Dazzled by pedagogical innovations

At recent events in the UK and overseas, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the concept of pedagogical innovation in higher education. In particular, I focused on whether certain initiatives (often carrying flashy names) constitute pedagogical innovation and if so, against what criteria.

The key message of this blog post is this: many of such initiatives are not pedagogically innovative. They can be described in many other ways, including technologically innovative and sometimes disruptive. However, most fail to meet a basic criterion for innovative pedagogy: evidence that they improve (or have the potential to improve) student learning:

“Adapting to characteristics of students and responding to their development is an inherent aspect of pedagogy. […] These adaptations can be considered innovations if are based [sic] on a new idea and when they have the potential to improve student learning, or when they are linked with other outcomes […]”

(Vieluf, Kaplan, Klieeme & Bayer, 2012. Emphasis added).

The inclusion of a ‘technology layer’ does not imply change to a teaching method, never mind to pedagogy as a field of study. In other words, incorporating technology into learning and teaching does not mean that we are being innovative, although many seem to tempted to believe that it does. Diana Laurillard wrote in 2008 that education was on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies, but it had been on that brink for decades. Indeed, the learning technology literature is packed with over-promises and under-delivery. In our case, linking pedagogic innovation to the incorporation of technology alone is a poor approach to positive and lasting change in education.

A number of today’s practices demonstrate how teaching can make use of new tools. While those practices can sometimes be effective, very often they’re implemented within yesterday’s mindset and logic. Indeed, we seem to forget -for example- decades of lessons learned from distance education as we become dazzled by the floodlights of so-called innovations.

I have referred to these recent initiatives as old wine in new bottles. A few examples, with their sexy names, can be found below. The list is by no means exhaustive.

old wine new bottles slide

I have indicated that while old wine is generally good, so are some of these new bottles. This article is not against such initiatives. On the contrary, I invite colleagues to critique them while stressing the importance of researching them in different educational settings. These initiatives should not be described as pedagogically innovative, particularly before sufficient evidence emerges, so let’s not get dazzled by new names to describe old practices with a bit of tech mixed in.

Prof Alejandro Armellini
University of Northampton

Vieluf, S., Kaplan, D., Klieeme, E. & Bayer, S. (2012). Teaching Practices and Pedagogical Innovation: Evidence from TALIS. OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264123540-en

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3 Responses to Dazzled by pedagogical innovations

  1. Cristina says:

    I agree with you and the example of old wine in new bottles is appropriate to many so called ‘innovative’ pedagogies. However, it is important not to forget that many who have the privilege to teach at university have encountered ‘pedagogy’ only as passive recipients. Faced with the task of teaching, they reproduce the way they were taught. Others might have been teaching for many years and they never had to use anything more innovative than a whiteboard and a powerpoint. Some do not use that either. As a matter of fact my best lecture happened when the place i was supposed to deliver the lecture in did not have a computer or a screen. Having to revert to simple talk actually sharpened my wits and those of the students as well.

    The second point i would like to make is that while you are correct in saying that the effectiveness of a method (innovative or otherwise) lies in whether it improves learning, the issue of how we assess both improvement and learning is still open to debate. McIntyre defined teaching as the set of activities that ‘facilitate’ learning. One hopes that facilitation might lead to improvement as well. So could it be that many such innovative tools and methods facilitate learning although they might not improve the short term outcomes?

  2. Hi Cristina, thank you for your comment. If you look at the figure, at the bottom, I also have concerns with the plural of ‘pedagogy’ (see the bottom row). If scientists discover a couple of new species on a remote island, do they discover new ‘biologies’? No, they just identify new species.

    If a teacher does something different or -dare I say- innovates, does that mean he or she has developed a ‘new pedagogy’? Oh, no. A new method at best. New to him or her anyway. Hence the distinction. I do realise the plural of pedagogy has pervasively infiltrated the literature, at least in English. I suspect the same is not true of geographies, chemistries or zoologies. Fortunately.

  3. Hi Alejandro, I was interested by your blog post. So yesterday at BETT fair I saw hundreds of new technologies. How many of them actually enhance the learning process is the big question right? I think that the pedagogy within a classroom can be achieved with or without technology depending on the dynamics between the students and teacher (what interests and excited them and of course the topic) but where technology has the power is with the concept of engagement out of hours. The revolution of 24/7 technological usage of the generation of learners now taking place in our social lives, means that by capitalising on this journey we can encourage critical thinking and reflection in those transition times between dedicated learning times/spaces. Productivity increases with the blend of work and social and students become enterprising in nature.

    I know this is a slightly different stance than that highlighted in your post but it’s my take on the “effective” implementation of technology enhanced learning. That’s why we developed Unipin! Anyway hope you are well, Jonny.

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