Written by Joe Hoyle author of Advanced Accounting 14e
My first class of the fall semester starts in 14 days. It will be my 52nd year as a college teacher. I have been pondering how to get emotionally ready for the new batch of students. How can I keep my teaching an exciting activity for me? If I am not excited, why should the students be?
About two weeks ago, I flew to San Diego for a conference. In the local Richmond airport, someone left behind a publication from the Harvard Business Review. It was some type of “Best of” series that was probably available in one of the airport book shops. I picked it up and read exactly one article in the few minutes that I had before boarding the plane. That article was, “How Coca-Cola, Netflix, and Amazon Learn from Failure,” by Bill Taylor (originally published November 10, 2017).
I am fascinated (obsessed) by how people and organizations manage to grow over time to become better and better. So, it was my type of article. I was immediately captivated by the following three sentences because I think they are absolutely true. People talk endlessly about “innovation and creativity” yet, it can be hard sometimes to spot any actual innovation and creativity. Many people would rather talk about innovation than be innovative.
From the HBR: “I can’t tell you how many business leaders I meet, how many organizations I visit, that espouse the virtues of innovation and creativity. Yet so many of these same leaders and organizations live in fear of mistakes, missteps, and disappointments — which is why they have so little innovation and creativity. If you’re not prepared to fail, you’re not prepared to learn.”
Now, change the words “business leaders” in that quote to “college professors” and change "organizations" to "universities." Does that change much about the quote? Of course not!!! Every university and every professor that I speak with talk about educational innovation and creativity. Considering that this is 2022 and not 1982, it can be troubling to search for the results of those educational innovations. Oh, I certainly know that there is always creativity. However, given the problems of our planet, I personally doubt that there is enough.
Taylor talks about the fear of failure as stifling for innovation. Does that apply to you and your teaching? As you begin a new semester, that is not a bad question to consider.
I think a problem that college teachers face is that we often view innovation as something that must be a major change, something that takes a lot of time and effort. Obviously, if we only equate innovation with significant undertakings, then the fear of failure is real. Everyone is cautious about taking a considerable risk that might well end in defeat. We are not like Indiana Jones. Most of us are not big risk-takers.
Does innovation have to be a high-stakes gamble?
As you prepare for the fall semester, I want you to think about innovation in a different way. What are a few tiny changes you can make in your class that could bring about improvement? Don’t try to fix the world all at once. Don’t attempt a major renovation. Think about your classes and consider how a few small changes might lead to better and deeper student learning. Small innovations can lead to real improvement without leaving you open to the possibility of extreme failure. If they work, that is great. The success will provide you with a foundation for more changes. If they don’t work, then don’t do them again. Keep it simple.
Whenever I talk with professors about educational changes, they always seem puzzled about where to start. They want to change. They want to teach better. That is genuine. They want deeper understanding by their students. Nevertheless, they are not sure how to get innovation started.
Here is my advice in five easy steps. Thinking this way helps me. Try it. Maybe it will help you.
1—Picture the end of the fall semester. Don’t get in a hurry. Take your time. Think about your class on the last day. As specifically as you can, identify the characteristics or actions that you want to see in your students during that final session. Assume the semester has gone perfectly. Assume it is the best class you have ever taught. How will your students act or what will they be able to do on that last day? One of my mottoes (for myself and for my students) is, “Picture perfection.” I don’t think we do that enough as teachers. What would you like for that last class to look like?
2—Make a list of the Top 5 or 10 things that you would observe in this final, perfect class. How do students act? What do the students do that you like so well? How have they grown? Make it specific. Create a list of what you would see. “Smarter, more thoughtful students” doesn’t tell you anything – what does that mean on the last day of your class?
3—Make two columns. One is headed, “Things I’m doing to get my students to this outcome.” The second is headed, “Things I’m not yet doing to get my students to this outcome.” You want to determine what you are currently doing in your class to move the students toward your “Perfect Class Goal.” Thinking like this helps. You also want to consider what new actions might push the students to where you want them to be. It is this last column that is most important. Spend serious time thinking about what you might try during the fall that would guide the group toward your perfect picture. Don’t get in a rush. This is an important assignment. If you don’t have 10-20 things on the “not tried yet” list, you are not being creative and innovative enough. Another one of my mottoes: “The more ideas you have, the more likely it that you will have a good idea.” So, let your imagination run wild.
4—Look at this last list carefully. Don’t attempt to do everything!!! That’s a problem that often stops teachers from pushing forward. Instead, pick 2-3 things from this list that (a) might be effective and (b) can be carried out reasonably well in this coming semester. In other words, when it comes to innovation, Think tiny. These 2-3 changes will be the focus for your teaching this coming semester. Something new. These initiatives might fail, but they might not. They are worth the risk.
5—Document your list of 2-3 innovative things for the fall semester. Give yourself a definite plan. (a) What are you going to do new and different? (b) When are you going to do it? (c) How are you going to implement it (although that might be self-evident)? (d) How are you going to judge the results you achieve? Try to make an assessment each week of the progress.
You CAN be a more creative and innovative teacher. I don’t care who you are. The world needs that. Whether you are young or old, the world needs more innovative teachers. It is time to get started.
You CAN eventually achieve your perfect class, but it might well take 52 years.
You MUST understand what your primary goal is for your students and then find some workable strategies to guide your push toward that improvement. Think tiny.
If those ideas work, do them again in the spring semester and build on them toward more success.
If they fail, try to fix them and give them another shot or do something different in the spring semester. My third motto for this essay: Failure is only failure if you stop trying.
Best of luck to all my readers for a fabulous fall semester!!!!