Innovation motivation

June 25, 1999

Lecturers trying out new teaching methods run the risk of being labelled eccentric. Be brave, say Andrew Hannan and Harold Silver

Innovation means many things to many people. For some it is radical, for others it is comfortingly liberal. It can also be a dirty word. In teaching and learning, there is much innovation around the country and the range is considerable, but pinning it down is not easy.

Our research is a two-year project that has generated interviews with some 350 people on their experience of innovation in teaching. The results highlight the range of competing assumptions and priorities in institutions.

The innovations we found were not necessarily ground-breaking - some were adaptations of others' initiatives. But the common element was that they changed how students learn. Some innovations change the way students work in a laboratory or seminar. Innovators might introduce open learning, flexible learning techniques, individual or group learning, or oral presentations. They might adopt problem or work-based learning. They put information technology to new uses, use role play, or allow students to work on live projects, such as on farms or in business. Some may partially or entirely replace existing teaching methods.

Innovators are not always successful, but the intention is invariably to encourage and support students to develop more effective learning. The incentives to innovate are varied and initiatives are taken at different levels. The question is, therefore, whose innovation is it? At one extreme, an innovation can be that of an individual in his or her own department. At the other, it can be contained in a policy or strategy adopted by a university.

There can be diverse reasons for innovation:

* It may have a national context, such as a national report or a new funding initiative.

* It may be directed towards improving students' employability or new work patterns.

* It may come from the creation or adaptation of new technologies.

* It may result from an awareness that an old way is not working, and that a new one is needed to make students more autonomous and more responsible for their learning.

* It may come from a desire to cater for mature and part-time students, to make it possible for students to interrupt and resume their studies.

At one end of the spectrum, an innovation - such as student-led seminars or the varied use of a timetable slot originally scheduled for a lecture - comes from the interaction of tutor and students. At the other end is an institution adopting a strategy for work-based learning, skills development or IT. Institutional funding to support initiatives is often steered towards targets consistent with the institution's overall aims and requirements. Departments or faculties also adopt action plans and priorities and innovators face the choice of working within them or pursuing an independent path.

Tensions often arise between individual initiatives and the collective priorities of national and institutional direction-making. For innovators there are also more immediate tensions. Innovations are often seen as threatening by colleagues and senior staff. They challenge routines and assumptions. Innovators told us they had been seen as having "gone bad", as "a danger", as "eccentric" and responsible for "a load of codswallop". They were isolated, their colleagues felt intimidated and senior staff were unsympathetic. Innovators said they meet with opposition and hostility and are "excommunicated" in the department, among colleagues who are "sceptical" or have "contempt for teaching" and see research as the priority.

Fortunately, this is not the whole picture. In some situations an innovation has succeeded because of support from colleagues or senior staff. In others, initial scepticism and resistance has been overcome and has turned to support (which sometimes means: "It's OK as long as you're doing it, but it's not for me").

The position of the innovator depends considerably on the institutional culture, its declared and operational priorities, the reward structure for staff, the availability of resources and the assumptions about what is best for students and for the institution.

For individual innovators, the issue is how best to provide for more numbers or changed constituencies of students, how to respond to the interests and expectations of all the partners, to the difficulties and opportunities of the institution and of higher education. Hence the experiments with the use of computers, CD-Roms, videos, distance learning for students on and off campus, students monitoring their personal skills development, taking part in group investigation and group oral presentation.

The commitment and time involved in developing a new approach to teaching and learning clash with the frequently dominant emphasis on research. This, together with other traditional attitudes, explains some of the more critical perceptions of innovators' colleagues. Still, we have found research-oriented universities and parts of universities that are able to balance research and teaching and learning.

Of course institutions differ, subjects differ, the perception of priorities by teachers and administrators differ. Although there are some differences between pre and post-1992 universities -innovations relating, for example, to employment, enterprise or skills of many kinds -Jthey are not unique to any one kind of university. They are, however, weaker in some universities and parts of universities than in others. Teaching staff do not always welcome change. Students do not always welcome innovations and some ask "why don't you just lecture to us?", in anticipation of traditional forms of assessment.

Whether valued or undervalued, supported or unsupported, we have encountered a great deal of innovation by individual teachers, disappointed, but not deterred, by other perceptions and priorities. National and institutional policies offer opportunities as well as prescriptions.

Andrew Hannan is reader in education and Harold Silver is visiting professor of higher education at the University of Plymouth. They co-direct the project on Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, part of the ESRC's Learning Society programme. For more information, visit the project website (


Terry Kee at the University of Leeds began teaching chemistry traditionally, mainly with an eye to exams. He realised students were having difficulty acquiring, analysing and communicating information. They were having trouble writing essays and conducting a logical argument.

Then he came across an American article containing the idea that people should be able to explain what they are doing in 60 seconds and that it might be a format for explaining basic chemistry to non-scientists.

With colleagues in nearby universities and access to some external funding, Kee developed the idea of a one-minute lecture.

For up to three weeks, students work each week in groups of four to six on a topic. They prepare a report on a subject that crosses different modules. There are ground rules regarding, for example, the information in the written report and the nature of the presentation. Each group member is responsible for an aspect of the topic and chooses the angle. Presentations to the whole tutorial group are 60 seconds. Students are judged on ability to communicate the information and understanding.

The idea has been picked up by colleagues in other universities, with whom issues of assessment and so on are discussed. The initiative has led Kee to work with staff in science education and encouraged him to read up on the psychology of learning.

He feels it is important to know what students are thinking, to go beyond teaching to students' understanding. By focusing on the priority content and communication, students can better appreciate what is explained to them in lectures and the laboratory. Kee's students and chemistry colleagues have responded supportively.

With management consultants, Kee is developing the idea into a tool for management training in the corporate sector.

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