Innovation for innovation’s sake?

I’ve been meeting new colleagues in recent weeks, as new contracts begin and as I get geared up for the start of the academic year. Couple that to interviewing people for new posts and I’m getting to talk to a good range of people about their teaching.images

One of the things I’m always interested in is what people do. Everyone’s got something that’s a bit different and I certainly don’t presume to know it all, so I ask. A student-led pedagogy here, a piece of group work there: all interesting stuff.

This is by way of a prelude to a recent discussion, where I was asking someone about how they’ve innovated their teaching. Their reply was that they ‘don’t innovate, actually.’

This rather disarmed me, especially as it transpired they were doing some great things with feedback (maybe to discuss in another post), but it raised an important question: do we innovate for innovation’s sake sometimes?

Here at the ALPS blog, we love talking about new stuff. That’s partly because it offers new ways to engage students, partly because it gives us new material to write about, and partly because… well, because it’s new and different.

At the same time, I think we also recognise that new-ness isn’t, in of itself, a sufficient reason to use a particular technique. Our primary interest is in doing things as well as possible. That might mean trying out something new, because we don’t know if it works, but it also means not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

To take the obvious example, lectures are not the unambiguous evil that they sometimes get painted as. As a method of presenting a package of ideas to the audience, with some capacity for real-time interaction, they are great. They let you tailor your content in a way that you can’t do in a flipped classroom and, when they are done well, they can be a thing of joy to be part of.

The difficulty comes – as so often – in the stickiness of practice. We do the thing we did before, because we don’t have time to change, or because we have no incentive to change, or because it’s ‘good enough.’ I’m just as guilty of it as the next person.

Seen as such, it’s not so much a lack of innovation that’s the problem, as it is inertia.

Perhaps the answer here is to do a bit of the old jujitsu and use the problem to find a way to deal with it. Rather than asking ourselves: “what can I do that’s new?”, we should be saying “what can I tweak to improve?” Rather than working from a clear sheet each time, we can build incrementally on existing practice to make something a bit better. For most people, most of the time, such a gradual approach is both lower in cost and likely to produce useful outcomes.

Of course, for some, more radical solutions are needed, but if there is a culture of tweaking and refinement, then that will be accompanied by a culture of (self-)reflection and an awareness of the limits to any one approach.

The real challenge here is to build that culture and to then support it. It needs buy-in from all teaching staff and a habit of sharing ideas and problems. That’s certainly not easy but it looks more manageable than asking for permanent revolution.

So then: Brit argues for pragmatic approach. Not so surprising, is it?

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