Innovation and the ‘Digical’ School

Erik EllefsenInnovation, The CACE Roundtable2 Comments

My View: Innovation in Christian Schools
Educators in general and Christian schools in particular are often ridiculed for their lack of innovation, forward thinking, and risk taking. That criticism is what brought a small group of us together in 2010 to improve our own schools, and we found a group that was anxious to do something in an attempt to encourage innovation throughout the Christian school community.  According to the dictionary, innovation means “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods.” My friend and colleague Mitch Salerno adds to this when he often says, “Innovation can also be making old things new.”

Shortly after we founded the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation, we have seen the popularization of Winterim; a massive growth in International Student programs; Christian schools as the earliest adopters of 1-to-1 learning technology; the re-deployment of human capital to increase teacher leadership capacity; a variety of faith formation programs, and many other innovative initiatives. One of my favorite innovators is Stephen Harris in Australia from the Sydney Center for Innovation in Learning where they are re-imagining the use of space, facilities, and common areas for increased learning and community development.

There are four caveats that I’d like to state based upon what I believe are major misconceptions about innovation and schools:

  1. Innovation isn’t only about technology.
    I often find that people solely focus on technology as innovation when in reality innovation is much more than just technology. Because of the rapid changes to personal technology over the past ten years, it is understandable that we focus on technology, but usually technology is just a means to innovation in education.
  2. Innovation doesn’t have to be disruptive.
    Much has been promised to disrupt the industrial model of education, but I think people miss the real changes that are happening within our profession because they are so focused on finding a disruptive innovation hoping it will be the messiah for the brokenness of our current system.
  3. Innovation isn’t a guarantee for success.
    As school leaders, we have to consistently weigh the risks and rewards. Likewise, we must be able to implement innovation rather than just allowing it to always come from grassroots or external forces. In my experience the most innovative schools that don’t mind the messiness of implementation are also the most successful innovators.
  4. Innovation can be for the sake of innovation.
    Later in the blog I will mention ways to create an innovative culture, but there are times that innovation can and should be done simply for the sake of fostering more innovation. I do believe that there are times when a big leap forward needs to occur to energize an institution; therefore, innovation can be used to shock the system into greater action without it having immediate impact on student outcomes.

Power and Creating a Culture of Innovation
I believe that Andy Crouch’s book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power gives us as Christian School leaders a context for thinking about innovation as the power to create. In it he states, “Power is simply (and not so simply) the ability to participate in that stuff-making, sense-making process that is the most distinctive thing that human beings do.” To me, our desire as Christian school leaders should be to use power to open avenues for all members of our school community to participate in “stuff-making” and “sense-making.”  According to Crouch’s explanation, God used power in the beginning to create, and he will use power at the end to re-create. However, in the beginning he used the following two types of power that provide us a framework for doing innovation within our school context.

I highly encourage re-reading the Creation Story within this framework, but also reading Crouch’s explanation (pg. 32-22) as I’m not trying to provide a theological or philosophical explanation for leadership, but more of a practical application:

  1. Let There Be:
    I was surprised how God on the first five days of Creation used power that allowed creation to be directed through his will and intent. I often watch Christian school leaders inhibit innovation because they believe they have to personally do everything, or they allow innovation to become chaotic to the point of destroying the school culture, community, or finances because they are unaware or unwilling to oversee or direct the “organic” nature of innovation.In a sense, the dual dangers for the Christian school leader are squelching innovation or allowing it to create chaos. The innovative leader holds both tensions by allowing innovation to happen, but at the same time crafting it through word and knowledge. In my opinion, educators have the hardest time with this type of power.
  2. Let Us Make:
    Crouch points out that on the sixth day the three-person Trinity makes a personal statement as they declare “let us make” as they set about creating humankind. Crouch points out the transition to a more active and personal use of power stating, “This is no distant sovereign decree; it is an intensely personal decision to crown creation with the image bearers who will themselves be invited to share their Maker’s fruitful dominion over the world.”I believe that this type of leadership is what we as school leaders enjoy the most. We see an opportunity to innovate, and we get together with our leadership team and begin the process of creating an innovative solution. It is most fun in our work to be personally invested with others to do innovation to craft an institution of our liking.

Ultimately, we see that these two uses of power create a dynamic culture of creativity and innovation. In another great HBR article Leading Your Team into the Unknown the authors state, “Innovation is at the heart a process of discovery, and so the role of the person leading it is to set other people down a path…To lead innovation, you don’t have to be the next Steve Jobs, nor do you need to guess the future. Rather, you must carve out the mental space within which the innovation process can be carried out.”

Characteristics of Innovators
Even though you or I may not be the next Steve Jobs, I do think that Forbes provides an understanding of what characteristics are indicative of an innovator in their research Five Habits of Highly Innovative Leaders.  In short, they found that anyone can innovate if they work on developing the following skills:

  1. Cognitive Skill: Associative Thinking  The leader begins to look at how things within the organization connect, but sees larger trends or innovations in other markets or across markets that might be applied for growth within the organization and its market. This is difficult for most educational leaders because they are myopically focused on their work within the school, their community and a local marketplace.
  2. Behavioral Skills:
    • Questioning: This is to get at the root of challenging the status quo to bring about clarity on why and how the company is doing what it does.
    • Observing: This allows the innovator to detect needed changes or adjustments to work or relationships. Leaders get so busy doing work that they don’t observe the work within the organization and miss the opportunities to see where innovation can occur.
    • Experimenting: The authors of the research state that experimenting “prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart, and test new ideas.” Most innovators start with small innovations to get at much larger and disruptive innovations through experimentation.
    • Networking: I recently asked Are You Connected? in my previous blog, and in my experience, networking is the key to innovation because it gets you out of your own reality to interact with other people to see what can be or might be possible. The most innovative educational leaders I know have the broadest networks.

Understanding power and innovation, using it to incubate innovation, and deploying it to build an innovative school culture is necessary to build schools and a future for a dynamic and exciting future in education.

The Digical School
With the onset of digital technology, we have been told that we will do all shopping online, entertainment will be completely at home, and education will be completely self-paced through the use of online programs and a personal computer. Despite the massive growth in online shopping, at-home entertainment, and online education, the physical spaces and stores haven’t become obsolete because humans are naturally social. Therefore, placing a singular focus on the “either/or” debate of physical space versus online technology is becoming an obsolete idea as the “and/both” relationship is beginning to create a completely different way to do business, work, and education.

Bain & Company has trademarked the term Digical, and they state that, “both the digital world and the physical one are indispensable parts of life and of business. The real transformation taking place today isn’t the replacement of the one by the other, it’s the marriage of the two into combinations that create wholly new sources of value.”

Also, in a must-read HBR article “Digital-Physical Mashups” Darrell Rigby says, “The central problem with either extreme is that it fails to account for how customers have changed: They now weave their digital and physical worlds so tightly together that they can’t fathom why companies haven’t done the same…My colleagues and I have studied more than 300 companies around the globe and have worked directly with hundreds more that are trying to cope with the dazzling but daunting changes reshaping the marketplace. We’ve found that most industries are still in the early stages of digital-physical transformation. We’ve also found that the greatest barrier to adopting fusion strategies is not skepticism about their promise but inexperience with their execution”

As Christian school leaders we should create innovation strategies to methodically transform our physical schools into much more dynamic “digical schools.”

I haven’t fully worked out what a digical school will or could be because I think each will be unique to the context in which it operates; however, I do know that there are already schools further along the path to integrating new digital tools with traditional physical spaces. Likewise, I think digical schools are less of a revolution in education and more of an evolution to a new reality. Lastly, unlike some of my more Luddite friends, I believe that these types of schools will be able to create synergies in productivity bringing about greater dynamism to our schools and profession.

Five principles of digical schools I have been pondering include:

  1. Create Cost Efficiencies
  2. Marketplace Expansion
  3. Maximization of Resources and Distinctiveness
  4. Increased Individualization of Learning, but within the social context of school
  5. Greater Discipleship and Community Building Opportunities
  6. Create a Dynamic Teaching, Learning, and Doing Culture

I hope to engage in the explication of these principles more in next few months, and I always enjoy the conversations that promote the innovation that will allow us to create great Christian schools.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

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