Crisis – what crisis? A time for academic innovation

RSA Future Change Framework

At Wonkfest I attended a panel session titled Changing the Culture of Changing the Culture in which Charlotte Summers, who is Head of Commercial Development at the RSA, referred to the RSA’s excellent Future Change Framework.

Admittedly, I am a sucker for a framework, but this got me thinking. Given that I believe many academics have had to leave certain teaching practices behind and have had to discover new practices, I am hopeful that more people will have discovered not just new methods, but new teaching identities – individual and collective identities.

No going back

It would be wrong to generalise, but I can see in my own working life some ingrained practices that have had to change and will never return to their pre-crisis state. Here are a couple:

  • I haven’t printed anything on paper, but I used to carry a rucksack to work weighed down with journal articles to read. I used to like making written notes on them. I am now reading papers digitally. I am not sure I have created an equivalent reading and note making habit yet, but I will.
  • It seems like I use Teams for everything I do at work. I hadn’t used it previously but now it is an integral part of my working ecosystem. While a physical room has its own affordances, my digital ‘room’ is always with me. Many of us are asking if we’ll ever go back to campus. Even though I am making plans for working back on campus from time to time, I can’t with all honesty work out what will work better, and indeed what ‘better’ means. I am actually a lot more productive being away from campus – at least double. It’s incredible what I can achieve in a day, and I believe I was very productive before. It’s not that simple though: is the quality of my working life as good as it was? No. I do miss real people (as opposed to pixel people) and there are some situations where I want to stretch out with a coffee and just cogitate with colleagues or walk up to a whiteboard and think through ideas visually with others. I don’t want to go back for the sake of presenteism though – we must leave that behind and focus on the good reasons for being with others. The productivity is indicative perhaps of a more instrumental ethos. I find myself having to make more decisions, whereas my natural inclination is to be more consultative.

Stop, start, pause, resume

The RSA framework is not so new – it’s a version of the stop, start, pause, resume workload management approach I’ve used for years, a system that clarifies when you realise that to start new work you have first got to relinquish existing work.

But the context is different. Now is a brilliant time to remind ourselves that we all have an excuse at the same time to stop things – those things we assume are unassailable and are part of who we are but are probably just old habits that serve to reassure us that we are indispensable. Letting go of ingrained behaviours can be extremely difficult when socially we are not all in the same place. But we are all in the same place – for a moment. It is a good time for change through reappraisal.

Become a social innovator

My appeal, and I think the appeal of the RSA Framework, is to redefine yourself as an innovator, socially. Innovators are usually cast as exceptional people who buck the trend in pursuit of higher goals. I have written about them being outlaws and risk-loving ‘work arounders’ (Middleton, 2018). But now we have a great opportunity to adopt innovator mindsets collectively – it is easier for more of us to spot the opportunity and give each other courage to think and act differently.

So academic course teams, think differently and give each other the courage to imagine positively. Discourage the naysayers and Devil’s advocates (Kelley & Litman, 2005) and start getting exited together about what you have just achieved and how doing more new things (and shedding more old habits) can make your lives better and your students’ learning experience better.

Don’t snap back

Peter Bryant blogged a few months ago cautioning about the tendency we may have to fall back into the old normal – when “staff and students want to stop feeling liminal and transition back to certainty.” I agree, the desire for certainty is possibly the danger here.

Peter discusses what the urge for normalcy means for teaching and learning. For me, snapping back to lectures, discarding technologies that can connect our classrooms with people and situations around the world, allowing confident voices to dominate proceedings when the digital has shown us how to be more inclusive and egalitarian, are just three that spring to mind for me. Peter lists others. What would you list?

The crisis?

Peter is right, our crisis would be giving way to the temptation to snap back – the unthinking desire to reclaim a kind of normalcy. Even an overbearing romanticism based on the mis-belief that the past was perfect.

The crisis would be that we ignore that we have been through hard times together – it often feels we forget about the power of acting together. Instead, notice how much we have cared for each other, and missed each other.

Now is the time to co-operate and become social innovators. Keep hold of the good stuff and shed those worn out academic habits once and for all. Give each other courage to change.


Bryant, P. (2021, blog post 12th January). SnapBack. Peter Bryant: Post Digital Learning

Kelley, T. & Litman, J. (2005). The ten faces of innovation. New York: Doubleday.

Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.

RSA (2021). Future Change Framework : a way to think about how we respond to crisis and how that can drive positive change –

About amiddlet50

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