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#4 Lab blog- Where to start?

This week marks the beginning of the Education Innovation Lab – the Exeter Education Incubator’s experiment in how we support innovation. Whether or not to run the Lab was always in question. It has been a challenging and exhausting year. Academics, professional service colleagues, and students have already had to contend with many changes and new ways of working (and living). I was concerned whether this was the right time to ask people  to not only innovate in education practice, but also undertake that innovation in an unfamiliar way.

At the beginning of the academic year, I was moved by Leeds Vice-Chancellor, Simone Buitendijk, writing that ‘we can’t fix everything and that should be ok’ (2020). One of the gifts of this sentiment is that it frees us up to have a go at fixing something; to contribute at a crucial moment in the history of universities when so much is at stake. Personally, deciding to start the Innovation Lab offered me an opportunity to do some of the things that make my working life enjoyable and meaningful, including exploring and testing ideas and working with dedicated and inventive people. The Lab is a practice of ‘critical hope’ as a response to the pandemic, which Jessica Riddell (2020) describes as a “narrative (which) offers us a way to be broken open, to occupy the position of learner, to embrace empathy, and to relinquish authority in favour of collaboration – with our students, with our colleagues, with our communities.”

With these words calling me to action, we gathered people around us and hatched a plan. But where to start? As I planned our first workshop this question dominated: How do I introduce the ideas the Lab is built on, the structure we have created, the possibilities I think it offers without completely overwhelming people? I feared I could come across like the archetypal mad scientist who, having spent too long in her own company, flails around trying to communicate a possible future. 

Slow down. 

Start with the people. 

The Lab began with a pre-session Welcome Mural for participants to explore; to introduce themselves and their projects. I included step-by-step instructions for navigating Mural, a tool we will be using to facilitate collaborative working online. We asked participants to share a photo of spring where they are. This week’s Mental Health Awareness week focuses on the value of nature for our wellbeing. I hope that in taking this photo for the workshop, people slowed down a bit and connected with their environment. In the workshop, each person introduced themselves to the group, picking out an image that appealed to them. We started to find common interests and hear each other’s stories of family and home, enjoyment and longing. To me, it felt like a very promising beginning.

Screenshots from Welcome Mural Credit: Sarah Dyer

Our ‘ask’ of our participants is that they start with the people too. In this beginning phase of the Lab, we are asking them to find out who is touched by the problem or challenge they are addressing. We have asked them to go and talk to these people rather than assume they understand their perspectives, what Pamela Spokes and Jean Mutton call ‘informed assumption’. If participants have desired outputs for their project, we have asked them to put these to one side, for the time being, until they have understood the problem from multiple perspectives. Over the next few weeks, participants will be talking and learning more about their subject, and we will be synthesising and exploring what they find in order to better define the task. Next week, as well as a workshop and social space, participants will be meeting with design coaches who will be supporting them to make the most of the Lab process. I’m looking forward to seeing how these conversations progress.

This is the third in a series of blogs about the Incubator Lab. You can access the earlier blogs here and here.

Simone Buitendijk (2020) We can’t fix everything and that should be ok. 

Jessica Riddell (2020) Combatting toxic positivity with critical hope University Affairs. 

Pamela Spokes and Jean Mutton (2020) Are you inflicted by ‘informed assumptions’? 

Incubator Project Updates

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