Overcoming Inertia through Innovation in Higher Education
Inspiring students and encouraging them to pursue authentic enquiry in various disciplines requires a close connection with theory and practice, community and college, and contradictions and affirmations.
Need for Innovations in pedagogy, curriculum, content to trigger reflective thinking has been felt for a long time in higher education. Many teachers have indeed tried to pursue various experiments to help students connect theory and practice from a critical perspective. Authentic teaching often requires an acknowledgement on the part of teachers that learning cannot be one way. Students can also teach just as teachers can also learn. Yet when I ask a question to teachers in different fora about the questions they couldn’t answer satisfactorily, there is generally a silence. If teachers don’t teach saying, “I don’t know but I will find out”, how will students learn humility and even fallibility.
The reforms in higher education depend on the way teachers use their agency vis a vis their autonomy. Autonomy is the freedom to make decisions, the agency is the ability or willingness to use that freedom. One does not need permission from anybody to make learning more experiential and interactive. For instance, how does a vegetable vendor calculate the total price of various units of vegetables purchased by a customer almost instantaneously by multiplying the unit/quantity with weight may surprise a student of mathematics. It may also help him understand that there do exist multiple intelligences. Similarly, when a schoolchild as a part of a learning expedition visits a potter along with college students and observes something that others didn’t, then a point is made about careful perception and deeper analysis even at a very young age. For example, the student asked me, which is the most critical stage in clay pot making. I mentioned motor-driven rotating platforms or the use of moulds or clay mixing churner. But I was wrong. What the child noticed was that filtering of the clay was the most critical step because the unequal size of particles might make the pot leak. Learning to unlearn, so that we can listen and learn from even from a child is the crux of the matter. NEP does stress forging closer connections between colleges and communities. That will imply entering into a zone of powerlessness, vulnerability and uncertainty because we still don’t understand enough about how collective intelligence and decision-making works in the informal sector.
There are many barriers to experimentation in higher education but there is only one way in which we can facilitate learning and that is using one’s agency.
Activating one’s agency
Let me list some of the barriers which prevent us from using our agency and thus triggering
- Since I cannot solve all the problems, there is no point in trying to solve even one.
System framework does suggest that we look at the interrelationships among various variables, antecedent, throughput and subsequent changes or outcomes of the system. It does not mean however, that we should try to change all the variables at the same time. Even a small change matters because it reinforces my ability to use my agency and makes me induce confidence among students or other participants in the exchange that they can also bring about a change. Every step, no matter how small, matters.
2. The possibility of a change is far too remote, and risks are too high, why then should one try.
I always argue for maximising uncertainty because we become vulnerable and with a lack of control over various variables, I may become far more attentive towards straws in the wind—a remote chance of success. Even a small possibility seems to invoke experimental ethic, trying validates me.
3.What will others say if my idea does not work?
The need for peer approval is generally one of the major barriers to experimentation. It is possible that if one is ahead of the times or is using any reflective pedagogy then others might not approve the proposal easily. But sometimes looking at one’s passion, they might. However, trying an experiment without awaiting appreciation from others is a hallmark of pioneers.
4.Lack of resources comes in the way of trying new things.
Unfortunately most of the time, we confuse resources only with material or financial resources and rarely consider the diversity of students as a resource. During Covid, the concept of home experiments enabled students of biotechnology to look at the kitchen as a lab and pursue many experiments on different kinds of media, cultures, growth promoters, etc. If all the resources were available, there is hardly a chance of innovations emerging. It’s not for nothing that large corporations are looking at grassroots and frugal innovations here as an important source of inspiration for thinking globally.
5.There is no point in trying when the students are apathetic.
There is a popular saying that a good artisan does not blame his tools. There are at least three things which often evoke a definite response from the students. One is attention to detail, the second is deep homework and a third is an immersive learning opportunity. Students can figure out whether we have done our homework or not and secondly, are we paying attention to each one of them constantly in class? Students can be very meaningful participants in the innovative experiments because they are the purpose of innovative education. Asking students to collect data on various issues from their neighbourhoods or parents, grandparents, or shopkeepers, vendors, or labourers can be a meaningful way of teaching empathy, mapping the unmet needs and exploring the grounded irlearning in the classrooms. Rarely, do we pause to talk to people who serve us and listen to their struggles and then discuss their creative coping strategies. The indifference of students may also be a function of lack of excitement the faculty has in the class. No matter which subject and at what level of depth one is discussing, the students can be encouraged to find flaws within the dominant theories and prevalent practices. There is too much reverence in the class about whatever is accepted in the discipline, we need more irreverence.
6. I tried many experiments but did not succeed most of the time.
This is one barrier which can defeat some of the very optimistic teachers too. The question is: did students participate in those experiments and if yes, then did we term those experiments as failures because results were not along the expected lines. We have to remember that in education, process is often the product. If students participate actively and the results are contrary to our expectation or not so pronounced, then one part of the experiment is successful. That is, the participation. And it may not matter much whether the results were expected along the lines. If every experiment generates the expected result, the chances for breakthrough are very remote. It is the unexpected result which should excite us more than the expected result.
This dialogue will continue, and I am willing to assert that no matter which group of students we deal with, there are always those who are keen learners. The problem is with us if we cannot excite them about what is unknown, uncertain and uneasy.