Musings on Educational Innovation & Staying Grounded

Much of my work focuses upon change and innovation in the education sector. I admit that it is all-consuming sometimes. I’m tracking trends, developments, research, seeming successes, failed experiments, advancements outside of education that might find their way into the sector, and following discourse around contemporary themes. I’m looking for patterns, connections, peculiar gaps, opportunities and emerging risks. I keep an idea book by my bed at night, turning to it several times before many mornings; my way of dealing with thoughts that will not let me sleep unless I give them the courtesy of writing them down. Whether I’m walking or driving from one place to another, I’m almost always thinking about connections, models, frameworks, examples, problems, emerging opportunities, illustrations, and often about affordances and limitations. I’m asking questions, grappling with different ways to explore answers, and stretching myself to imagine more possibilities than I did the week before. It isn’t uncommon to get lost as I’m following some idea, so I have to backtrack until I find something familiar, read and study more, then try that path again; a process that takes anywhere from a few days to several years.

Some people are troubled by the rate of change in the world, the constant educational trends and innovations, the inability to keep up with it all, or the potential risks and losses. For one reason or another, I’m not. I’m mostly just deeply curious about it all and I aspire to help shape or curb things in what seem like positive directions. This is like some grand intellectual adventure for me, and I look forward to each new twist.

Being seemingly wired this way (a likely blend of nature and nurture), I learned early on that I function best with anchors. When you are absorbed in a world of change, innovation, disruption and disequilibrium; it can be disorienting. You can get lost in your own thinking, so having a few anchors seems to help. For me, that comes down to some of my core religious convictions, but I’ve also come to recognize how I’ve even build physical anchors in my life that allow me to explore this world of constant change with comfort. I should warn you in advance that this is not a typical post for me. This time I’m looking a bit inward.

My place of work is along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Years ago we remodeled the road leading to the main entrance so that you drive right next to the bluff overlooking the lake. There is one spot where I often pause and take in the view. Sometimes I park the car, wander over to a picnic table, look and listen. What amazes me is that I’ve been to this same spot probably a few hundred times and I’ve driven by it over a thousand. Yet, each time it is as if I am in a different location. It is the same spot but the view is new every day. The lighting changes. The clouds and colors of the sky change. The landscape changes. The color and texture of the water changes. The wildlife changes. If I were to take a picture each day for a year, every one would be unique.


This view is never so familiar that I lose the desire or interest to stop and experience it one more time. It is one of my four or five most grounding spots in the world. Sometimes when I an struggling with a major decision, I go out to this place. I’ve never had an epiphany or “Road to Damascus” moment at this site. I sometimes leave the site as unclear and uncertain as before, but there is still something grounding about it for me. This place reminds me of my past (I graduated from this college years ago) and the seemingly endless emerging possibilities.

Then there is this room in my home. When we first bought the house, it was bedroom number six of an 1912 fixer upper. We certainly didn’t need six bedrooms, so I turned this room into a space that I’d dreamed of having since college, a home library. I had a gifted carpenter create two walls of 8-foot built-in bookshelves, enough to hold at least half of my collection. I salvaged a massive pocket door from a condemned mansion and had a custom cast iron barn door frame built for it. That is now the entrance to the library. When you walk in the room, you will see walls of books and a dozen or so instruments: a djembe that was hand-carved in Ghana, a decorative didgeridoo from my trip to Melbourne, a talking drum from Ghana, a ukulele, a couple of guitars, tin whistles, a bodhran that my in-laws brought back from Ireland, and a few other hand drums. Folk instruments and music remind me about the amazing gifts that people develop beyond the formal walls of a classroom.

Then there is the art, nothing expensive but everything meaningful. There is a large print of the Tower of Babel, originally painted by Laura James in her wonderful Ethiopian folk style. It reminds me of humanity’s hubris, and serves a caution to me about the pursuit of innovation and grand achievements when not grounded in a noble mission or vision. is a print of the Piasa Bird, a Native American dragon painted on the bluffs along the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois, where I was born. Legends of dragons have always intrigued me, partly because of the mystery…also because they remind me of the rich and amazing imagination that inspires some of our grandest stories and adventures. It existed for hundreds of years before Europeans came to the New World. Then it was first documented by Father Jacques Marquette who was also among the first to map the northern part of the Mississippi River. He was an explorer with a mission…something that resonates with me. This print reminds me of my roots. Despite living in many parts of the United States, I was born by the Mississippi River, which always made me feel like an insider when I read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I’ve considered it an unbreakable connection with the work of T.S. Eliot who was born just on the other side of the same river. To be born less than thirty miles away from his birthplace gave me an even greater drive to grapple with his meaning-packed poems that pull from countless cultures (For a haunting description of the Mississippi River by Eliot, read “The Dry Salvages”). I moved a great deal as a kid, but even to this day, when I see the Mississippi River, I have this strange blended experience of home and constant, unrelenting change and movement.

There are two other pieces of art. One is a hand-painted picture of St. George and the Dragon on a jagged goat skin from Ethiopia. I’ve long loved the different versions of this legend, but the more figurative concept of “dragon slaying” has been a source of inspiration for me in my life and work. Next to St. George and the Dragon is  a print of a painting by Frank Wesley called The Forgiving Father. It is a depiction of the Prodigal Son, just returned and resting in the arms of his father. Wesley was born and grew up in India, and I first came across this picture in a magazine. I was so taken by it that I spent months trying to hunt down prints of his work, but to no avail. I continued to search and discovered that Wesley moved to Australia later in life and passed away some time ago…but his wife was still alive. Using the power of the web, I eventually found her email address and sent her a message explaining how much I appreciated her husband’s work. We soon talked on the phone and she seemed happy to hear about my interest. I learned that there were no prints of this painting, but she had slides of all his art in the attic. She offered to take the slides to the printer and send me a copy of The Forgiving Father. This painting reminds me of the power of mercy and forgiveness, but it also gives me joy as I think about the power and possibility of connecting with people around the world. More broadly, it reminds me that connections are some of the most powerful things in this world.

johnnypyeThen there are the books. There is an incomplete collection of the Harvard Classics that I picked up at a garage sale for ten dollars soon after college (of course I read them…most of them), a large section of biographies and autobiographies (Gandhi, Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Leila Ahmed, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton…), books on the history of books, my “media ecology” section, theology, history, philosophy, a large collection on both higher education and alternative education, psychology, cultural studies, the history and philosophy of education, books on innovation and entrepreneurship, a wide assortment of books on the intersection of spirituality and education, my collection of primary works from world religions, and plenty of classic and more contemporary fiction. There are several stacks of books on the tables, each representing a train of thought for some past, present or near future project. There are signed copies and a few first editions (nothing of much value), including a few copies of a story by Stephen Vincent Benet called Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer, a book that has both haunted and inspired me ever since I first read it almost twenty years ago…a warning to me about devoting my life to “foolishness.”

mr-potato-headI could go on about the many items in my library. There are random wooden puzzles and brain teasers reminding me about the joy of mysteries and overcoming challenges. There are a handful of robot kits my kids and I put together, a box with my very first computer from 1981 (the Timex Sinclair 1000), and a box of the original Mr. Potato Head from the early 1950s. Each item is tied to a memory, lesson or illustration that is important to me. There is even a row of four “weebles“, one for each member of my immediate family, because “We Bulls wobble but we don’t fall down.” There is nothing of great monetary value in this room, but it is packed with memories, illustrations, stories, and inspiration. When I write in this room, it is like I’m pulling from all of them, mixing and modifying them to make sense of life and learning in a contemporary world.

These are the anchors of a person who finds his calling in exploring and mapping the constant streams of change and educational innovation.