Can students be taught to be innovative?

I wondered to myself recently if ‘resiliance’ can be learned in a formal educational environment. You could learn some strategies for what to do when… you get bullied… or fail… of lose something that you cant get back. But its hard to say if anything except for those kinds of experiences can teach you to be genuinely resiliant.

Maybe the same could be said for innovation. Can students be taught to be innovative? The fifth facet of the Research Skill Development framework is ‘Students analyse and synthesise new knowledge’.  When we have a good hard look at what we have before us (analysis) and work out how different pieces can fit togther in novel ways (synthsise) we have a potentially innovative process going on. Students can be taught to analyse and to sythesise, but does that mean they can be taught to have that ‘spark’ that takes the process into innovative territory?

The affect descriptor that runs parallel to the cognitive domain of  ‘analyse and apply’ in the RSD is:


Arthur Koestler realised that:  ‘Creative activity could be described as a type of learning process where teacher and pupil are located in the same individual’. So, how can students be taught to teach themselves to be creative? Providing safe conditions for risk-taking, modelling and providing further models of creativity, and valuing and rewarding creativity are starters. Removing whatever stifles creativity  may be another way, including:

  • fussyness (referencing requirements for first year students comes to mind)
  • overly-prescriptive instructions
  • the flipside, lack of clarity or of boundaries
  • sterile learning environment
  • isolated students
  • dogmas
  • excessive work load
  • low teacher expectations

Providing the positives and removing the negatives provides an environment more conducive to students ‘teaching themselves’ to be creative. The need for innovation and creativity in research are absolutely pivotal to developing knowldge that deals with the supercomplex environmental, social and financial issues of the twenty-first century. As Einstein noted:

Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Do you think innovation, creativity and imagination can be taught? What examples do you have of students developing their creative thinking, especially in the context of research, research question posing and innovative methods?

I’m drowning in information!

There is a big difference between finding a lot of information and having appropriate ways to organise the information, so that it may be readily synthesised into coherent new understandings. Likewise, data generation is one thing, but having a repertoire of ways to arrange it, so as to reveal trends is a most vital aspect of researching. And having a structured approach to research processes can greatly assist addressing research questons or problems.

The forth facet of research on the RSD framework is: Organises information and data, and manages research processes

Information may be organised in notes, mind maps, explosion charts, and data recorded in logs, spreadsheets and various digital devices. Discipline appropriate ways are used to represent information and data as reports, essays, other prose, with charts, tables, graphs and diagrams, the organisation of which is also determined by the communication medium. On top of the complexities of organising appropriate combinations of these, and ordering coherenty the items, the whole research process needs to be managed within time, resource and knowledge constraints. It is no surpise then that this facet stands out as the one that is least likely to be developed by students, according to our research so far. For example, in year-later interviews, very few students noted that their organising skills had improved, whereas numerous other skills were explicitly noted as having improved.

One of the implications of this is that students need more modelling, structure and guidance to be able to develop organising and managing skills. It also suggests that there may be a need, in terms of the affective domain, for students to be motivated, not to be haphazard or slapdash, but to develop a feel for:

Where harmonising students dont just arrange information, but desire a way to order it in discipline-appropriate ways that throw light on the phenomena under investigation. Where their attitude, egged on by curiosity and compelled by determination, would be to harmonise so as to wreak order out of appearant chaos, and to manage the research process in ways that bring the best out of people and constraints. A harmonising student is one who resonates with the same frequency as research data to see that which is otherwise hidden. As Albert Einstein admonished:

Out of clutter, find simplicity.

This is the desire to order in a way that provides a deeper understanding, a simplicity or, in some disciplines, an elegance. This is where organisation and managment are servants to understanding, where a harmonising student is able to reveal where fresh knowlwdge can be found.

Consumers of knowledge or just gullible?

No one wants to be called gullible. However, in this information age, we are all vulnerable to information, not just too much information, but also of uncertainties around the credibility of this information. If a defining feature of research is ‘searching again’ then researching requires also ‘checking again’. Maybe information seems relevant, appropriate and trustworthy the first time, but what about during a second look?

I work with academics across all disciplines. The number one complaint I hear is about a lack of awareness, on the part of students, that they need to draw on an evidence base, citing, for example credible sources, rather than a search engine like Google.  However, I also find that skills of evaluation are rarely directly modelled or taught, and only indirectly assessed.

The third cognitive facet of the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework is that students evaluate information and data and reflect on the process to find or generate these. If evaluation or reflection is done in a manner that is gullible, accepting of all, then the processes students use produces no credible information. Therefore, in desiring students who can evaluate effectively, the affective side of this facet is:

Discerning: the drive to sniff out and find the best stuff


Where being discerning is both a driver and a product of researching.

Einstein said of himself

‘I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.’

A willingness to let go of that which is at hand or in mind is core to discernment.

Being discerning involves students not settling for others’ information or data that they themselves generate that compromise deeper understanding or real-world answers. This is where they begin to appreciate the indiscriminate use of information or data causes such real-world phenomena as patient deaths, buildings that fall down, poor understandings of society and other counterproductive elements.

Students engaging in research is a great way for them to learn to be discerning users of information. And being discerning users of information will enable them to be great researchers.

What makes students want to continue researching?

This week I said to a large lecture theatre full of First Year students :

‘We have many search engines, such as google, library searches and data base search facilities. However, there is only one ‘research engine’ known to humanity. What is it?’

One student called out ‘Us’. Yes, the only research engine is the ‘human mind’. Many animals can search, but only the human brain is known to have the capacity to research (although dam-building beavers make me wonder about that).

One of the defining features of research is the ‘re’ part- ‘doing it again’. This is an element of research that requires hardwork. Whilst we may be driven by curiosity to want to research, as we get into it it just gets hard. This reflects the move from ‘query’ to ‘inquiry, where being ‘in’ the query, being immersed in it, is all encompassing, requiring effort to keep one’s head above water. What does this need to keep on going tell us about the affective or emotional side of research?

The second cognitive facet of the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework is that students find information and generate data using discipline-appropriate methodologies. If this is completed in a half-hearted or slapdash way, that which is found is likely to lack sufficient rigor or credibility. Therefore, the affect associated with this facet is:

What makes us determined to get there in the end?


Students being determined enough to find information that addresses their questions or purpose, formulating an answers. Then, with a dawning realisation that they may have only found a partial answer, or drawn on a set of articles that were somehow biased in orientation, they seacrch for more information. Students generating data in laboratories, field research, clinical research or surveying  opinions, analysing their results and deciding to go back and regenerate to test the voracity of findings. Determinination entails keeping on going until the job is done properly.

Another statement from Albert Einstein about one of his key researcher characteristics was:

‘Its not that I am so smart. Its just that I stay with problems longer’

How can we facilitate the development of determined students who stay with problems longer? Some students give up easily when they encounter obstacles. Others, given a challenge, may not let go until it is resolved. Maybe one key  is building a supportive ‘community of inquiry’ where there is a social norm to encounter problems, share problems and work through problems as part of a research process, ie smooth sailing is abnormal! Another key may be personal committment by students to the phenomena being researched, where this can be realised through ownership and autonomy being as high as possible, but no higher. A third, and more readily realisable, key  to develop determined students is the process of making the need to be determined more explicit; stating this as a core characteristic, as well as lecturer modelling of determination, may go a long way to helping its gestation in students. Ultimately, there may be a strong link between the engagment suggested by ‘curiosity’ and the persitance suggested by ‘determination’; these are an inter-related couple amongst the vital six affective facets of research.

What makes students want to research?

When given the opportunity, some students love to research while others find it tedious or intimidating. Many more lie between these extremes. Why are there so many different emotional (affective) responses to engaging in research processes?

In the Research Skill Development (RSD) framework, the first facet of research is:

Students embark on research and clarify a need for understanding

Students have to enter into research, and how they  begin is a function of 2 things: each student and the phenomena in question. Social dimensions will also play a great role in some contexts, but less in others. Whether the phenomena is a quark or a work by Shakespeare, student prior knowledge, experiences and interest in the phenomena will all play a part in the embarking.

Two years ago we began searching for one-word descriptors of affect that match each of the 6 facets of the RSD. The idea was not to attempt to measure or quantify affect, but rather make explicit the existance and importance of it. The descriptor that relates to embarking on research is:

Decidedly curious


This was epitomised by Albert Eistein’s statement about one of his defining characteristics:

I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.

That students would be curious, where they would say that learning experiences ‘inspired something in me that wanted to find out’, as one First Year Medical Science student put it . There are numerous other drivers to embark on research, such as funding, kudos, survival, role-requirement, and so on. But as an educational intention, it would be a fantastic outcome if students left our courses a little more curious about the discipline than when they started. That, as well as acquiring more knowledge, we had piqued their curiosity to learn even more. In addition we had equipped them with skills to begin to satiate this curiosity.

In a workshop on affective descriptors, a provocative word suggested by a member of the audience was ‘intrepid’. It is an instructive word to consider because whilst it is a word that impels into discovery, the characteristic described is more in the person alone; an intrepid explorer will tend to be intrepid wherever she is exploring. However, I may be curious about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but not about quarks. Curiosity is more about a relationship between people and a phenomenon being research.

In formal education, may students be enabled to research in a way that provides them as much or little structure and guidance as necessary. May it be that out of these carefully crafted research experiences their curiosity is nurtured. And among many affective factors driving them to embark, may curiosity be chief.

John W