So you want to improve teaching & learning in your classrooms through innovation?

Well, it may be harder than you think, but there is a way, part 1

Change is hard.

Effective, targeted, measurable, and sustainable change within education can seem almost impossible—especially when institutions are large, resources are stretched thin, teachers are swamped, and the needs of any one community, classroom, or student are unique.

But it’s not impossible, and I have a success story to share—a story I’ll begin telling you here and complete little by little in the columns that will follow.

I started teaching college physics about 20 years ago, and like most new teachers, I taught much like I had been taught. What’s more, I taught in classrooms that looked much like they had for many years before my time as a student. And, for almost a decade, it worked well. Everything seemed to say that I was doing a good job.

Jumping ahead to today, my pedagogy has changed dramatically, the classrooms I teach in look nothing like I could have imagined 20 years ago, and the kinds of activities, conversations, and interactions that go on in my classes are light years from where they were. But that process of change extends well beyond me. What started as a process of change for a small group of faculty and researchers has grown into a broad network of nested and interconnected communities that share the goals of improving teaching and learning through innovation while developing tools and resources to support both.

Becoming an agent for change
That process of change is important. Systemic change and innovation don’t happen by chance, and while the blueprint my colleagues and I followed isn’t the only recipe that can work, it can be a powerful model for effective and sustainable change. Importantly, there are four underlying principles.

First, evidence must be the backbone of change. Collecting data and reflecting on the stories the data tells us (about what works and what doesn’t) must be woven into any successful process of innovation. Unfortunately, formal research in academia is often seen as something that is done to or on one group by another, rather than an endeavour we do collectively with each other across a spectrum that includes informal and formal research.

Second, iteration is critical to sustainable change and meaningful innovation. Cyclical processes of change that take small manageable steps and build on good data are important because people and systems can only handle so much change at once. Iterative steps also afford us the time to learn from both process and product, and they allow us to adapt change to meet local needs.

Third, design has to be the focus of change process. Design in this way represents more than the purposeful transformation of idea into action within a paradigm driven by evidence and iteration. It is a recognition that education is, at its very core, a design science. Much of the work that I do now, whether it’s in developing technology-rich active learning classrooms, stimulating and supporting my colleagues to change their pedagogy, or preparing learning activities for my students, can be described as design-based work.

Finally, communities are the best way to situate and stimulate change. Supportive, diverse, and dynamic communities can connect ideas, resources, and people, while at the same time they can breathe life into an iterative, evidence-based design cycle. Importantly, healthy communities form around local interests and needs, they are malleable and driven by a balanced sense of initiative and agency amongst their members, and they can exist as a network of communities across a spectrum that stretches from smaller micro-level communities to larger macro-level communities.

So, how have we operationalized our model? How did it grow and evolve, and what kinds of innovations have we realized? Of course, those are questions I can’t fully answer in the space that I have left. You’ll have to read my subsequent columns for that—but I can say that we have a community at my college that includes about 80 faculty and a handful of professionals who attend any of two-dozen workshops/meetings a semester, we have a “Fellows” program that releases a handful of faculty from part of their teaching duties to develop pedagogical capacity, and we have designed, built, and refined a dozen specialized active learning classrooms that push teaching and learning to new heights.

At a broader level, we have developed an inter-institutional research team, a doctoral program, and an initiative that bridges a dozen local colleges and universities in a regional effort to Support Active Learning and Technological Innovation in Studies of Education (SALTISE)—an initiative that offers small funding grants, organizes an annual conference, and has built a website of evidence-based resources designed for real instructors in real classrooms and informed by research.

Unfortunately, that’s all the space I have for now. I hope you’ll want to know more and tune in to my next column! See you then.

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