The Tao of Innovation in Education? Reflections From St. Anne’s Episcopal, Denver

This was also posted today on my blog The Learning Pond. It is not about the process of questioning, but I think is raises an important question.

Warning: synthesis ahead. I am going to give the punch line both here at the beginning and then at the end: as we all try to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, we must remember to give equal priority to that which does not change in our world.

Last week in talking with Alan Smiley, Head at St. Anne’s Episcopal School in Denver, I knew that he had touched on a very important theme.  He talked about the need to balance tradition and innovation, the rate of change that we recognize in the world around us with the need for a school, and indeed for students and adults, to have a center or focus that does not change.  I knew it was an important point, but I also knew I would not grasp the real meaning without time to reflect.  It was there, teasing me, just past the range of my understanding as I wrapped up at St. Anne’s, drove away, and prepped for the rest of my busy week.

I “got it”, NOT coincidentally, after I turned off of I-70 East, the major six lane that boldly pounds across our heartland in its coast-to-coast dash, onto a smaller blue highway, which winds through the green, rolling hardwoods and rich bottom lands of the Missouri countryside.   Speeds are slower, small crossroad towns flicker by, John Deere dealers and back road burger stands more common

than Arby’s and McDonalds. Once I slowed down, which was, I think, Alan’s point, I got it.  (I have to give credit to roaming blue highways, those smaller roads on your AAA map, to one of my heroes, author and owner of one of the most American of all names, William Least Heat Moon.)

Here’s the dilemma:

Education used to be a slow, deliberate, almost cautious business, long study and talks between cloistered dons and young men with time.  Since the dawn of the Progressive Era the pace of education has constantly increased.  Schools keep pace with the rate of change in the world as the thirst for knowledge acquisition grows. We add real and self-imposed goals of fulfilling additional social needs.  We pile on increasingly competitive college admissions; parents, students, and we educators press the pedal to the floor even harder.  Now comes the kicker: one of the blue-letter keys to true innovation is to pilot rapidly, test rapidly, fail rapidly, rethink and retry.   Good innovating requires a constant state of innovation.

On the other hand, we know  that the deepest understanding, moments of greatest clarity, epiphanies, the stuff that sticks with us and makes all the other stuff make sense, in other words the wisdom in our lives, comes not when we are racing down the 6-lane highway, but when we get off on the blue road, the trail, the quiet spots, the meditation space.  We fold back into our mental and moral centers, decrease the rate and number of inputs, and, as so many great educators, philosophers, and people of faith have said, find presence in the moment.

When we talk about balance in schools, it is mostly about balancing academics, the arts, and athletics, the breadth that we offer our students.  We default to the argument that academics are the source of pressure, and if students get time for arts and athletics and a few other non-classroom-based activities, they will lead more balanced lives.  This view of balance is not the best we can do.  Balance makes us think of a teeter-totter, or standing straight on a narrow beam. If we lean too far in one direction, we correct by exerting force back the other way. By definition, “balancing” requires us to add to one side of the fulcrum by taking away from the other.

What I think Alan was saying (and if not, it is what I realized about an hour east of Kansas City on the two-lane section of Highway 50) is that leaning left and right of a central tipping point won’t achieve this balance. The calm centers of tradition, reflection, slowing down, and understanding our center in the moment have to exist at the exact same time as we rapidly ideate, pilot, and innovate.  This is the new Tao of education.  It is hard to do, but we have to do it and we can.  I don’t know completely what this looks like; I will know a lot more after visiting with many educators who are creating this Tao right now.  But I am learning some pieces.

Neither rapid creativity nor calm centers will be effective if they remain where they are on most school’s priority list.  If innovation at your school revolves around a half-day discussion at an opening day faculty meeting, a few follow-ups, pilots that take 2-3 years to engage, and a section in your five-year strategic plan, it is not innovation.  Innovation has to be a constantly percolating pot.  You just have to decide what your school wants to cook, and get to work.

Similarly, creating moments of reflection at that same low frequency, an annual admin retreat, a weekend at the end of your summer vacation, an outside speaker in a Health and Fitness class, do not allow us to benefit from mindfulness as we can and should.  Cramming time to “slow down” into the bottom of a hectic schedule is oxymoronic.

Like any Tao, it is hard to describe, but we know when we get it right.  I think Alan and St. Anne’s feel they are getting it right. The mechanics and ratios will be different for each school; it is, after all, a mindset and not a formula.  That is the point.  As we all try to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, we must remember to give equal priority to that which does not change in our world. Finding the truth of this duality in your school may be one of the real keys to successful innovation, as opposed to just dancing even faster to ever-changing tunes.

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2 Responses to The Tao of Innovation in Education? Reflections From St. Anne’s Episcopal, Denver

  1. What a great post. I recently finished my master’s thesis where I tried to unpack a similar idea using two psychological archetypes: puer (youth) and senex (wisdom). If you’re interested:


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