October 19, 2016

Being located in such proximity to Silicon Valley and the start-up culture that permeates the region means the term “innovation” gets thrown around quite often. But,what does innovation mean for teaching and learning? We can often see it easily when embodied in a new financial app, or furniture product design. It gets trickier when we look at pedagogy.

There are two points I wish to make here (along with some ideas for how to innovate your teaching practice and elevate student learning): (1) Innovation in pedagogy is difficult to identify and name because there is no one way to be an excellent, or innovative, teacher. There is not a single standard for what teaching excellence or effectiveness is - beyond how it impacts student learning. And even in that measure of student learning, there is no one way an instructor can prompt it best. There are an infinite number of pedagogical methods and implementations that rely heavily on unique contextual factors of any given class (e.g., instructor strengths, student prior knowledge/experience). This means that there is no one way to innovate teaching towards excellence and effectiveness. It’s going to look different across instructors, disciplines, course types, sizes, etc.

Which brings us to point (2) - When trying to innovate one’s teaching, the naming as such should be as a result of comparison against one’s own previous practice, and not against the teaching practice of others. A simple google search yields this common definition of innovation: a new method, idea, product, etc. It’s important for our purpose here to make clear that the definition does not imply for whom that method, idea, or product is new. Perhaps just a matter of semantics, but this distinction is important if we aim to truly innovate teaching practice by improving it. While there are innovations that occur across teaching (e.g., the emergence and proliferation of active learning), the vast majority are more isolated innovations, and even more so, innovations of one’s own teaching (e.g., applying active learning in a unique way in your classroom). This is the unit of measure on which we should be focused when attempting, or being driven, to improve and innovate teaching practice. Is this a new teaching method, idea, implementation, use of a tool, for my teaching and therefore new for my students learning? If so, you’re in the process of innovating.

Not sure how to start innovating your own teaching practice? Here are a few ways to jumpstart the advancement of your teaching:

  1. Challenge yourself, and your students, by going beyond your comfort zone. You like to lecture? Try a single class session, or even just a piece of a class session where you don’t talk - at all (Sounds crazy? Impossible? See here how it’s been done.). Feel very comfortable teaching at the front of the classroom, in an “academic” space? Try teaching one class session, or part of a class session, somewhere else on campus - see what happens by simply changing the environment in which class takes place and the impact on your teaching.

  2. Talk with colleagues. Innovation is inherently a collectively driven process, even if it spurs innovation from what appears to be just one person (where upon exploration we can see the cadre of colleagues who contributed with thoughts, ideas, feedback, etc.). Scholars of innovation have made it clear in the last two decades that “innovation is rarely a solitary individual creation. Instead, the creativity necessary to innovate is deeply social; the most important creative insights typically emerge from collaborative teams and creative circles” (Farrell, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000; Sawyer, 2003; Sawyer, 2006, p. 42). Join a faculty learning community program (I know a few good ones), or seek any other opportunity to sit with colleagues and talk teaching.

  3. Reserve up to 10% of your time dedicated to teaching preparation to pursue speculative new ideas. Creativity and innovation will not occur if time and space are not made to actively pursue those ends. The idea to carve out a relatively small portion of time devoted to teaching to give yourself the freedom and latitude to “wander”, be inspired, and simply think and reflect can be a powerful experience that spurs innovation. For example, if you spend 10 hours/week on teaching prep (I know many of you spend many more hours, and just as many spend less hours), will 1 hour of that time spent on new ideas really hurt the execution of the class? I don’t think so. The value of that 10% time spent on purposeful creativity around your teaching far outweighs any minimal gains from a few final touches on any lesson plan that could be accomplished in that same timeframe.

  4. It’s good to have a plan, but innovations often emerge from improvisation. In improvisation classes, actors are trained on how to make collective creation work. The most important rule is known as the “Yes, and . . .” rule: in every conversational turn, an actor should do two things: metaphorically say yes, by accepting the offer proposed in the prior turn, and adding something new. This provides a frame for how to make teaching improvisational in a way that promotes innovation. Think about what happens, and the opportunities one could pursue, when a student asks a really good question. You could spin that question into delivering a micro-lecture, use it to start a discussion or debate, leverage it to inform a shared experience, etc. If you’re willing to improvise (which means having options in your pedagogical toolbox with different methods to engage and educate that can be employed at will), you are prepared to walk the different paths to see what transpires, how and why. You're likely to stumble upon an innovative approach to teaching, or teaching a particular topic.

There is an inherent risk to innovating teaching that cannot be ignored - It may not work. That is challenging because it both means that students may not have sufficiently learned that topic, and that SET (student evaluation of teaching) ratings may be lower because of a negative experience with the way the class was taught. But, this should not prevent or disincentivize anyone who wishes to innovate their teaching. If you try just one new thing, just one time, in just one semester, the worst thing that happens is you have a “gimmicky” day. This can still be highly valuable if it’s done right. Involve students in the pursuit of innovation as a research experiment. Solicit their input ahead of time and after. “I’m going to be doing X for class next Monday. What do you all think? What would make it beneficial and helpful? What would make it unhelpful or unnecessary?” And, “So, we did X on Monday. What are your thoughts, reactions, and suggestions for improving it next time?” If the innovation is gimmicky, you’ll know why and how to adjust it to reach the desired ends, or to go in a different direction altogether.

Friendly tip of the day: If you involve students in this process as active co-researchers/creators and participants where they are helping to drive it collaboratively with you, versus something being done to them, they will not penalize you for it on the SET. If anything, in my experience I’ve seen it go the other direction, where instructors were rewarded with higher scores and positive comments on SETs from students recognizing the efforts of the faculty member and appreciating their role as creative collaborator instead of guinea pig.


Farrell, M. P. (2001). Collaborative circles: Friendship dynamics and creative work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

John-Steiner, V. (2000). Creative collaboration. New York: Oxford.

Sawyer, R. K. (2003). Group creativity: Music, theater, collaboration. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). Educating for innovation. Thinking skills and creativity, 1(1), 41-48.