Talk Story: Paul Turnbull
In June 2013, Turnbull took the top job at Mid-Pacific, a private school in Manoa with 1,580 students enrolled in preschool through high school. He talks about technology in education, project-based learning and other innovations in teaching.
Q: You most recently worked in a public school system in California. What surprised you about working at an independent school?
A: When I was in California, I was the principal of a junior high school, as well as a high school, and later became the superintendent (of the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District). And when you’re dealing with a public system that is funded with public dollars and overseen by a democratically elected legislature, the complexities of education become pretty broad. I remember thinking at one point that sometimes the depth of your impact on a child’s life, as an educator, is a bit easier when there are fewer waypoints between you, as the adult, and the child.
So moving to an independent school, I found a lot of freedom. Freedom both in terms of budget and in allowing creativity and passion to remain on the campus. And really my ability to support teachers to do all the things they would like to do, and bring different ideas to the school and see if they fit. It’s all about fit. It’s all about trying to open doors for kids.
That said, I want to be very clear that I am a huge proponent of public education. I think that as the public education system goes, so goes our entire community. I think a strong public school has a very strong community. That means that if all schools were going to be fantastic, then that would mean that every neighborhood school would have a strong community where everybody was involved, from the students to the faculty to the parents, including the neighborhood.
Q: How has Mid-Pacific evolved since you’ve been here?
A: It started to evolve before I got here, and I really did follow a curricular visionary in Joe Rice (the school’s previous president). He was visionary enough to understand the school would be, I think, a more global unit if it had a preschool and elementary grades, because we were previously just a middle and high school. He was also a big believer in technology. And the Schools of the Future movement happened before I got here. So, I took what had already started and was able to sow those seeds and watch them grow a little.
Programmatically, we have increased our technological footprint, in particular in the 3-D realm. We include 3-D scanning, laser scanning and virtual reality and the whole concept is that students should have access to insanely great tools and, with those tools, they should be able to perform really fantastic functions, both for their communities and, most importantly, for their peers.
We would like them to become creators of content, rather than just consumers. Because if they can create content and use technology that is rarer but ultimately will become very prevalent later, then they’ll become leaders in those particular industries. In a few years, we’ve already seen a number of our students find great success, so we’re really happy about that.
Q: I understand Mid-Pacific is focusing on inquiry- and project-based learning. How have you seen this type of learning impact your students?
A: There’s an ownership of the learning experience that occurs right away, that if your project went from your idea to design to execution, it means you had the ability to actually guide this.
Students ultimately tell you directly they feel they’ve learned more about a particular project. They’ve learned in a deeper way, rather than a mile wide and an inch deep, and the retention of what they learned lasts a lot longer. That is so crucial in education today.
Q: The school is strong in performing arts and technology. How are the two related?
A: The creativity and innovative ideas that went into starting the School of the Arts are the same kind of philosophies that went into starting our tech program as well. It was new, it really hadn’t been done the way the we did it before. And we were willing to take a risk. It was something like 40 students in the first year of the School of the Arts, and now there are over 400 students. And it’s from performing and visual arts all the way up to and including digital arts now.
The whole premise is if we see every child as a whole child, and we see every child as somebody who should be given the opportunity to pursue passions in any different realm, that means we would open up those opportunities from an early age all the way through high school, whether that looks like a School of the Arts, or it looks like other certificate programs we offer.
This generation of students won’t have ever known life without a portable screen, tablets and phones. It’s important for us to embrace this and not resist it. Embracing that forced us to really look at our teaching practices. The question should be asked in most schools: Are you using a laptop or a tablet as sort of a super thesaurus or a super calculator, or are you using it as an actual education device, and is it becoming part of the student’s learning, and are teachers using it as a method of instruction as well as a method to teach ethical skills, digital citizenship?
Q: How are educational needs changing?
A: Kids now need the ability to problem-solve on the fly – to have a really deep understanding of what it means to find conclusions to complex problems using different methods. And to do that in a way that recognizes they are part of a community linked to other communities that are linked to the entire world. When you see the world as flat like that and you understand another viewpoint may be more compelling than your own, then you’re a better citizen. And to be an impactful participant in society today is hugely important.
I think a lot of schools need to find a way to give kids an opportunity to find that voice outside of just the core academic curriculum. So it’s the co-curriculars. Sometimes it’s clubs, athletics or theater, sometimes it’s just finding a way to find your voice out in the community. For us, I think one of the educational needs that we recognize and we’ve developed are a solid list of partners, and we believe in nonprofit and for-profit partners. Because it’s all about opening doors for kids.
This interview was edited for conciseness.