Welcome to the November issue of Teaching Matters: Expect the unexpected

Photo credit: Pixabay, Reginasphotos, CC0

Welcome to the November issue: Expect the unexpected – when teaching innovations don’t turn out as anticipated. 

In this issue, we will be publishing examples of when a teaching innovation or change in practice has been introduced, piloted, or researched, and it hasn’t turned out as expected. It may simply not have worked, or it could have been more complex or nuanced than anticipated, resulting in unexpected benefits or unintended consequences (positive or negative).

This theme is inspired by the under-reporting of negative research findings and unsuccessful clinical trials, as well as thinking about the complexity of our educational contexts: there can be so many variables and influencing factors that can contribute to unexpected outcomes when we try something new. 

Around 2014/15, there was an increase in momentum to create journals that published negative results, such as New Negatives in Plant Science and Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine (although these have now ceased publication). This was in an attempt to counter ‘publication bias’:

Publication bias affects the body of scientific knowledge in different ways, including skewing it towards statistically significant or “positive” results. This means that the results of thousands of experiments that fail to confirm the efficacy of a treatment or vaccine – including the outcomes of clinical trials – fail to see the light of day.                                                                                                                – (Goodchild van Hilten, 2015)

Indeed, Teaching Matters’ statement of intent is guilty of brushing over the ‘negatives’ in it’s aim to ‘showcase our successes’. Yet the lessons learnt through ‘failing’ or stumbling across the unexpected, also need to ‘see the light of day’. It is important to create spaces to celebrate these twists and turns for the learning opportunities that they present.  As Astro Teller, head of the Moonshot Factory at X (Google), states in his TED talk, The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure, “we work hard at X to make it safe to fail”. 

Although not quite on such a scale, the University offers it’s own version of a Moonshot Factory. The Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme offers funding and encouragement for staff and students to “explore new practice and innovations in teaching”. This is a safe, supported space, which welcomes attempts at innovation, whatever the outcome may be. As a University, I would argue that we need to actively support more of these spaces that make us feel safe to play around and try new ideas, where the learning that unfolds during a ‘failed’ attempt is respected as much as those marked as ‘successes’.

Mini-series: Peer Learning and Support

Teaching Matters is delighted to announce the next mini-series, Peer Learning and Support, which will run throughout November and December. ‘Peer Learning and Support’ relates to peer-led student groups who focus on building academic and social communities within the University. Co-edited by Maddie Kurchik , Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin, and Dr Robyn Pritzker, from the Edinburgh University Students’ Association Peer Learning and Support team, this mini-series will focus on a range of issues relating to Peer Learning and Support, and explore the various benefits and challenges of such initiatives. There will be two podcast episodes accompanying the mini-series, released in January 2020.

There will also be two other Spotlight on ELIR posts published this month, so please do engage with these and send on any feedback to ELIRsupport@ed.ac.uk.

Happy reading…!


Goodchild van Hilten, L. (2015). Why it’s time to publish research “failures”Elsevier Connect.

Jenny Scoles

Dr Jenny Scoles is the editor of Teaching Matters. She is an Academic Developer (Learning and Teaching Enhancement) in the Institute for Academic Development, and provides pedagogical support for University course and programme design. Her interests include student engagement, professional learning and sociomaterial methodologies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *