The Highs and Lows of the Educational Innovator: of cobbles, haircuts, and flipped assessment (Pt. Three)

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Arc de Triomphe lit up for the final stage of Le Tour De France. Image Credit:

We started by looking at radical innovation and one example in my own unit of how this can play out in the fieldLast time, we drew some conclusions from the experience, in particular, looking to the peculiar nature of educational innovation.

Here, I provide some reflections on what an innovative context needs. These thoughts are not exhaustive, but are given as a starting point for discussion.

Stability. Stability. Stability. — Innovation thrives in a stable context. What this means is that a faculty member is given a commitment that they can teach a unit or course over a multi-year period. This immediately signals to the educator that they have both the time to try out and modify new things as well as the longevity to enjoy the rewards of their labours. Chopping and changing the teaching roster is the worst context for innovation.

Learning from others — I stressed above the slow learning cycle of Educational innovation. One way to short-circuit this is to learn from others successes and failures. We can encourage this in concentric circles: individual faculty members being encouraged to look to the educational literature to build skills; faculty members teaching and training others in new innovations; faculty members getting to educational conferences (yes, educational conferences ..) alongside their scientific conference trips; and larger institutions exploring systematic trials of innovations across their offerings. All of these methods speed up the innovation process.

Funding innovation — whilst it is standard practice to fund (internal, faculty, university, and externally) scientific innovation, it is far less common that money exists for funding educational innovation. Innovation costs time and effort, money enables the educator to augment their own time with teaching- and research- assistance to get the innovation off the ground.

Educational innovation as Creativity — now the golden calf. Most serious institutions have strong and binding incentive mechanisms around encouraging scientific creativity in their academic staff. And so they should. These mechanisms create an implied culture of esteem towards the creative scientist, rewarded for their ground-breaking scientific ideas. But educational innovation? Presently, educational innovation is seen too often as a home-spun activity on the side of the ‘real game’ of scientific research. Junior staff are warned against spending too much time on their teaching. Departments bifurcate between serious research staff and educational staff. All of this speaks to a culture which doesn’t value educational innovation as a creative activity in itself.

When I innovate in the classroom, I use the same tools, thinking and creativity that I use in my scientific research. But strangely, often only when I bend my creative skills towards science do I feel the warmth of academic praise on my back. Far less so when I score a success in the classroom. The situation is objectively baffling. As an economist, I’ll again say that kind word around educational innovation count for little.  What matters are material changes to the incentive structures. Only then will a serious shift in thinking and culture come about. If we esteem educational innovation as a valid form of creative endeavour, faculty members will allocate time to it, seek funding for it, and collaborate to achieve it.

Measurement — finally, there’s a pressing need to develop ways of measuring innovation in the classroom. Presently, scientific creativity is measured by journal publications of the highest quality. This seems a reasonable proxy for where any idea today sits within the infinitely lived ideas-map of humankind. But what of educational innovation? Should we require every innovator to write-up their innovation and get it published? Isn’t the success confirmed in the experience of the students? What of unit evaluations — unfortunately, these only capture the experiences of a single cohort, what matters, surely is the change in the educational experience over time, how would you measure that? Is there an index of ‘lives-changed’, of ‘career-altering-moments’, of ‘ah-ha! moments per head’? .. We have some work to do.

Some of the ideas above are relatively simple to put in place. Stable staffing approaches, contingent on wider timetabling demands, should be achievable for most academic departments. Funding educational innovation is often of the few-thousand-dollar kind, not the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollar kind, and so, again, should be achievable even for a relatively small faculty or department.

Others require serious reflection and change. In my nearly ten years as an academic educator I’m happy to say that I’ve received strong support from my superiors, and I’ve tried to be an agent of change in my own department. However, I recognise that I have an innovative educational tendency which would probably survive a more austere context. More generally, I see a lot of work to do to develop our thinking on the merits of educational creativity.

Like most things in life which are worth the effort, success will take time.


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The Highs and Lows of the Educational Innovator: of cobbles, haircuts, and flipped assessment Part Three by Dr Simon Angus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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