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?

Flipping the Classroom

We’ve written before about the inverted or flipped classroom pedagogy (for example: here, here, and here), and today there is an interesting column on the subject in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jennifer Ebbeler, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The column points out that the flipped classroom requires the instructor to find useful PBLactivities for students to do during the time in the classroom that would otherwise be occupied by lectures. This can be a challenge. I’ve tried the Socratic dialogue approach and competitive presentations with some success, but in a large class these methods simply doesn’t work because not all students are equally engaged. Joey in the back row with his backwards baseball cap simply tunes out. The project-based learning that I wrote about in my last post seems ideal for a flipped classroom, but I will need to find a way of preventing students from assuming that they can meet before or after class to get everything done. This means activities that promote collaboration, in other words, activities that function as:

  1. Formative assessment checkpoints — has each student or each group completed stage 1 and stage 2 before moving onto stage 3? What exactly should each stage consist of?
  2. Processes for constructive peer evaluation — is each student contributing effectively to whatever the group has to accomplish in order bring its project to completion?

Where Are The Lantern Slides?

Second post in a series about presentations . . .

I attended (ok, participated in) a conference in another discipline in which presenters traditionally read excerpts of their papers — verbatim. I find the practice odd for a few reasons. First, few people are talented enough at reading scripts to be able to hold an audience’s attention for more than 30 seconds. Second, if we are practitioners of the flipped classroom pedagogy in which students first encounter content outside of class, then reciting a text that no one has previously read doesn’t make much sense. Time and money is better spent on more complex cognitive activities.

Mark Twain's TourWhy does this conference panel format still exist? It’s likely that untenured instructors and graduate students regard these conference presentations as de facto requirements for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Disciplinary professional associations and hotel chains are only happy to encourage this belief. When panel sessions consistently attract audiences that are smaller in size than the panels themselves, it suggests that  conference attendees simply want to add more lines to their respective curriculum vitaes. And if that’s the case, there’s little incentive for them to care much about content or delivery of their presentations, as long as they get to present.

Board Shorts

This semester I’m teaching in a classroom where, as happens all to often, the wall-mounted projection screen, when pulled down, obscures most of the white board that I’m supposed to write on. I’m left with perhaps two square meters of writing space. For several weeks I was frustrated with the mis-design of the classroom — for this course I  show a lot of images and use a lot of unfamiliar terminology that I write on the board.

One day in class I realized that the lack of writing space could actually serve a useful purpose — instead of erasing the board to fill it up with more writing as I talked, I could use a it as a signal that it was time to take a break from lecturing. I began timing myself by watching the clock on the opposite wall, and sure enough, filling that space with notes took me about ten minutes, the same as the typical attention span of  undergraduates. It was my cue to interrupt the lecture by posing a question or two to the students and engaging them in a conversation.

I Got My Flippy Floppies….

Heard of the “Flipped Classroom” yet? The zany notion that students should engage the materials outside class, and then work through the concepts with one another and with the instructor during the class period?  It’s got all the educators talking in the K-12 category. In its most specific application, instructors are intended to record their best lectures for the students to view at home, and then work through their questions and answers when they arrive in the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education did a piece on it last year. (I would link to it but you must have a subscription to view the content. Go here instead.)

The jargon is hot stuff…. the concept however….. is fuzzier than a first class Angora rabbit.


The “flipped” craze rhymes quite strongly with all those concepts espoused under the notion of active learning techniques: peer instruction, kinesthetic and highly social classrooms, active interaction instead of passive reception, problem-based learning, inverted classrooms, student-led inquiry….etc…etc…. In short, it no-more points to a specific technique than the words “active learning” and if that’s what it takes to get buy-in from instructors then have at it!

Flipping ain’t flippin’ new! It just isn’t…. BUT!!!!

It gave me an idea….
There is potential for true innovation here. Why not flip with already available sources?

Why not make use of the best of the resources offered by the MOOC Community (Massive Open Online Course) from well-established organizations like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Open Courseware system?

I know…. I know….. blasphemy….. allowing some other professor to lecture my topic for me? But consider the benefits….

First, you can flip a course without having to mess about with recording yourself (which is damned awkward anyhow). Second, you can bring all sorts of different lecturers into your course at no cost. Third, this leaves you classtime open to really push on the concepts and ideas.

I would likely eliminate a textbook in lieu of the online lecture. But I would still assign my usual scholarly article snippets with guided reading questions.

My hope is that in roughly the same period of time of preparation my students will have prepared themselves more effectively.

This also allows me to eliminate the lecture portion of my day. (And yes, I still lecture… for about 20 minutes in a 1 hour and 15 minute class)

Stay tuned… I’ll try it out next week and see how it goes.


Is It Better To Fly Blind Or Naked?

This semester I’m teaching a course on globalization; it’s the first time such a course has been offered at my university. I wasn’t too keen on trying to come up with a semester’s worth of lecture notes on the course’s topic over my winter break. So I decided simply not to lecture. No lecture, no lecture prep.

I had heard of the “teach naked” phenomenon whereby instructors avoid use of modern technology in the classroom, but I had never experienced going into a semester completely blind to what might be said in class on any given day. So far it’s been enlightening, scary, and fun, all at the same time.

My initial worry was “how am I going to fill up 75 minutes of class without any formal presentation of previously-organized information?” My basic pedagogical philosophy is read-read-read, write-write-write, so I knew — as I do in all my other courses — that some class time could be occupied with discussion of the reading. But it took quite a leap of faith to stand back and actually explore ideas that come from the readings as part of an extended conversation. I’m noticing that by not lecturing I more frequently get to point out broader implications of what students are saying, and, so far at least, the students are attentive and engaged.