Six Ways to Foster Innovation in the Learning Field

The other day we considered elements in the learning and development field that stifle innovation in the post Six Ways Innovation is Stifled in the Learning Field. Today let’s consider six ways that we can foster innovation in the learning field.


When two seemingly different things are placed together, innovation can occur. Things that commonly go together do not lead to innovation…they lead to the same-old-same-old. But if you want to spur innovation and creative thinking, consider putting together things that many people don’t consider together. For example, gamification is a juxtaposition of “serious learning” with elements from games. This can lead to a different way of thinking about the design and development of instruction. In some of my presentations I juxtapose a Detective Noire theme with instructional design content. Two items that don’t seem to go together. To foster innovation in learning and development, we need to spend time thinking about two or more things that don’t go together. Think about learning and storytelling or mobile devices and deep thinking or QR Codes and worksheets. By consciously thinking about things that don’t go together, you’ll eventually think of an innovation (or a really weird animal like a Jackalope.)

Non-Traditional Thinking
Our field has a strong tradition whether we know it or not. For example the educational concept of kindergarten can be tracked by to 1855 when German immigrants in Wisconsin launched the first kindergarten in America which they based on the kindergartens of Germany. Many of our classrooms today have the same design. Traditional thinking of classrooms prevails today. Thinking about learning in non-traditional spaces like work, while sleeping or other “strange places” will foster innovations and new ideas. Thinking about learning as we have always “done” learning will not foster innovation. How can learning be done in a place other than a classroom, other than in an eLearning module, other than with a worksheet. We need to picture learning happening in unusual places in unusual formats.

Multiple Attempts
“We tried that once, it didn’t work” is perhaps one of the most effective ways of killing innovation known to humankind. Edison did not stop after one attempt, Steve Jobs did not stop after the first design of the iPod…come on. It reminds me of the Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoon who tries something once and gives up. For innovation to occur, our field and the professionals within it must be willing to try something over and over again making modifications as we go. Innovation comes through iteration, be willing to fail and fail often when trying to innovate in the area of learning. It is naivete and hubris combined when someone believes that one good, well-thought out attempt at learning design is all that will ever be needed. As the saying goes, no battle plan ever survived a meeting with the enemy. I like to say “no original lesson design ever remained intact after a meeting with the first learner.” Be willing to try things over and over to foster innovation.

New Network Connections
Innovation comes from the combination of ideas, the combination of ideas comes from being exposed to lots of different ideas. Even ideas we don’t like or disagree with. The value of having new network connections is that the connections bring new ideas, new perspectives and new ways of thinking. All of these elements can lead to innovation. We can’t keep telling the same people the same things and expect
new, innovative ideas. We need different people and they need to be telling us different things. We need to look to places like Hollywood or reality television for innovative ideas to bring into the learning and development field. We can’t keep looking to instructional designers and stand up trainers to give us “new ideas.” We need to bring in outsiders.

Bring in Those New to the Field
Looking at our field through new eyes is a talent many students in instructional design can bring to the table. It only lasts for a little while but mingling students with seasoned professionals has lead to many innovative course designs. Students bring a level of enthusiasm and energy that is often unmatched by more seasoned professionals. The students are able to make connections and bring together ideas without being encumbered by pre-conceived notions. If you are struggling to innovate within your learning and development department, take a course idea, invite in some students and have a focus group session brainstorming some ideas for the course. You will get innovative and off-the wall ideas. So will actually be so valuable you’ll wonder why you’d never done it before.

One source of innovation in any field are the vendors. While many people don’t want to talk to a vendor because they feel they’ll be hounded for life (and that is true in some cases). The fact of the matter is that vendors see a lot of customers and potential customers and can really get a feel for what the field is missing and what is needed. Involving vendors in conversations provides a wealth of insight and a breadth that most of us don’t have from just working within one organization. So if you can enter into a non-sales discussion about the field, with a vendor, those vendors can provide a great deal of value in helping us to innovate.

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Karl Kapp
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