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Is Innovation Just a Buzzword?

Have you been to a conference or a meeting on campus recently where the word innovation WASN’T used? It seems to be a buzzword not just in the halls of academia but in the business world as well. What does it mean to be innovative, and how do we incorporate innovations into our teaching practices?

Dictionary.com  defines the verb to innovate as: to introduce something new; make changes in anything established. Does innovation mean revolution? No – it can mean small changes, incremental changes, to your daily work. Think Small Teaching by James Lang, a book I wrote about in an early post. Lang writes about “back pocket techniques” that you can have at the ready to enhance student learning. I wish I had known that innovations could be small when I first started teaching. 

In my first several years in the classroom I struggled to “get things right” and when things started to go smoothly, I did what many of us do: I rested on my laurels. At that point I was mostly concerned about covering the material each day and not evidence of student learning.  Since then I have taken to heart this quote by 19th Century Clergyman William Pollard, “Learning and innovation go hand-in-hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday is sufficient for tomorrow.”

So, it’s not critical that you re-invent your course or yourself. What about starting with one small task next week? Yes, planning for innovation is a good way to make sure it happens. Consider this: On Monday, start class with this activity. Say to students: Before I introduce the next topic to explore in class, please find a partner and discuss the big topics we have learned so far. Make a list and be ready to describe how they are related.

Opening class with a “retrieval” activity will let you know how well students have actually learned the material, and is a great way to help students to see the big picture of the topics in the course. I should note that the first time you introduce an activity like this you may be surprised how difficult it is for students. I can tell you from experience that not all my innovative practices were a resounding success! Don’t throw away an activity just because it doesn’t work as well as you’d like the first time around.

Are there innovative practices that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!