Innovation: Moving Beyond Debate to Constructive Action

Innovation: Moving Beyond Debate to Constructive Action

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 inkblot 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 and develop these adaptive responses, 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 directionless. In her keynote address for the Kuyers Center, “Redeeming the Buzzwords: A Distinctively Christian Approach to Innovation in Education,”  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 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 from 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, out of intrigue or discontent, they 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. 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, and the subsequent 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 gooddiversity 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 GCSLS presenter and 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 USA, 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 USA blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at

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, California), a senior fellow for CACE, a senior fellow for Cardus, podcaster for Digital Education, and as vice president of CCEI. Erik regularly organizes Christian school leadership seminars and speaks on issues pertaining to academic programs, student leadership, and organizational development. He can be reached via email at

Caring Too Much: Burned-Out Educators and Disengagement in Our Schools

Caring Too Much: Burned-Out Educators and Disengagement in Our Schools

A 2013 Gallup research poll across the USA reported that before the end of high school, 60% of students are checking out. Alarmingly, by 2015 that number jumps to 66%. Worse, 50% of their teachers are disengaged, and another 20% reach the level of “toxic.” It seems obvious that without engaged teachers, we cannot cultivate engaged students. Whatever it is that we’re doing is simply not working.

In the 2017 Quality of Educator Work Life Survey, 61% of teachers reported being stressed out, and 58% said their mental health was not good. And, according to a 2017 Harvard study, teacher turnover in the USA is double that of nations like Finland and Singapore. Even worse, half of teachers quit within their first five years. These numbers describe public schools, but after visiting over 100 schools over the past six years (including Christian schools), most of the Christian educators we met told us about similar challenges.

A lot of today’s material focuses on student engagement. If you Google “student disengagement,” you receive nearly 1.8 million hits. But, if you Google “teacher disengagement,” you receive one-third the responses. What if efforts to solve disengagement in schools has taken us down the wrong path? Are we putting the cart before the horse? I’ve gotten in the habit of asking principals to describe their strategy for improving the health and well-being of their teachers. No one has yet provided one. We need to ask ourselves, “How do we hope to win the battle of the hearts and minds of our kids—when we send in tired and wounded warriors to fight the war?”

Battle Fatigue Looks Like Disengagement

Take a moment to browse the diagnoses and remedies you find in your Google searches for teacher engagement. If we follow motivational experts like Dan Pink, then providing more autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to engagement. But when I’ve spoken to Christian teachers out on the raw edge, they don’t feel any lack of mastery or purpose. When we released Humanizing the Education Machine (Wiley, 2016), we began to hear from teachers, especially those on the front lines. Most were caught in some blend of exhaustion, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. Story after story had a common theme that sounded more like battle fatigue than not caring. In fact, most clearly suffered from “caring too much.”

We got some scientific evidence of this when we visited Next Jump Leadership Academy. Next Jump is an e-commerce company headquartered in New York City, with offices in Boston and London. Its success and unique culture have been studied by Harvard and described in several books. That success allows them to offer pro bono leadership training to invited groups. In 2017, I attended a Next Jump training program designed for educators. Next Jump’s director of wellness, Peter Chiarchiaro, gave each participant a resilience test. The test included a simple blood pressure measurement by laying down, and then standing up. The second test was a more sophisticated tool, measuring how much (and how well) someone carries stress. Peter explained the different assessments and what they reveal. For example, the blood pressure test measured heart resilience. For a person in good health, going from reclining to standing causes blood pressure to increase to compensate for gravity. But for those who are worn down, burned out, or in poor health, the blood pressure will drop. That simply means that when your body signals to the heart that it needs more pressure, it can’t respond immediately. This condition is called orthostatic hypotension.

At the beginning of day three, Next Jump’s senior leadership team greeted us, along with their Director of Wellness. They asked for our permission to go off the agenda. Since this was the first academy for educators, the results of the previous day’s assessments had caught their team off guard. The outcomes were so contrary to any previous leadership academy, that they went late into the night analyzing the results to make sure they had it correct.

Next Jump measures three levels of resilience: survival, sustaining, and thriving. Every educator in the room was in the survival range, running on empty. The conclusion from the two tests was that the educator group was experiencing battle fatigue. And that condition looks and feels like disengagement.

The Caregiver’s Dilemma

I was on the edge of my chair taking notes and recording Peter’s presentation and commentaries from the senior leaders. When Peter shared how this group compared to others, I heard a collective exhale of despair. They cared too much. Charlie Kim, the founder of Next Jump, explained what he called the caregiver’s dilemma: “Because your role is to care for others, and the work is endless, you fall into the trap of not taking care of yourself.”

For the first time, these dedicated and highly professional educators saw evidence for why they felt so tired, overwhelmed, defeated—and in some cases, depressed. That led to deeply emotional stories and confessions, a powerful time of catharsis. I had certainly made the intellectual connection between well-being and engagement but had never felt it emotionally. That day, the whole topic pushed beyond the conceptual for me.

“In Case of an Emergency”: Steps for Restoring Resilience

Let me share six simple lessons that our teams have found to be helpful for restoring educators’ resilience and engagement.

  1. Make your wellbeing and health a priority. Charlie Kim explained to the group of educators that one of Next Jump’s core philosophies is: “Take care of me, which allows me to take care of you.” He illustrated the point with the application of the simple flight attendant instructions: “In case of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks above your seat will deploy. Please place your own mask on first, then assist your child or other passengers.” The clear lesson: if the caregivers are not healthy, then no one else will be helped.
  2. Get enough sleep. Personally, improved sleep is the one changed habit that has contributed the most to my health, happiness, and effectiveness. Life’s distractions, long days of stress, watching screens before bed, and other interferences make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Whatever amount of sleep you are currently getting should be slowly increased another 30-60 minutes, while decreasing your screen time before bed.
  3. Take breaks during the day. You can’t run a marathon like a sprint. Teachers are “on” all day long. That is simply not sustainable. New research confirms that we all have a daily work rhythm that is similar to our sleep rhythm at night. Your brain maxes out at 90 minutes of cognitive load (as in teaching) before it has to rest. Otherwise, you damage it, like pulling a muscle. Your brain won’t signal the pain because it has no nerve endings. When you rest, you need a full 15-30 minute break—which doesn’t mean simply switching tasks. It means a walk outside, quiet contemplation or prayer, or a power nap—and always drinking a large glass of water on your break.
  4. Take your Sabbath seriously. Taking one full day a week for rest, reflection, family, and worship represent an ancient (and still essential) recalibrating of our relationship to time and work.
  5. Change your space; change your culture. That is the title of my 2014 book, and it describes the need to carefully and intentionally design the spaces of our lives and work. For example, the dean of education of the University of North Texas (UNT) developed one of the first curricula to support teachers with emotional health, as well as social and emotional literacy. And to support that approach, UNT is adopting a practice found in Singapore: a room for true recovery for teachers. They call it “The Living Room.” It’s a comfortable and restful place, not the dismal utilitarian break room that most teachers know so well.
  6. Find meaningful social connections. UNT is adapting a second practice from Singapore, which is a room for teachers called “The Pulse.” Teachers office together in this room. In fact, they are not permitted to office out of their classrooms. Why? Social connection is restorative. Isolation leads to poor mental health.

Every workplace—especially K-12 education—must recognize that the stresses of life and work will wear people down. In our work, we’ve learned this is literally a life and death issue. Yet our cultural voices whisper, “Run a little faster, work a little harder.” We must all try to resist these voices. Better yet, educate them! We know a vital and well-documented truth. In your own setting, start a conversation about the need to restore health and well-being in our schools, our families, and our communities.

About the Author

Rex Miller is the lead author for Humanizing the Education Machine, which tells the story of what great 21st century learning looks like—and how to bring that dynamic into schools. His company, MindShift, has tackled numerous large and complex problems, including the waste and adversarial culture of the construction industry, and the chronic problem of workplace disengagement. His two books from these projects have both won international awards for innovation and excellence. His current project examines ways to create a healthy workplace in schools ( He can be reached via e-mail at

Navigating the Technology Superhighway

Navigating the Technology Superhighway

[Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, a recent book on challenges, trends, and insights on the future of Christian schools.]

Consider this: you live in a small town with many local roads. They are adequate for a time, but the population has reached the point of needing a highway system. The local officials, wanting to “keep up,” decide to build a network of highways to open up new ways of commuting. But instead of doing their due diligence to ensure the highways are designed to make travel more effective, they just start placing highways randomly.

Would this solve the problem? Maybe you would solve some of the problems randomly, but not likely. What kinds of problems do building roads without planning create? Traffic jams, accidents, extended commute times? We can agree that placing highways randomly would be an irresponsible way to approach roadway planning. And yet, have we taken this approach to technology in schools?

The Need for a Philosophy

Assuming we recognize the need for technology in our schools, we must start thinking about a “philosophy of technology.” Knowing what questions to ask when implementing a technology program in our schools is crucial. The way we choose to engage with technology in our schools might differ from how our neighbor chooses to do so—and that’s ok! Each school has its own unique needs and challenges to take into consideration.

Let’s start off with the “philosophy of technology.” Think of this as a school’s mission statement for the use of technology, which should answer the following questions: Why are we using technology? What kind of technology do we need? How does it tie into the overall mission and vision of our school? While technology is a wonderful servant, it can be a terrible master. Technology is an effective tool that can aid in teaching and learning. But similar to the example of planning new roadways for a city, if we do not have a clear mission and vision for technology, it can – and most likely will – be used in inappropriate or counterproductive ways. Schools must determine where technology will be used to advance the overall mission and where it will not.

Moving from Philosophy to Implementation

Once the school has determined its technology philosophy, there are a few cornerstone questions should be asked about implementing technology. The questions will vary based on what technology is chosen for the school and how it will be used. As a starting point, schools can ask the following four questions:

1. How will this technology empower our students to take control of their own learning? You might have noticed that more families have chosen to homeschool their students lately and one of the primary reasons is the ability to customize a student’s learning. By integrating new technologies, a school can offer students the ability to learn in new ways and broaden the school’s curriculum with classes online that are not offered on campus.

2. Who is responsible for providing the technology? These days, smartphones, tablets, and laptops are accessible to nearly every student. Determining whether the school or the student will supply the technology is important. There are challenges on both sides. If the school provides tablets, there is a major cost, but the school retains the ability to monitor activity more easily. If the students provide the tablets, the cost is removed from the school, but providing accountability can be a nightmare. Both are reasonable options, but the school must decide which works best.

3. How much personal technology will the school allow students to use – and when they can use it? Some schools require students to turn off (or turn in) their smartphones during the school day except for pre-designated short periods of time. Others deal with the distraction issues in different ways. Whatever the policy, it must be clearly understood and enforced. Helping students understand the spiritual and social challenges of personal technology is an important part of their education. A good resource is Dr. Kathy Koch (2015), who has written helpful books on teens and technology, most notably the excellent Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World. Another is The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch (2017), whose practical recommendations for families can be carried over into the school.

4. Is the proper support is in place for integrating technology? It is vital that before bringing in any new technology, such supports need to exist. Technology fails, security is breached, or an unanticipated problems arise. Adequate support must exist on the back end to address each scenario. This is both a personnel and a funding issue to be decided when as the school develops its philosophy.

The most helpful suggestion is for each school to gather as much information as possible, particularly from other schools trying to optimize their use of technology and guide their students to use it in a Christ-centered way. Sharing best practices and strategies will help students get the most from technology and overcome the challenges inherent in its constant presence. These commitments are critical for schools to equip students for living in this cultural moment for the glory of God.


  • Crouch, A. 2017. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
  • Koch, K. 2015. Screens and Teens: Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World. Chicago: Moody Press.

About the Author

Dhugie Adams worked as a firefighter and EMT after high school. His desire for authentic, meaningful discipleship brought him to Axis in 2014, where he traveled around North America speaking to students, teachers, and parents. Dhugie now lives fulltime in Colorado Springs, working as the Senior Director of Live Experience at Axis. He can be reached via e-mail at