Uncertainty, Innovation, and Dynamic Capabilities

Uncertainty, Innovation, and Dynamic Capabilities are my words of the year. They also form the title of an article by Dave Teece, a business professor from Berkeley. The article did not grab me in the same way as the words, though that is not a reflection on his context. In this post I would like to borrow his title and explore why ‘capabilities’, ‘innovation’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘dynamic’ are important for academics and developers. Let’s take them in that order.


Capabilities are more than abilities or skills and, without defining capability, for me the word emphasises the empowerment of the individual. In terms of learning, it encapsulates the archetypal notion of learner-centredness. It is more than knowledge and disposition too, bringing all of these things into a subjective whole. It is an important word in my work on employability too in which myself and my colleague Charmaine Myers have adopted the idea of ‘graduate capabilities’ as being more useful than ’embedding employability’ when exploring the integration of employability in the curriculum through authentic learning techniques.

In a learner-centred world, our curriculum design is concerned with developing the capability of the learner and this connects to ideas such as learner confidence and agility.


Innovation is overused almost to the extent it has lost meaning. 2016 started for me by doing a workshop with about 30 academic staff in which we rediscovered a plethora of meanings. More recently I revisited this at a SEDA workshop on networking as discussed in recent posts. Innovation is about doing something new, and this begs a series of questions such as who is doing something new, what is it that is new, and why is doing something new important? Now is not the time to attempt to answer all of these questions, but here I would like to highlight one or two reasons why ‘innovation’ remains on my top word list.

Innovation goes with ‘possibility thinking’ and, as such, our use of the term confirms that we are not complacent and that we are full of hope for improving what we do. This contests the reading that innovation means ‘new for new sake’. ‘Innovation’ has context and is purposeful. The idea of reinvention (i.e. invention within context) is at the core of Rogers’ work on the Diffusion of Innovation (1962). This speaks of a life and dynamism, and a need for redefinition, enhancement and even transformation. This is both challenging and inspiring for the teacher, reminding us that we must be able to continually assess and address the learning situation as we find it.


Uncertainty has taken me a bit by surprise this year to be honest but, once I have thought about it, it has driven a lot of my thinking. It is there in the thinking I have been doing with Kathrine Jensen, for example, on boundary crossing and liminality and it is key to the idea that learning itself is about adventures into the unknown. This is a very learner-centred way of thinking about learning and knowledge: that proposition that sense and understanding come from grasping the unknown and challenging the ‘known’. This affirms my commitment to creativity, risk-taking and possibility thinking as being key behaviours and attitudes necessary for deep learning to happen. This causes us to see learning as a courageous, challenging activity undertaken by individuals – not simply as some form of transaction.

Together my understanding of capabilities, innovation and uncertainty points to an idea of learning that is not primarily about constructed content (representations of factual, procedural or conceptual knowledge), but about self and social situation: a subjective, reflection on experience.


The dynamic context qualifies all the above. It is like a devilish trick that adds the dimension of time to the dimensions of knowledge and the subjective constructed experience of learning. If anyone ever thought a curriculum could be simply designed, delivered and assessed (and validated as such) and called ‘content’, then they are ignoring the essential lived experience of the individual learner.


These words, and the meanings I have assigned to them, appear to create a real problem for the teacher. Where does the teacher begin in this apparently ambiguous learning space? For me the answer is relatively simple and well-established in the concept of constructive alignment. Teaching demands we focus on learning outcomes. That is outcomes not objectives – the difference being all about a learner’s capabilities and self-efficacy (the knowledge, skills and attitudes, and their assessment, follow, being constructed by the learner based on the learning context fostered by the teacher).

This addresses the subjectivity of learning and points us towards active, problem-based, experiential and reflective modes of engagement. There is something interesting here about the coming together of the personal and the social, and the magic of interactivity, and how one moderates the other.

There is something audacious about teaching where there is an assumption that a teacher is the guardian of knowledge and their role is to release it incrementally. In that philosophy, there is a danger that knowledge becomes a crutch for the teacher. Instead, I suggest that by focusing on developing the learner’s capability to learn, the teacher establishes a context in which a student can safely explore their uncertainty, applying and testing the information they find or are given to create their own knowledge. By doing this a student can develop their intrinsic motivation and the confidence and agility they need to hold them in good stead in a dynamic and uncertain world. The learner becomes practiced in possibility thinking to arrive at innovative solutions to the problems they counter in study and in life.


About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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