Interrogating innovation

New is always better

My life seems to be all about innovation at the moment. I’ve been teaching Designing Innovative Learning and Evaluating Learning and Innovation this semester, worked on a winter school intensive program last July called Leading Innovation, and hearing about innovation seemingly every time I turn on the TV or walk into an organisation. It is, in short, very much the zeitgeist. The focus on innovation is understandable. The world is moving faster than ever and advances in technology and ways of collaborating have made people acutely aware of the need to continually learn and adapt. Innovation appears to have fulfilled this need by offering a way forward through the seeming chaos. A toolbox of methods and a mindset shift which made it OK to come up with new ideas and try new things.

Innovation can be a slippery concept to define. What strikes me more is that when I hear people, such as employees or students, talk about innovation there is no interrogation of what the term means in general or within a specific context. I see this as problematic. On the one hand, perhaps it is just something that we all know when we see it. On the other hand, however, a lack of clear and universally accepted definitions of innovation and innovating provides cracks through which good intentions can fall. But what is meant by innovation? What does innovation look like? Often the discourses around innovation are around the tools, but what exactly does it mean to innovate?

To try to answer this question I designed an activity for my Designing Innovative Learning classes this semester to try and start a conversation about the nature of innovation using music as a discussion stimulus. Yes, music. Music and musicians are often touted as being innovative. Artists such as David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Queen are often described as being innovative but what is it that makes them so?

Before our first class, I ask students to think about a piece of music which they see as being innovative. Then, they need to post a clip of the music to the class online discussion board and explain why they chose that piece of music. What is it about that piece of music that is innovative to them? This is the interesting part. Student choices range from classical music to 80’s pop but they all had two things in common. Firstly, a key theme which emerged was that the class overwhelmingly saw innovation as putting existing things together in new ways to make something new for a particular time and place. The time and place part is important because it ties into the second theme which was that innovation is context and individually specific. What is innovative to one person, time, or place may not be to another. I think that this is important and not often considered. Everyone has different experiences and expectations influence their opinions – these need to be taken into account with innovations as much as anything else. The other interesting thing about using music as a stimulus for discussion is that it forced the students to move beyond how we innovate to discuss what is innovative. It also required students to move beyond the usual discussion of innovation of being the preserve of technology and discuss it more at a conceptual level.

At the end of the activity I then created a Spotify playlist which I used throughout the semester in class. It never failed to remind the students of the key themes we discussed in the first class or to get them talking again – even if it was just to discuss the relative merits of 1980s power ballads 🙂

You can listen to the playlist here and judge the selections for yourself. Innovative or not? What piece of music or artist would you say is innovative and why?

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