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How can we support innovation in teaching practices within universities?

Written by: Sarah Dyer
Published on: 1 Nov 2021

Education innovation is both a pedagogic and organisational challenge. Often the pedagogic dimension is the easier of the two. There are reams written about education, and insights and evidence to inform and inspire as you set about improving student learning. However, fantastic pedagogy applied in the wrong context won’t promote learning or produce a great student experience, and if new ways of working are unsustainable, it doesn’t matter how good the idea is.

Universities are places of amazing intellect, creativity and drive to create a better world, yet they are also places of competing aims, intricate hierarchies, embedded ways of working and intense workloads. As director of a university initiative supporting innovations in education practice, I offer some observations that have helped me navigate these inherent tensions.

Innovation takes connection

People need to connect with each other, the “big picture” and their own values in order to innovate. Networks of educators, within and between institutions, create routes for knowledge to be shared: the knowledge that different ways of doing things exist as well as the knowledge of how to put these ideas into practice. Through participation in networks, educators increase their sense of what is possible, adapting professional identities to encompass innovation and leadership. These relationships are intellectually and professionally rewarding, creating a draw to innovation.

To design and implement meaningful innovation, educators must connect with students. Their thinking needs to be informed by the actual, rather than partial or imagined, expectations and experiences of students. An ongoing dialogue with students should be brought into all innovative teaching initiatives.

Innovators need to be connected to the “why”. This is both their own values and purpose and those of their institution. Nothing sinks educators’ willingness to take risks like a lack of clarity about institutional priorities or, even worse, a lack of trust in its authenticity.

As someone supporting innovation, you should ask:

  • Where do educators learn from each other at the moment? Might these routes, spaces and means be better developed? Are they sufficient? How can educator participation be encouraged?
  • What currently enables educators to learn from students? Are these approaches inclusive?
  • Is your institution clear about its support for innovative teaching practices and its priorities? Is it consistent and trustworthy?

Innovation takes courage

There are many reasons to keep doing things the way they always been done: gatekeepers, workload, headspace, fear of failure or unforeseen consequences. To choose to do, or even to think, something new takes courage. This is at the core of much of our work as educators. We have a toolkit of approaches we use to support and guide our students – scaffolding new ideas, making role models visible, creating opportunities for peer learning, fostering feelings of belonging. These same approaches can also be used to support educators as they dare to try new ways of doing things.

There are techniques we can adopt to “de-risk” innovation, such as ensuring that multiple perspectives and the organisational context are considered as the task is defined. Equally, innovators should not be adopting one high-stakes solution, but instead be testing different prototypes. Such techniques are likely to be new to many people and they need to be supported to learn them.

As someone supporting innovation, you should ask:

  • What approaches will recognise and support innovators as they think, and do things, in new ways?
  • How do educators learn approaches to innovation that help manage its risks?

Innovation takes practice

Educators, and organisations, get better at innovation with practice. It stands to reason that we need to create opportunities for educators to undertake and review low-stakes change. It follows too that we need to provide multiple entry points to innovation so that we don’t always rely on those who are already well practised.

It may take practice to unlearn some embedded approaches to change which stifle innovation. Change is sometimes conceptualised as a project isolated from wider “business as usual” systems and processes. However, whether successful or not, innovations impact the surrounding systems and people. They can require others to change the way they work, raising expectations, or creating disconnect. It is crucial that innovation is reviewed and evaluated to support individual development and organisational capacity building.

If you are supporting innovation, you should ask:

  • How will you ensure “ways in” for novice innovators?
  • What stories are told about recent organisational change and what do they tell you about current ways of innovating?
  • How will you improve institution-wide understanding of the needs and the impact of innovation? How can that learning be spread?

Celebrate the innovators

Innovation deserves celebration. At its heart innovation is a hopeful act. It is driven by a belief and a will to make things better. As someone supporting innovation, it is your job to celebrate the people and their work, as well as successful outcomes.

Sarah Dyer is professor in human geography and director of the Exeter Education Incubator at the University of Exeter.