Over the past year, I’ve been honored to visit schools and learn from many teachers and students. I’ve met founders of education startups, devoted teachers, engaged learners, strong and visionary school leaders, and no small number of people who are seeking to start new schools in the upcoming years. As I’ve visited, interviewed, observed, studied, and learned from these people and organizations, I often find myself saying a prayer of thanks for the many gifts that God has granted to these people and for the wonderfully creative things that people are doing in education.
Consider some of the following:
- While in Vietnam, I met a teacher who, earlier in his career, built an actual airplane with his students.
- In Australia, I visited a university where the students get to help design some of the learning and study spaces.
- In Milwaukee, I visited a school where the students take turns preparing the lunch meals for one another.
- In Texas, I visited a school where students collectively take care of keeping the school clean. They work on intensive six-week projects throughout the year, but each person has a personalized learning pathway.
- I interviewed the founder of an education company who was inspired by visiting an escape room, so he created a simple wooden box with locks and a few other items, and then created a template for how you can use this to create rich learning games that help students develop twenty-first-century skills, such as teamwork and problem-solving, while also learning new course content.
- I met another guy who started an organization that is trying to design self-directed learning software that affords children educational opportunities in parts of the world where there are no schools or teachers or where they are restricted from school.
- I met a founder of a business that does catering for schools, runs a bakery, and makes linens and other products—all by equipping/training people with various cognitive and physical disabilities to make the food, create the products, and provide the service.
- I interviewed the founder of a new type of college focused almost entirely on helping students discover their callings, refine their knowledge and skill, and connect with mentors in the city who can help them explore future vocations.
- I learned from schools where being in the classroom is the exception, with most of the time being spent on rich and educational field trips, hands-on projects, and internships.
- I learned about schools like Renton Prep in Seattle that are taking the jump into designing augmented and virtual reality learning experiences for young people.
- I also learned from dozens of people who are creating new and incredibly creative private and charter schools, with hundreds of others in development around the world.
This is a promising time for Lutheran education. Lutheran schools are often not bound by as many policies and restrictions as their public school counterparts. If and when they are willing, they are capable of exploring and embracing a variety of approaches to teaching and learning that will best help them achieve their distinct mission. They are not bound to the dominant models for schooling or approaches to formal education. They are free to embrace that which best helps them achieve their mission.
Lutheran schools have centuries of inspiration from which to draw. We were early champions for education that serves both boys and girls. We were early advocates for literacy for all. We were among the first educational institutions to embrace this powerful technology called the mass-produced book for teaching and learning. American Lutheran schools navigated the shift from instruction in German to English, no small task. In other words, we’ve consistently navigated changes to how we go about Lutheran schooling while striving to remain faithful to the mission of proclaiming Christ and Him crucified, remaining faithful in that proclamation to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.
We understand that there is nothing sacred about many common and dominant practices in schooling because we know what is truly sacred in life. This is why I continue to be a champion for what I refer to as missional innovation. It is not just innovation for its own sake or in pursuit on the next shiny or flashy educational trend. It is innovation with a mission, innovation that helps further the distinct mission of Lutheran education. It starts with a deep understanding and exploration of what is and should be non-negotiable and unchanging about who we are, why we are, and what we do, followed by a willingness to embrace the gifts of creativity and innovation in service to those non-negotiables. It is approached with humility but courage, respect for traditions but gratitude for the gifts of the present and emerging future. This is the vision for missional innovation in Lutheran education.