John Cowan was the first Professor of Engineering Education in the UK, at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, where his educationally-oriented research and development concentrated on student-centered learning and the learning experience. On moving to the Open University in Scotland as Director in 1987, he encouraged innovative curriculum development and campaigned nationally for rigorous formative evaluation in higher education. When he retired from his tutoring duties in the autumn of 2011, he had been teaching, conducting, and publishing accounts of action research studies of his practices since 1952.
In his book ” On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher” John offers to his readers, particularly the young academics, some honest advice about how should we start innovating in academia nowadays. His strong message to all of us is that teaching is no longer an activity where we can each do our own thing, and are answerable only to our own classes. That is because in today’s environment staff have less and less time in which to think about changing their teaching and where senior management are more and more involved in decisions about priorities and innovations. Further, education is increasingly treated as business, where lecturers are constantly expected to deliver and perform well in many areas of teaching, research and community engagement. So, how can we even start thinking about innovating. John has a good advice to offer:
Build up a small circle of ‘critical friends’ and use them! Find people who share your interests and priorities, are working in similar areas and are so far away (geographically) that they can hardly work with you directly as kindred spirits. You may already know them. You may meet them at conferences or workshops after you start innovating. They may read one of your research articles and e-mail you. Tentatively at first, invite them to offer you constructive comment on a teaching plan, an evaluation or an incident. If and as they may make the same sort of request to you, check that they are willing to extend the relationship, and to make use of it for mutual benefit ( Cowan, 2006:151)
What John describes in his inspirational advice to us is an approach that I have been using for the last 10 years…and it is very rewarding. First as a PhD student in the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, I got in touch with John (whom I only new through his writings!) to ask his advice on my doctorate research idea. Since then, I have been inviting his thoughts on papers and ideas and we discuss deeply online in e-mails and on Skype. He became a ‘real’ friend, though still a ‘critical’ one and now that I am in Australia a ‘virtual ONLY one’. Over the years, I have also invited to my critical friends cycle researchers and academics from other countries and backgrounds! Each of them bring their own unique perspectives and interpretations of my ideas. It’s something that gives me an even greater appetite to learn from and with my new ‘friends’ . And I do that in my own time and by choice! That’s liberating! When are you going to establish your circle of critical friends?
Reference: Cowan, J. (2006) On becoming an innovative university teacher: Reflection in action 2nd edition. (Berkshire, Open University Press).