Inquiry & Learning for Change


John Watkins, Director of Inquiry & Learning for Change

John grew up thinking he would be a famous artist or at least climb Mt Everest, inspired by maps and artists worldwide, and always drawn both to museums and to wilderness and wild places. He read, among others, John Muir, Herman Hesse, Sartre, Lao Tzu, Thoreau, Gary Snyder, and Heidegger in high school (not that all of these were for his classes!).

John’s parents were poets and literary critics, and always had painters and other artists hanging around. In his late teens John was rescued by Lance Lee, a wild man who was involved in starting the North Carolina Outward Bound School. Lance sent him off to be a student at Colorado Outward Bound at the tender age of 16, and then became his mentor while he worked for Outward Bound through his early twenties.

While working for OB in NC, CO, MN, and ME, John fell in love with experiential education, complex and ambivalent learning environments, group process, adult learning, and facilitation in complex settings. He eventually received his BA in Art History from Amherst College, and after a number of years as a high school art teacher, returned to school and earned his EdM and then his EdD in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

While at Harvard, John studied with Chris Argyris, Peter Senge, Michael Huberman, and Eleanor Duckworth, reconnected with an earlier love, Gregory Bateson, and thus developed a deep appreciation of systems theory, constructivism, and adult learning theory, while learning consulting theory and practice. John’s dissertation advisor, Joe Maxwell, taught him the culture and practice of ethnography and an appreciation of diversity.

John began his thirty-plus year career as a coach, consultant, researcher, and evaluator in education and other organizations while still in graduate school, working initially with Ted Sizer at The Coalition of Essential schools.  His assignments there led him to develop the Coalition’s change theory/strategy, and thus change management workshops for, and “critical friends” visits between, school leadership teams involved in school restructuring.

John Watkins, Director

Later, John shifted toward working with increasingly urban and underserved communities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Oakland, coaching and consulting with school and school district leaders and leadership teams, supporting school redesign with an equity agenda. At the same time he developed a parallel interest in supporting leadership and organizational development in non-profits and government agencies. John credits these urban students, teachers, school leaders, and non-profit professionals such as those at the National Equity Project with his most profound learning experiences, and with grounding his practice in pragmatic settings while staying true to high standards, a hopefulness and heart-centered, humanistic system of values, and theory based work.

John considers himself to be a scholar-practitioner, each mode of thinking and working informing the other. He is deeply committed to equity, to social justice, and to democratic, healthy, and sustainable workplaces and communities.  He lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife, Jessica, and is an avid Anusara yoga practitioner, appreciator of the locavore food movement, oenophile, lover of Bay Area hiking in open space preserves, and off-trail backpacker. John and Jessica have become long distance trekkers in the past few years, deriving healing and great metaphors from such routes as the Cape Wrath Trail in far northwest Scotland, and the GR-10 in the Pyrenees. John is the proud father of two grown sons, both happily married, professional musicians, and now one a social worker, and the other an interior designer, mostly for schools.

Underneath Vignemale in the French Pyrenees