clippers after majoring in education, Renaldo finished his career in the UK (he is still the fourth highest points scorer in the history of British basketball): “When I was almost finished playing basketball I was offered a six-week job at the Grey Coat Hospital school teaching PE. That six weeks ended up being nine years and in that time I had three careers: I taught PE for three, GNVQ marketing for three and ICT for three.”
Did he miss basketball? “No. I was extremely creative on the basketball court so it was a matter of me realising that I could translate what I was doing on the court into the ‘real world’ or the school environment. It was only when I discovered computers that I found something that I had the same passion for.
"I played basketball at a very high level and I’m extremely competitive. I want to be the best. In teaching, that opportunity is not to be the best against other teachers, it’s the best that you can be in a classroom setting and the best that you can be to try to make your students as good as you can make them.”
But here’s the thing about innovation; it’s a restless, ceaseless process. Renaldo stays ahead of the curve with self-evaluation audits. “The last one was right before Christmas, and I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t teaching in the most effective way that I could. Forget the 100 per cent A to C, I wasn’t teaching the way that I needed to teach.
'I created a mobile site so my kids can access everything on their mobile phones'
"I looked at how I was using social networking and I found that I wasn’t. So I created a Twitter account, I started tweeting and my kids joined my tweets. I created a blog, about what’s going on in the world, about being positive, and I blog about what’s happening in technology. I created a mobile site so that my kids can access everything they needed to do on their mobile phones.”
Innovation is also a hard taskmaster: “I’m tired as hell," he tells me when we meet. "Sometimes, at one o clock at night it hits me – BAM! ‘That’s how you do that’ – and so I’m up till three. And that’s the difference between me and most people. They’ve got sense and at that point they go to bed.”
Educator, athlete, elearning materials developer, web designer... how many hats can one man wear? There's one more, that of role model, a responsibility he wholeheartedly embraces. “Most of the places I’ve been to I’ve been the only black teacher. The kids saw me as something different and the kids who were black finally had someone as a role model. I was the only black teacher at Grey Coats and I’m the only black teacher at St John the Baptist.
"I see it as a fantastic opportunity. I understand that when I walk into a room and open my mouth that people will not only be possibly judging me, but also everybody else that looks like me. And I feel that I have a big responsibility for everyone else who will come after me. It’s about making sure that what I do is enhancing the lives of whoever I come in contact with. Making other people special. That’s a trait I got from my mum.
"The best thing that’s ever been said to me is, 'Sir, you treated me like a human being.' And I try to remember what it was like for me in school because I wasn’t a great student."
But then... maybe he didn’t have a great teacher. It can make all the difference.
Conditions for innovation
- "If a rule is there, it’s meant to be broken. That’s number one. Regardless of how well something has been done I think you can always find a better way of doing it."
- "Give yourself permission to be creative and a licence to pursue your dreams. A lot of people have creativity within but they don’t give themselves permission to bring it out."
- "A headteacher who is open to change and will allow the staff to run with whatever they feel is important as long as this is of benefit to the students"
- "Transparency and openness."
- "Measure, manage and improve. No risk means no innovation. You have to take risks and you must be ready to be wrong and, if you are, to tear it down and rebuild. If it’s great, so what! Destroy and make something better."
- "Look for the ‘wow’ factor but make sure that it also has substance. If you’re looking for software with the ‘wow’ factor I would have to say Flash and AfterEffects and the whole Adobe Master Collection. Crazy Talk Animator is a really nice program too and allows me to do things I can’t do in any other program."
- "Be focused on your vision. Be diligent, be bold. Be in love with what you do. Self-belief is vital."
- "Curiosity only kills cats!"
- "Involve your audience. Find out what works for them but keep in mind that a lot of time they may not know what they want because they haven’t yet seen it."
- "Follow your dreams and invent your future. Invent your classroom."
- "When the door is slammed shut, celebrate. Because that is when the golden opportunity will appear. But you have to be ready for it."
Sources of inspiration
- His mother. "Number one. Forget the ICT. I’ve seen my mom being creative from the time I was born."
- Richard Branson – "A guy I’ve looked at constantly. His whole thing about life is about having fun. Yes, it’s important to make money but it’s important to have fun in the process (see “Screw it. Let’s Do It: Lessons in Life and Business”).
- Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon – "I like what the company is doing, slowly creating standards that the rest of the world are going to follow."
- Apple – "Although I don’t like the closed environment which they’ve set up, I’m a big fan of what Steve Jobs has done at Apple. I think the company has revolutionised the way we communicate and the way we deal with the internet."
- Sugata Mitra, currently Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University and creator of the 'Hole in the Wall' experiment.
- Sir Ken Robinson – "I admire what he does" – author of “Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative” and “The Element. How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”. (Sir Ken Robinson at TED Talks)
- Adobe – "Wow! What a company. To me, this world is about people and I love the way the company does ‘the people thing’. When you speak to one of the guys at Adobe it is like your conversation is the most important conversation in the world. I like the way that you can download their software before it is finished and you can comment on it. They’ve revolutionised the way software is created. They have made the impossible – to have your content on virtually any device and that is priceless." www.adobe.com/education
An example (left) of the QR codes that Renaldo Lawrence uses to direct students to curriculum support materials via their mobile phones