The other day Chris, one of the new faculty that I mentor, told me that he was in a bit of a conundrum. He had tried a new teaching strategy in one of his classes and was really pleased with the results. The students were engaged and really seemed to grasp the concept which is known to be a difficult one. The more he described it, the more I wondered why he was concerned.
It turns out that Chris got some “not so positive” feedback from one of his colleagues Bob. When that same group of students went to their next class, they asked the prof why they didn’t get to do “interesting things like that” in his class too. This put Bob, that second prof, in an uncomfortable position since he’s always been a “talk-and-chalk” guy. He replied something to the effect of “We’d never get through the content if we did stuff like that” and carried on as usual. After the class was over, Bob approached Chris grumbling about being put in a position of having to justify his tried-and-true method. Why did Chris have to rock the boat anyway?
It is very common for me to hear stories like this in my role as a facilitator in a program for new college professors. As most of us do, new faculty come back from a conference all excited about a new instructional strategy or tool, and wait for that perfect opportunity to incorporate it into their teaching practice. But what do you do if your innovations in the classroom seem to disrupt the workings of your program or department?
First we need to recognize that many professors establish how they teach based on the way they were taught, particularly if it was successful for them as learners. They judge themselves relative to their colleagues, most of whom have had that same learning experiences and teach in the same way. (McCrickerd, 2010). Everything goes smoothly until someone like Chris “rocks the boat” by using an innovative instructional strategy or tool in the classroom.
There are five steps involved in the diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 2003): (1) knowledge, (2) persuasion, (3) decision, (4) implementation, and (5) confirmation. In this case, Chris learned about the innovative instructional strategy (knowledge) at a teaching conference and became convinced of its value (persuasion). He decided to try it in the classroom (decision) and introduced it as part of a difficult unit in one of his courses (implementation). Finally he reflected on the value of the innovation, and is trying to figure out, based on his observations, positive feedback from the students, and negative feedback from his colleague, whether to keep, modify or discard the innovative strategy (confirmation).
But Bob seems to be part of the complacent majority that are quite satisfied with the status quo. Moore (2006) suggests that there is an innovation “chasm” that separates the innovators (2.5%) and early adopters (13.5%) from the rest. Until a department reaches that 16% acceptance by the innovators and early adopters, it is very difficult to move the rest toward innovation (McLaren, 2015). That may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, but in a department with 10 professors, you only need to convince one of your colleagues to implement the innovation in order span that chasm!
That’s not to say that Bob and the other late adopters and laggards won’t innovate. These profs are typically vertical networkers who may pick up new ideas from their colleagues but don’t go looking beyond that (McLaren, 2015). On the other hand, horizontal networkers look beyond their normal workplace for ideas and opportunities for professional growth. They have an external learning network that readily shares their experiences and research findings. So if Chris, an horizontal networker, wants his colleagues who are vertical networkers to update their teaching practice, he has to find a way to share his successes with them in a non-threatening way.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, start by looking for support for your innovations outside your program or department. Most institutions have pockets of innovation happening all over the place. Your Centre for Teaching and Learning is a good place to start. They may already have a Core of Innovators or an Education Mastermind group (Gonzalez, 2017) that meets regularly to share their successes and challenges as they work to improve their teaching. If not, ask them to connect you with a few other innovators. Invite them for coffee and start your own mini Core of Innovators.
Take the time to chat up what you are doing with your more traditional colleagues. Talk about the strategy or tool itself, what you are trying to accomplish, and what actually happened when you introduced it in the classroom. If you’re comfortable, invite your colleagues to visit to your classroom to see the innovation in action. Your enthusiasm about the benefits of the innovation can go a long way to piquing their curiosity.
Gonzalez, J. (2017, July 2). What is an educator mastermind and why should you join one? [Web blog]. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/educator-mastermind/
McCrickerd, J. (2012). Understanding and Reducing Faculty Reluctance to Improve Teaching. College Teaching, 60(2), 56-64.
McLaren, H.J. & Kenny, P.L. (2015). Motivating Change from Lecture-Tutorial Modes to Less Traditional Forms of Teaching. Australian Universities’ Review, 57(1), 26-33.
Moore, G. (2006). Crossing the Chasm (2002 Revised ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Confused Man by Notas de prensa – Notas de prensa, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52817663
Seedling CC0 Public Domain: https://pixabay.com/en/sapling-plant-growing-seedling-154734/
All other images created by Nancy Nelson