Educational Innovation as a Verb, Not a Noun

August 26, 2015

John Warner’s post in IHE’s Just Visiting column last week has received a lot of attention, in part at least from the catchy title: "There is no such thing as an educational innovation”.

But the opening lines of John’s post explain the very limited validity he might give to this statement, saying in effect that if we use a very limited notion of innovation that rules out what most of us would include, then a lot of the innovation activity in higher education won’t make the cut. (That’s my paraphrase: his actual sentence was about a definition of “innovative” ‒whose? ‒ that equates the word with “revolutionary” ‒ why? ‒ in the usual sense of a change that is both far-reaching and drastic.)

A quick look at the evolution innovation and revolution can help us in understanding the distinction. A revolution, literally a ‘turning around’, evolved from a description of planetary movements to desig-nating “abrupt and unforeseen events” when these natural revolutions produced an astrological alignment, and then from astrology to political change where the element of a change in power or control was included. Innovate, on the other hand, shares its root meaning of making something “new, young or fresh” with the verb renovate – but with a stronger sense of introducing something new or changing something already established (rather than restoring or renewing it). 

In both cases, one important element is that of an activity rather than just an artifact – a verb rather than a noun. This is particularly true in the modern use of innovation as “the exploration and exploitation of opportunities for new or improved products, practices or services, based either on an advance in knowledge or a change in markets”. And a key part of innovation is experimentation, to determine how this new entity will interact with users, how they will react to it, what value it will generate and what costs will be incurred. (The importance of perceiving innovation in this way as “essentially a matching process” is a foundational concept for Keith Pavitt’s chapter on Innovation Processes in the Oxford Handbook of Innovation, the source for the quotes in this paragraph.) 

While this definition talks about “exploitation”, this view of innovation as an ongoing process rather than a particular artifact is not restricted to a business environment. It is also central to definitions of social innovation: “the entire process by which new responses to social needs are developed in order to deliver better social outcomes”. 

Education innovation goes beyond improving practice
John Warner goes on to talk in his Just Visiting post about a specific change to his teaching practice that seems to him to be innovative but certainly not revolutionary. Continually improving our professional practice should be a standard expectation for us as professional teachers: when does such an improvement become an innovation? This is an important element in planning an institution’s innovation strategy ‒ more on the need for innovation strategy in higher education will follow in a later post this week. (The distinction may not matter as much in our day-to-day activity as teachers, but it could still be an important consideration for instructors whose “scholarly, creative and innovative activities” are treated as outside – or beyond – traditional expectations for teaching.) 

The ‘triple play’ framework of exploration-experimentation-exploitation seems to me to give us a working criterion for innovation as an overall process. The sub-processes (borrowing language again from Pavitt) will include 

  • Discovering new knowledge or ideas (including both invention and discovering what others may have begun to do) 
  • Translating and testing the new idea or knowledge as a working artifact (product, service or practice) 
  • Adapting and extending the artifact for wider use to generate organizational/social value 

John’s description of his project has the first two processes covered. I was delighted to see him keeping up with what others in your teaching domain have been doing and learning, rather than relying just on your own inventiveness. As he noted, the advances in practice working elsewhere still need to be adapted for our particular contexts. Beyond improvements in what we do ourselves as professional teachers, a new resource or practice can become a true innovation if it is taken up by others in our discipline, and locally we can make a powerful contribution to our institutions if we can take advantage of internal networks to disseminate and enhance the methods and resources we develop. 

Innovation versus revolution
John notes in his post that the improvements in practice he describes ‒ e.g., a process-oriented rather than product-oriented grading contract ‒ are not revolutionary, either in the sense of an abrupt change or as representing dramatic shifts in roles or structures. But I’d like to mention one way that the idea of “revolution” might be useful to our thinking and acting. (A follow-up post later this week will look at changes in teaching and learning that do entail more radical or dramatic change, and how an institutional Innovation Strategy for teaching and learning could systematically support that level of experimentation.) 

The prompt for me to think more about the ‘revolution’ metaphor was a very stimulating article by John Mott on Disruption, "Scientific Revolution," and Systemic Change in Higher Ed. Mott’s key argument is that the challenges facing teaching and learning in higher education can be better addressed if we view them as an accumulation of anomalies in our operating paradigm, in much the same way as an accumulation of anomalies in the prevailing paradigm of a scientific discipline eventually results in its replacement by the acceptance of new paradigm within the discipline community. 

That epistemological paradigm shift was labeled a Scientific Revolution in the seminal work of Thomas Kuhn, and has entered popular speech as a Paradigm Shift ‒ without, alas, preserving the original meaning of a fundamental change in an epistemological paradigm, going much deeper than merely a change in the model (or “approaches to problems” in Kuhn’s terms) applied within the paradigm). A classic example of this is the shift from “Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) to quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level)”. 

I can’t do more than summarize Mott’s argument here: it’s a clear and concise read on its own. Two aspects of his argument particularly appealed to me. The first was the notion that our challenges in higher education come from trying to address a set of anomalies in our paradigm of teaching and learning, a paradigm which developed to serve an elite educated class in entirely different economic and political circumstances. As in the example of Newtonian mechanics, for many purposes the old paradigm may continue to work in addressing the needs for which it was developed. But when more and more of the action happens at the margins of that context, the anomalies accumulate as demonstrations that we have to fundamentally rethink our views of teaching and learning 

The second point I appreciated in Mott’s argument was the way he presented it as a more accurate and useful alternative to the view that what we most need in higher education is disruptive innovation from new players outside existing institutions (though we may need some of that as well). “Just as the entire discipline of physics wasn’t scrapped to account for the theory of relativity, neither does the entire higher education system need to be scrapped to account for these anomalies. But the current paradigm of semester-based, one-size-fits-all curriculum that (in many instances at least) is not adequately related to the real world of employment cannot go on unchallenged or unaltered.” 

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Office of the Provost at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. Tom is a former Associate Vice-President at the University of Waterloo, and has been a project leader and visiting scholar for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the California State University Office of the Chancellor and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


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