Innovation in Higher Education #13 #cong17

By Dr. Pauline Madigan

Can qualities such as ‘being innovative’ be taught?  Should innovation be taught or is it already embedded into education?  What the hell is innovation?! I was glad to see Eoin and his colleagues in Cong highlighting on the website that ‘innovation’ can mean different things to different people.  For example, I want to chat in Cong about whether or not a lecturer can teach a student to be innovative.  But what is being innovative? And isn’t innovation one of the key cornerstones of a higher education qualification so is it not already embedded in our teaching and learning?  And if it isn’t, should it be?

A quick definition search for innovation describes it as ‘a new idea, device or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices and methods’. Thus I intend to focus here on innovation meaning to encourage creativity in our students.  But can we, as educators, teach a student how to be innovative?  Interestingly, there is convincing evidence in research to show that attributes such as being innovative and creative can and should be taught.  For example, there is an educational framework known as transformative education which is beginning to gain traction in the HE environment. But what exactly is it?  Let me do my best to explain in the following paragraphs.

Concepts of transformative education have their roots in social theory which explores and develops concepts and practices to promote social justice and equality.  One goes beyond the acquisition of cognitive affective and psychomotor skills that may produce competent workers, and instead uses critical and constructive thinking methods to inspire learners to: ‘look deeply into practices, to develop creative ways of thinking, to improve problem –solving skills and to strive to further social good through concerted personal actions’ (McAllister and McKinnon, 2009, p 375). 

Effectively therefore, transformative education transforms how one sees the world and in essence encourages the student ‘how to learn’.   This is important because providing an effective learning environment for the development of attributes - such as innovation, resilience, curiosity and willingness to learn – are known to be of benefit not just to students, but by extension, to society as a whole.

However, this learning environment can only exist in higher education if we consider the ‘environment’ to be inclusive of adequate resources for the educator as well as the learner and this is being hugely challenged at the moment.  The exponential growth of students will surely stint the encouragement – or time – for educators to focus on the importance of developing innovative students.  The Department of Education and Skills in Ireland (2015) report that demand for third level full time education is expected to continue to rise every year over the period 2015-2029, reaching 207,544 by 2029, an increase of over 38,000 on 2014 enrolment levels.

At the same time the numbers employed in higher education institutions are falling.  In fact Boland (2015) noted that in real terms the situation is worse because if we had maintained staffing ratios as they were at the beginning of the financial crisis we have effectively taken 4,000 staff out of the system.

Additionally, there is growing concern in relation to the quality of higher education.  Giroux (2010) and Ingleby (2015) have noted the shift in the HE landscape under neoliberal forces increasingly aligning the goals of business, government and education. Additionally, Boden and Nedava (2010) reason that higher education institutions are now generally managerialist, focusing on areas such as funding streams, performance management regimes, quality audits and research assessment exercises.   One of their key points is significant in asserting this concern:

Educating students is now, to a significant extent, a mass, global corporatized business, exhibiting almost all of the characteristics associated with making cars or providing financial services. (Boden & Nedava, 2009, p 40).

Therefore, to be innovative in education – in education in its broadest sense – needs to take consideration of the challenges facing higher education in Ireland today including the increase in student intake, staff reductions and managerialist issues. But we should endeavour to include attributes such as innovation in our national higher education framework for teaching and learning.  Otherwise our strategies will be nothing more than intentions.


Boden, R., & Nedava, M. (2010). Employing discourse: universities and graduate 'employability'.

Journal of Education Policy, 25(1), 37-54.

Boland, T. (2015). National Strategy and Framework for Higher Education: Higher Education Authority. Retrieved from

Giroux, H. (2010). Bare pedagogy and the scourge of neoliberalism: Rethinking higher education as a democratic public sphere. The Educational Forum, 185-196.

McAllister, M., & McKinnon, J. (2009). The importance of teaching and learning resilience in the health disciplines: A critical review of the literature. Nurse Education Today, 371-379.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie