Innovation! Innovation! Innovation!

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows two disgruntled-looking dogs walking along the road. One says to the other “It’s always, ‘Sit!’ ‘Stay!’ ‘Heel!’ – Never ‘think’, ‘innovate,’ ‘be yourself.’”

Unlike the New Yorker dogs, university teachers are constantly being urged to innovate, innovate, innovate, but this often makes us feel equally disgruntled. We are urged to flip our classrooms, to embrace technology, to make our lectures more interactive, to encourage authenticity in our teaching….the list goes on and on. Yes, we need new ideas, different ways of doing things, fresh perspectives. But what about the things we already do well, and the things that worked well in the past? Shouldn’t we also be conserving, restoring and maintaining, as well as this constant striving for innovation, innovation, innovation?

Quite apart from the risk of overlooking the value of teaching practices and ideas that have stood the test of time, this thoughtless reaching after novelty carries a heavy personal cost. I recently read one colleague’s golden rules of teaching, and the first was “never be satisfied.” I understand and respect this desire for constant striving for improvement. But there’s a recipe for poor mental health if ever I heard one. There’s nothing wrong with feeling satisfied with a job well done. When I ask colleagues taking part in professional development activities to reflect on their teaching practice, I make a point of asking them not only what they want to do differently, but also what they want to continue doing. I encourage them to read the educational literatures, not only for new ideas, but also for affirmations of what they already know and understand about what is working well with their teaching.

Kintsugi (1)

Kintsugi pot : Creative Commons


My good friend Annie recently introduced me to the concept of Kintsugi. This is the Japanese practice of repairing broken ceramic items using gold and other precious materials, so that the mended parts are displayed and celebrated. This strikes me as a fitting metaphor for academic development and it reminds me of my colleague Heather McQueen from the School of Biological Sciences and her recent work with quectures.  Quectures consist of a mix of traditional lecturing and peer instruction based around students’ own questions.  Following a sequence of “Think! Type! Talk!” students pause to reflect on lecture input and then submit and discuss their own questions using the Top Hat audience response system. Importantly, their questions are then re-visited in a future lecture, extending their reflection on the material.

The traditional lecture might seem to be broken, but Heather and others are working hard to hold on to what’s good while putting it back together in new ways and making their “mending” public. And, importantly, enjoying their successes.

This blogpost was previously published here:


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