Teaching Innovation in Higher Education

Last week fifteen faculty members from higher education institutions across India including the IITs, IIMs, and Central Universities were felicitated for excellence in Teaching Innovations by the the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. I was one of these fifteen – for my innovation in course design for a course, ‘Personal Values, Goals and Career Options’ which I have been teaching at IIM Bangalore for ten years now. This post however is not about this one particular course but about my own learnings and reflections related to the process of innovation in teaching.

During the final stage of selections and also during our trip to Delhi to receive the award from HRD minister Prakash Javadekar, I had the opportunity to interact with the fourteen other amazing faculty members and learn about their journey, their work and their approach towards teaching. The MHRD also came up with a publication documenting the case studies of the fifteen teaching innovations and this book gave me further inputs on each project. Since I also study and conduct executive workshops on the topic of cultivating an innovation mindset (you can read more about that here https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/would-you-like-cultivate-innovation-mindset-ramya-ranganathan/ ), I was curious to uncover themes that were common to these fifteen faculty members when it came to their approach towards their work. I will share with you the top three points that struck me.

1) They were not doing it to fulfil a predetermined job requirement

The first theme that was apparent was that none of these fifteen faculty members had started their innovation in teaching with an explicit agenda in mind to fulfil a mandatory requirement in their job description. Each of them had gone way beyond the required minimum that was formally required of them in their jobs out of sheer intrinsic motivation. Many of them had not been explicitly recognized within their institutes for going the extra mile and creating their innovations but that had not stopped them. It just so happened that the MHRD started this search process and so their innovations came to be recognized at a national level. If this award process had not happened then it might have been fully possible that their innovations would never have been formally acknowledged and yet it looks like these people would have kept on going. Their motivation for innovating was purely intrinsic and not related to extrinsic performance measures or incentives. This reminds me once again of the very robust (but sadly ignored) finding in psychology that it is almost impossible to use extrinsic motivation to get people to truly innovate (watch a fascinating talk on this subject here https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en )

2) They were doing something they truly enjoyed

The second theme common to each one of these 15 faculty members was that they clearly enjoyed teaching in general and the specific areas they had innovated in even more. When they talked about their innovations their face would light up and their eyes would sparkle – very much like a child talking about his or her favorite game. They could go on and on talking about their work (yes we professors can be tiring speakers) and not show any hint of tiredness or fatigue. Clearly the excitement related to their areas of innovation was still very much alive in each one of them and for most it was an ongoing journey where they were still making additions and improvements to their design and were happy to share the latest challenge or nuanced addition. This reminds me once again how happiness is a key booster not just to productivity and performance excellence but even more in the realm of innovation. You can look up more on the Broaden and Build Theory here ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broaden-and-build ), which shows that positive emotions broaden our brain’s awareness and encourages novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts.

3) They had a contribution agenda which went beyond themselves

Each of these faculty members were on a quest to improve the work they were doing and while it is theoretically possible to want to improve something just for the sake of personal satisfaction and mastery, what was evident in these fifteen case studies was that they usually had a broader contribution agenda. In each of the fifteen cases the faculty members had an explicit agenda to make the learning experience more effective and impactful for the students. In some of the cases there was also a second social agenda that extended even beyond the immediate students who would benefit from the innovation. It has been well known in organizational psychology that having a larger agenda of contribution is related to factors like resilience, motivation and meaning of work. However I am not aware yet of any connection that has been established between a contribution agenda and innovation. I am curious to explore more about the possible existence of such a connection. Perhaps it is a direct connection (where the larger focus invites the brain to think of ideas that transcend specific ego-centric constraints) or perhaps it is more indirect where the innovator is motivated by the larger contribution agenda to keep on searching for better solutions despite setbacks and failures. What do you think?

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If you enjoyed this article you can watch my TED talk on cultivating an innovation mindset here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmnCNILI68s and access more articles, videos, and free online courses here – https://craftingourlives.com/

Published by Ramya Ranganathan

My identity is crafted around four Ps - Poetess-Philosopher-Parent-Professor. You can read more about my journey here (https://craftingourlives.com/ramya/)