Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Working with Risk in Innovation in Education

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All the talk about encouraging innovation in education grates on my nerves for many reasons. What is in this post may be completely familiar to some people, but completely over the heads of others… so I’ll make it brief.

Let’s first agree that innovation in education should

a. Only be undertaken if there is a perceived benefit beyond it being “innovative” and “new”. Innovation is not, in and of itself, a good thing. It is only  good thing if it produces good processes or results (according to some criteria of good in education).

b. Mesh well with the philosophy and culture of the teacher and/or institution. It doesn’t matter what the potential of an innovation is, if the teacher or institution culture clash with it. It won’t work the same way you expect

c. Always be assessed in progress and at the end to see how well it’s working from the viewpoints of various stakeholders.

And now… on the topic of risk… I am concerned about my role as a faculty developer in encouraging contextless innovation, without taking account of the following risks:

  1. Risk to teachers of undergoing innovation and risking their careers. I have seen teachers try something innovative and risk getting bad course evaluations before they get tenure. This is not a small risk. Think of the most precarious faculty (so… adjuncts) and the big risks they would be taking by undertaking something innovative that students still do not understand. Because what if the judgment of this person’s quality of teaching can be swayed by student feedback on this one thing?
  2. Risk to students of being on the receiving end of an innovation in teaching, and feeling like their learning (and yes, their grades, which matter to them to allow them to declare a major or maintain a scholarship) is at risk. Because what if they end up not learning this material well enough and then struggling with the next course? Or what if they get an unexpectedly poor grade that affects their future? These things matter.
  3. Risk to the institution – of parents and outsiders not understanding this innovation and thinking of it in ways that can harm the institution’s reputation?

I’m not exaggerating, but you would need more context to understand cases of where this kind of thing really has a deep impact. Not all innovations are created equal, neither in terms of usefulness and potential benefit, nor in terms of potential and actual risk. And I still don’t know how best to work with these risks. Communication across stakeholders is key, though, and I think this is not always done well. And by communication, I don’t just mean broadcasting, where the innovators explain why they’re doing what they’re doing, but I also mean listening back from other stakeholders on their concerns and misgivings and getting their feedback throughout, and perhaps also being flexible and willing to act on that feedback to adjust while trying the innovation.

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