Innovating outside the academic box

Last Friday I read the recent conference papers from what I had hoped was a breakthrough in college teaching methods. As I read through the papers, I felt the enthusiasm of each team of authors who had successfully generated more classroom engagement and enduring insights among their students. I was fascinated by the different approaches explored to inquiry based learning that revealed considerable creativity by the faculty. My initial reaction was very positive.

Upon further reflection, I realized how every every innovation was no different from my own previous creativity in college  classrooms or from any mentioned in the countless books I've read. They were, essentially, reinventing the wheel.

I then empathized with the authors of these conference papers as doing the best they could under their circumstances. I imagined that everyone of them was highly constrained in four different ways:
  • Each faculty member was torn between improving their teaching methods and their usual tenure seeking, publishing, citation gathering, and committee assignment obligations
  • Most of their students would be sitting in their classrooms expecting to be taught and graded, dependent on the presumed expert faculty to make wise choices for them
  • The time slots available for meeting together in classrooms, labs, theater spaces, etc were highly regimented in duration and frequency
  • The system that had enrolled the students and pays the faculty was designed, not to educate, but to qualify, certify and matriculate each enrollee based on their "academic performance" as indicated by the grades received
This constraint environment would induce "reinventing the wheel". Thinking outside the box would necessitate being outside the constraint environment. No amount of personal initiative, dedication or creative talent could overcome the limitations shared by everyone one of them. No better management, leadership or incentive structure could change the ways they are walled in.

Later that day, I saw how easy it would be to provide higher quality higher ed at a lower cost by educating students outside that pervasive academic box. I'll share where that thinking lead in the coming posts here.

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