Innovation: Moving Beyond Debate to Constructive Action
by Lynn Swaner and Erik Ellefsen
What is Innovation?
When you think of the word “innovation,” what images or ideas come to mind? This is not a rhetorical question! Invoking the word “innovation” in education is a bit like challenging someone to a Rorschach test. When you look at the ink blot formed by the letters of that word, what do you see—and what do you feel?
Some think of innovation in terms of frenetic activity fueled by technology, commercialism, and globalization, accompanied by feelings of apprehension and wariness (and perhaps weariness!) Others may envision our seemingly boundless human potential for creativity, problem-solving, and continuous improvement, along with a sense of confident hope and even expectant exhilaration. Still others will skeptically concur with the author of Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ESV) that, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Thinking Constructively: Moving Beyond Debate
When we discuss the need for innovation in Christian education, we often encounter a mix of these responses. And unfortunately, we’ve found that they typically “cancel” each other out—meaning that conversations about innovation rarely progress beyond debate about whether innovation is bad, good, or indifferent. This is problematic, because regardless of where we may locate our individual thoughts and feelings about innovation, there is no denying that schools in general—and Christian schools specifically—face a number of complex challenges and opportunities that demand a response.
These are presented in detail in the article What is the Future of Christian Education?, and include:
- societal changes (increasingly secular culture and value sets),
- market changes (proliferation of schooling options and decline of middle class families choosing private schools),
- changes in learners’ needs (diversification of student populations, learning approaches, and target skills for 21st century life and work),
- generational changes (toward more integrated views of life and career, and a valuing of collaborative leadership), and
- changes in educational delivery models (mediated by technology, including online/hybrid approaches, personalized learning, and soon-to-proliferate virtual and augmented reality).
Therefore, we need to think more constructively about innovation if Christian education is to adapt and thrive into the future. To this end, we propose that innovation simply means developing adaptive solutions to current challenges and opportunities. We innovate when we look at the current state of education, because doing the same things the same way is inadequate in meeting the needs, demands, and opportunities of the world in which we live.
To be clear, that response is far from direction-less. In her keynote address for the Kuyers Center, “Redeeming the Buzzwords: A Distinctively Christian Approach to Innovation in Education,” our friend Dr. Beth Green (Cardus Education) not only talks about innovation as a “posture”—composed of both a mindset and specific practices, and shaped by cultural norms—but also asks the all-important question, “what is innovation for?”
We propose that the goal of innovation in Christian schools is a dynamic and excellent education for students, which is aligned with the way they are created—in God’s image, uniquely fashioned, and called to good works (Ephesians 2:10), and that prepares them for God’s restorative work in their generation.
How Do We Catalyze Innovation?
In our work in Christian education, this is a question that we continually confront. We are always asking how we can spur ourselves toward transformative change, as opposed to fiddling with technical solutions that don’t address the adaptive challenges listed above. In keeping with Beth Green’s helpful language, first we must inspire a “posture” of innovation. Such a posture is open-minded yet purposeful, curious yet thoughtful, challenging yet grace-filled, and ambitious yet humble. It involves asking tough and often uncomfortable questions—and considering out-of-the-box adaptive solutions that may come from all corners of the education profession as well as other fields.
Of course, catalytic innovation rarely happens in isolation. Although we’ve found many schools and educators that are engaged in innovation as we’ve defined it, it’s rare that they do so on their own. Instead, they usually, out of intrigue or discontent, have met others who are like-minded along their journeys and engaged in dialogue that sparked generative ideas. And so we need to provide strategic spaces for that posture of innovation to develop, through collision with the ideas and expertise of others. In short, we need to bring people together around the question of innovation in Christian education.
An Opportunity and an Invitation
Along these lines, we have been enormously blessed to be involved with planning the 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS), to be held in San Antonio in late January (Lynn serves as the GCSLS Chairperson and Erik is the Catalyzing Innovation strand leader). The first GCSLS, which was innovative in bringing together eight Christian school associations for the first time, occurred in 2017 and drew over 700 educational leaders from around the world. The 2019 iteration of GCSLS is focused on innovation as an opportunity to respond to current challenges and opportunities, in a way that results in an excellent education commensurate with how our students are created and aligned with God’s plans for them, as well as the growth of Christian schools worldwide.
Future blog posts in the fall will explore the summit’s strands (teaching, learning, and spiritual formation; missional use of technology; engaging the culture for good; diversity and inclusion; and next generation leadership; along with catalyzing innovation), target outcomes for the event, innovative ways the summit will convene and engage participants to achieve those outcomes, and a focus on emerging and next generation leaders. In the meantime, we invite you to visit the summit website to learn more and to register.
As our friend and GCSLS presenter, futurist Rex Miller, explains in his book Humanizing the Education Machine, “There are no silver bullets… Complex problems are never solved but can only be navigated or reframed” (18, emphasis in original). Consider joining fellow leaders as we work together to navigate and reframe our work in Christian education through innovation.
About the Authors
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Director of Thought Leadership at ACSI, where she leads initiatives to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. A published scholar and conference speaker, she is the lead editor of the book PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning (forthcoming 2018), and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Erik Ellefsen has served in education for 21 years as a teacher, coach, consultant, Grievance Chairman for the American Federation of Teachers, Dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, and as Principal at Chicago Christian High School. He currently serves as an Academic and College Counselor at Valley Christian High School (San Jose, CA), a Senior Fellow for CACE, a Senior Fellow for Cardus, podcaster for Digical Education, and as Vice President of CCEI. Erik regularly organizes Christian school leadership seminars and speaks on issues pertaining to academic program, student leadership, and organizational development. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.