Making space for innovation: a higher education challenge

Risk, chance and disruption can be paths to innovative teaching practice. Here, Michelle Prawer offers ways to bring more flexibility into the classroom

Michelle Prawer's avatar
Victoria University
24 Feb 2023
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Educators know that well-planned classes often deviate from the original lesson design and that new practices are born of unexpected twists and turns within the education space. Multiple advantages lie in the serendipitous, and while being daring is risky and can upset the status quo, benefits are almost certain to come out of it. Disruption can lead to innovation.

In the end, successful learning depends on teachers’ and institutions’ ability to offer flexible and creative approaches to delivery of curriculum material. As an academic involved in teacher education, I promote the notion that all teachers need to have “flexible” as their middle name if they are to make a difference.

The block model approach to higher education is a clear example of flexibility and risk-taking that involves daring, bravery and significant disruption, and it’s one that has brought rich benefits to Victoria University (VU). Moving from the semester model of four subjects studied concurrently, VU initially put a toe in the water when it adopted the block approach of one subject at a time across all first-year subjects, creating sweeping and risky change for both students and staff. The result was significantly increased student engagement, retention and satisfaction. While naysayers persisted, the flexibility and daring demonstrated have led to block being adopted at all levels across the university and in all courses – to much acclaim.

But change is often seen as a threat and tradition is often the holy grail, so how might we continue to execute innovative practice within the requirements of the block model and, more broadly, within the realm of higher education?

Dare to experiment

My advice is to experiment, knowing that you will not break the system and can notch up any disasters to experience. The 21st-century world requires that we produce the next generation of innovative thinkers who are prepared to take risks and who understand that failure is as much a learning opportunity as is success. It is OK to demonstrate to students the value of the learning that happens through failure and to acknowledge the value of having a go, knowing that creativity is born of challenging the system. When I designed a new course in arts integration, it took a few failures in assessment design (highlighted to me by students, who struggled to understand my intention) before I got the task correct. Sharing with students that they were part of my learning journey to perfect the course provided a rich education for those I teach.

While there is a difference between a distraction and an opportunity, a good teacher learns to expect the unexpected and uses these moments to achieve rich pedagogical gains.

Innovate under the radar

Often, seeking permission for change is fraught with hurdles. Naysayers can easily undermine passion and enthusiasm, as can bureaucratic requirements, so quietly experiment within the structure of your institution to avoid drawing undue attention to the innovation you are proposing. Acknowledge that often it is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to obtain permission.

At VU, for example, where the block model specifies class duration, curriculum details and face-to-face delivery mode, we were able to innovate under the radar by team teaching across the ocean with colleagues in the US. While at VU we remained, as required, seated in our nominated classroom, students from the University of Montana Western (UMW) studied with us, attending on Zoom and participating in a shared project, broadening the knowledge base for all. No timetabling changes were required, no alteration to curriculum occurred, and there was no need to ask for permission to experiment with team teaching across two continents and two universities.

In terms of innovative practice, we disrupted from within, providing students with an opportunity to “study abroad” and work with foreign students, without leaving their Melbourne classroom. Whatever we hoped for and planned in our initial collaboration, it became evident that the benefits lay in the serendipitous, and that the between-the-lines benefits were valuable for both learners and teachers. This sort of encounter was necessarily dominated by chance, inspired by a belief in the benefits, but it involved minimal risk, allowing us to innovate and iterate at low cost to the university.

Embrace collaborative teaching opportunities

Using the knowledge and experience of colleagues, collaborative team teaching expands practice, infuses teaching with fresh ideas and presents opportunities for both students and professionals. Collaboration within the classroom can be a form of under-the-radar disruption as you interrogate colleagues for their knowledge, ideas and experience and use this to enrich your classroom strategy. Sharing my class with a colleague from UMW challenged me to rethink my approach, justify my practice and consider change.

Outside our classes, we are now collaborating artistically, planning my involvement in a virtual performance festival under the direction of my UMW colleague. While enriching to us personally and providing opportunity to extend our skills, our team-teaching collaboration has sown the seeds for a shared Montana/Melbourne creative arts virtual exhibition/performance for interdisciplinary artists and educators. Such are the serendipitous, innovative benefits of an international collaborative team-teaching experiment achieved through risk-taking.

Navigating between innovation and structure

The recognition of diverse ways of learning and the richness that diversity brings to society necessitates innovative and creative approaches to curriculum design and delivery, yet because of the desire to maintain standards, ensure quality control and the need to constantly evaluate student experience, the world of higher education presents many barriers that militate against innovation. Once a structure is in place, there is a natural inertia to maintain that structure and become staid – even in a format such as block teaching that is itself out of the norm. There are still specific curricula requirements to navigate, rubrics and assessment criteria to manage, accreditation expectations to weigh, bureaucracies to manage and fixed timetables. Yet we can navigate this tension between the rich benefits of innovative practice and the structured reality of the teaching world.

Introducing new ideas without navigating the formal approval process can be a powerful catalyst for change. Creative research, characterised by innovation, can be achieved through interrogation and disruption, which requires educators to be a little daring, somewhat brave and able to see that under-the-radar opportunities might indeed lead to innovation, multiple benefits and certainly carry little but worthwhile risk.

Michelle Prawer is an academic teaching scholar in the First Year College at Victoria University.

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For more information on this topic, see our collection What is block teaching?.


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