There, There – Risk aversion, ambient conservatism and the institutional equilibrium of pedagogical change


‘An organisation itself is an innovation, but most organisations of the past have been designed to be innovation resisting… To insure reliable repetition of prescribed operations, the organization requires strong defenses against innovation. Efforts to innovate must be relegated to the categories of error, irresponsibility, and insubordination, and appropriate corrective action taken to bring the would-be innovators “back in line.”’

Shepard, H. A. (1967). Innovation-resisting and innovation-producing organizations. Journal of Business, 470-477

This world view, proposed by H.A Shepard in 1967 is a widely cited critique of institutional resistance, perhaps somewhat pessimistic in its outlook, but realistic in the context of a Don Draper-esque era of errant conservatism (especially around gender and racial equality) matched with an unrestrained liberalism, the likes of which we have not seen since. Whilst many universities were founded on liberal principles, as organisations (as opposed to institutions) they are often inherently conservative in terms of change, innovation and activity. The ‘prescribed operations’ that Shepard describes are much as they were 30 years ago; the lecture, assessment, teaching. These are reliable, identifiable and understood practices and behaviours, entrenched in the organisation through inherited tradition, rusted on institutional systems and the ongoing construction and maintenance of facilities and space designed to support their ongoing predominance. People who work outside of those boundaries and practices, or argue for change in the context of a changing world, whilst not charged with insubordination, are often marginalised, locked away in outlying spaces and pejoratively labelled as the techies, the radical few, the people who are doing stuff that might work from them, but is entirely unsuitable for (insert discipline name here). It is a way to ensure that the prescribed operations continue uncritically and without the pesky interference from innovation, change and progress.

I argue that through a perfect storm of factors (demographics of students and staff, government policy, funding and competition) the liberal ambitions of higher education are often (though not always) subsumed into innovation resistance and a barnacled pedagogical practice. The practices of conservatism and risk aversion have been absorbed into the fabric of institutional culture, with structures, rewards and budgets supporting and often defending the status quo. The ongoing challenge to normalise the role of technology, the continued dominance of the lecture as a mode of teaching and the call/response/call cycle of student experience surveys are good examples of where these two practices reside at the core of culture and strategy and make change difficult and traumatic and innovation often impossible.

This conservatism is not political nor even ideological. It is an ambient conservatism that permeates many institutional functions and strategic thinking. There are conditions, both extant and atmospheric (being unnoticed but accepted all the same) that are preventing the natural progressions of pedagogical innovation, the scaling of experimentation and the embedding of innovative, technology informed practice at the heart of teaching and learning. Within institutions there is little mainstream challenging of this slow progress. Arguably there is significantly more mainstreaming championing of it. That by resisting we are in fact defending the empire from the marauding hordes. What was good for us is (plus or minus one OHP) good for the next or even the next, next generation of learners. But what is distilled is made stronger, and what is distilled through certain types of filters changes its composition entirely. So perhaps in reality, what was great for us 30 years ago is in fact not the same as we are delivering to our students today, nor are the students the same, nor are the disciplines and their knowledge the same. And for me, learning is without doubt fundamentally not the same. The filters have changed and the practices have distilled. It is in this context that we make the case for debate, discussion and action around changing and innovating pedagogy, challenging the primacy of lectures, diversifying assessment and feedback and radically redefining our understanding of the power of the massive, collaboration, making connections and play.

Ambient conservatism
I don’t think that this conservatism is solely the sin of educational institutions. There has been a surfeit of examples of what I would call ‘hysteric conservatism’ over the last few years, from the reaction to Bill Henson’s photographs to the ‘scandal’ over the tweets made by Kent teenager Paris Brown. The reactions and responses are value judgements on art, culture, media and youth, applying a conservative framework to fields and debates that are not uniformly conservative and have a history and tradition of changing societal values through practice. This can be represented in academic practices in a variety of way, from the way we ‘teach’ about social media, portraying digital literacy and identity as lessons in stranger danger and your party pictures as a permanent a stain on your record as that prison tattoo to the way we romanticise or transactionalise the didactic broadcast lecture. It permeates change, it poisons innovation by being the mantra for the resistor (take it slowly, people don’t like change) and it challenges those who want to be more radical, ambitious or revolutionary. It makes institutions far more risk averse as the collective organisational experience almost always suggests that we have tried this before and it has failed, returning the organisation to its established equilibrium. This equilibrium is difficult to change as the momentum to swing back to it is often so strong. Change becomes piecemeal, cautious, organic, bottom-up, baby-stepped and opt-in, resulting in the equilibrium shifting marginally, or swinging slightly in the breeze, but never shifting. History is littered with the abandoned carcasses of technological innovations that perished on hard, barren ground. Risk aversion is now an enshrined value proposition within our sector and it is the natural enemy of innovation.

The three behaviours of risk aversion

Technology is simply a tool by which we replace other technologies or replicate existing practice. We can engage with 500 people in a lecture in a far more effective way by replacing the OHP with PowerPoint, paper hand outs with an LMS/VLE and by replacing the shaky dodgy copy of the John Cleese film you always show with a nice YouTube copy. This is a form of pedagogical conservatism because it does not challenge or interrogate what you are doing, just the vehicle in which you are doing it. It is one step removed from repainting the walls of your classroom. Stephen Sheely labels lectures as a ‘persistent technology’ that have survived for centuries despite waves of evidence arguing against their efficacy and arguing for the one mode that they are frequently not (interactive). These replacement and replication behaviours have hardened the role of technology as one that Sheely argues promotes the translation and preservation of this mode of teaching into other mediums (on-line for example – what do some lecture capture systems do? They don’t leverage the benefits of the media and medium, they record the lecture verbatim, making it an artefact of irrelevancy (at least they provide one benefit, repeatability and repetition for the learner, and that is no small change in a globalised market).

The behaviours of resistance are many and varied (I co-wrote an article with my esteemed colleagues Tony Coombs and Monika Pazio which de-constructed individual and institutional resistance behaviours which you can read here. Resistance is both a subtle form of risk aversion demonstrated through experimenting with an inconsequential aspect of pedagogy to keep the wolves at bay, right through to the active resistances we have all seen (funding, shutting activity down, corralling of technology to institutional system level). Resistance is manifestly a form of risk aversion (although not exclusively so). Resistors also attempt to present incontrovertible arguments for resistance (time poverty, student expectations, budgetary compliance, quality assurance, ‘industry’). These arguments position those attempting change as the ones who need to justify the rationales for their practices, as if there is no need to defend what already occupies the territory. The norm is unchallengeable.

Misappropriation of Einsteinian truisms aside (sometimes, doing the same something for the second time in education does produce different results), this form of risk aversion is one of the most difficult to respond to. The reformation that occurs from being empowered enough to not want to re-offend is lost when the technology, the pilot, the pedagogy, the assessment doesn’t work (for whatever reason). I will never try that technology again, the VLE never works, I tried twitter but the students hated it. So, you re-offend, you forgot the redemption that you sought from change and you go back to the way you have always done it. The issue with this type of aversion is that the pool for innovation is finite, and the cascading rings of institutional inspiration (or ‘dis-inspiration’) that occur within peer or collegiate groups spread far wider than the positive messages educational developers or learning technologists can disseminate.

So, what does this all mean?
Our greatest challenge to progress forward institutional level pedagogical change is to understand the impact of ambient conservatism and its influence on the risk appetite of the institution. Start by thinking about how risk prone or averse you are in terms of your practice. What makes great, truly great? It is within the power of the crowd to make change. It requires unique, impassioned and skilled individuals, working alone and collectively. It requires a sense of risk that is not always there. A fear of the unknown that doesn’t result in resorting to the known. As Radiohead croon in the eponymous title track to this post; ‘Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.’ We ask our students to trust us. Perhaps it is time to ask the institution to trust us, to support our experimentation and practice, to link us with others who have played and learnt, collectively forming a rock super group of practice. I will leave the last word to Mr Shepard;

‘It (innovation) requires an unusual combination of qualities: a creative but pragmatic imagination; psychological security and an autonomous nature; an ability to trust others and to earn the trust of others; great energy and determination; a sense of timing; skill in organizing; and a willingness and ability to be Machiavellian where that is what the situation requires.’

(image used under a Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC 2.0) from id-iom –

Transforming creative work in a digital age

Aside from the obvious assertions that people throw easily around noting that we all have to work, and that work will (has?) consume over one-third of our lives, have you really thought about what work means to you, in the digital age?  Have you thought about what skills and knowledge will you require to adapt to less permanent, more mobile, less tactile, more virtual careers.

Certainly from my memories of my grandfather who worked most of his life in a brewery, the way we work has changed from his day.  He went to work at 7am, had a beer, did his job, had lunch, had a beer after work and came home.  This was a five day a week routine, Monday to Friday.  No weekends, no overtime.  No email to be checked at home after dinner, no Skype meetings late at night.  And the beer he made was sold only in the state of New South Wales, Australia.  There was no export, no time difference, no globalisation, just localisation.  This was a full-time job; there were no casual positions, fractional working or contract labour.


From the experiences of creative industries workers, what has work become? Over the last decade, the arts in a number of major economies have consistently experienced reduced recurrent funding, increased reliance on either philanthropic donations or business/commercial income and pressure to survive in an increasingly self-centred and entrepreneurial world.   Both government and philanthropic funding bodies, through grant allocation processes and compliance regimes, have sought to impose ‘for-profit’ practices on the arts and cultural sector in order to seek or continue public funding or to comply with broader cross-sector industry policy shifts within the economy (Johanson 2008).  This has resulted in direct government intervention in the management and practices of the organisation (Weisbrod 1997, pp. 543-5) and the emergence of threats to the organisational mission through the application of ‘coercive… pressures’ (Dolnicar, Irvine & Lazarevski 2008, p. 11) and the drifting of organisational missions (Dalton & Green 2005).  It can be argued that these outcomes may lead to an improvement of the ongoing viability of the organisation, but at what cost?  And how do these changes impact on the role of the worker and the work they do?


In a major report commissioned by the Australia Council for Arts entitled ‘Don’t give up your day job’ by Michael Throsby and Virginia Hollister (2003), there were a number of interesting observations about the nature of creative work in Australia, which included the inability of some artists to undertake professional development due to the pressures of money and time (or more specifically the lack of money arising from financial returns of their creative work) and that over half the artists in Australia earned less than A$7000 (around £4500) per annum from their artistic practice.  These relatively low income figures, shifting impermanence of careers and lack of opportunity to develop have been debated consistently through research studies over the last decade (Bennett 2009; Bilton 2007; Comunian, Faggian & Li 2010).


So, what has become of arts and cultural work in this new digital environment?  Rather than getting into a long commentary on the philosophical debates around some of the data and research, I thought I would just comment on my observations, made through my own practice and experiences both teaching arts practitioners and working myself in the field.


1.Work is transitory

Full-time work is becoming rarer.  Contracts are shorter; workers are becoming self-sufficient managing their own pensions, insurance and businesses.  Portfolio careers are becoming the norm, where arts workers have a variety of jobs (some arts related, others not) to support themselves and aggregate income.  The notion of career development within a job or single employer has shifted markedly, with career leaps frequently happening due to changes in employment between organisations rather than within.  Managing time, presenting a professional image online and reacting quickly to opportunity are hallmarks of this kind of employment.  The use of Linked-in, Facebook or Twitter as business cards for your practice require thought about your professional persona, the image you want to present and how these personas connect with each other.  Transitory work also means you need to be willing to develop and learn skills quickly and be able to apply them without too much practice, which means building into your career time ongoing and regular practice, rehearsal and professional development, led and often paid for by yourself.


2. Work is trans-global

Working in your home city or your home country is not necessarily mandatory.  Arts work as it moves to digital environments, or is facilitated by rapidly improving digital communications has moved to using concepts such as virtual studios, cloud collaborations, virtual meetings, technology integrated practice and user generated content sharing.  This makes work trans-global.  A photographer in Sydney can take photos in Berlin, share them on a blog or Flickr and exhibit them anywhere in the world he likes (see my good friend Alex Pekar’s exhibition entitled ‘Abandoned Berlin’ at the Archetype Gallery in Sydney if you are there


Trans-global work might mean that as an artist I move my practice to where the professional work might be.  This presents challenges in terms of integration, ‘breaking’ into a scene or adapting to changes in language, law or culture.  Whilst work becomes trans-global the attitude to migration (outside the EU) is changing rapidly.  Just ask an Aussie trying to work in the UK!


3.Work is trans-discipline

Some of the skills of work are now free from disciplinarily or specific industry contexts.  Whether it be demonstrated through graduate attributes (see the Greenwich Graduate Initiative for examples of this kind of approach (, transferable skills or professional practice sets, some of the skills of work are now transferable between contexts, generic and applicable to a variety of levels of work.  Covering skills such problem solving, information technology, social media, collaboration, content generation and research (inquiry), trans-disciplinary skills support both the transience and the trans-global nature of modern work.  McWilliam, Hearn and Haseman (2008) identifies a number of trans-disciplinary spaces within creative industries practice including;

–          Technology, which includes the use and application of new devices, software platforms and new media

–          a social/human component, which includes how we interface with each other and technology, how we do business, how we engage with each other and the environment and the ways in which we regulate activity

–          a content component – how we innovate content such as performance, design, look, feel, roles we play (McWilliam, Hearn & Haseman 2008)


I would add to that a cultural component about interacting and engaging with the culture around us, an emotional component centring on how we react to situations, how we build and sustain relationships and how we chose to act as a professional and finally a creative component, supporting the development of new ideas, problem solving, critical thinking, inquiry and curiosity and analysis.


4. Work is transformative

When my grandfather worked, the transformations that occurred in his work practice were in the creation and mashing of raw materials into something completed different (hops, wheat, malt and water into beer).  I am not sure how much of his life was transformed by his practice.  As arts professionals, there is a blurry line between what we do as artists, what we live as artists and what we passionately want to share as artists.  The notion of work simply to earn an income or to mark time between 9am until 5pm is in some instances dated.  Work transforms who we are, the way we live our lives and the way we engage with other aspects of our everyday existence.  My wife often will interrupt a conversation and say ‘Peter, stop using your teacher voice!’  But for me the practice of teaching signifies in a number of ways who I am.  Being a teacher has had a transformative effect on my relationships, my values and my personality.  The same can be said for my arts practice.  I took a long time to have the confidence to call myself an artist, even though I had been engaged in creative practice for decades. But the on-going impact of my creative practice on my professional identity, the way I worked and the way I developed myself in terms of education was too big to ignore by dismissing arts as ‘dabbling’.


Mezirow (1997) in a seminal article about transformative learning argues that transformations can occur within the frames of reference we operate in (work for example) and encourage is to be more ‘inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience.’  The transformative nature of work shouldn’t be underestimated, and once again, integrating it with the changes occurring from trans-globalism, trans-disciplinarily and transience the new world of digital work within e-workplaces, e-commuting, e-learning and e-collaborative space is looking less and less like the brewery floor in the 1950s.


Work is more than a site where money is earned in exchange for activity or labour.  Work harnesses creativity, originality, learning, expression, research, desire and passion.  Work can facilitate the mode and spaces of living you choose.  Work can develop, challenge, evaluate and apply new knowledge and skills.  Work can shape our professional image and transform our confidence, our interactions and our relationships.  The work we do today probably won’t be the same as the work we do in 10 years time.  The days of going home with chalk dust all over my clothes is long gone, technology has shaped and changed the way I engage with materials, talk with colleagues and find stuff out. What makes the process interesting and perhaps fun is having the scaffold of skills that you allow you to adapt, to build and to innovate and invent yourself.


NOTE: If you are interested in these kinds of discussions and issues, or just interested in employer engagement, then you should consider attending the University of Greenwich ‘Employer Engagement in a Digital Age’ conference on the 4th July 2012 at the Maritime Greenwich campus in London.  For more information you can check out the website 


Bennett, D. 2009, ‘Careers in dance: Beyond performance to the real world of work’, Journal of Dance Education, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 27-34.

Bilton, C. 2007, Management and creativity: From creative industries to creative management, Wiley-Blackwell.

Comunian, R., Faggian, A. & Li, Q.C. 2010, ‘Unrewarded careers in the creative class: The strange case of bohemian graduates’, Papers in Regional Science, vol. 89, no. 2, pp. 389-410.

Dalton, B. & Green, J. 2005, Sweet charity and filthy lucre: the social construction of nonprofit business venturing in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – CACOM Working Paper no 72, Centre for Australian Community Organisations and Management – Univeristy of Technology, Sydney.

Dolnicar, S., Irvine, H. & Lazarevski, K. 2008, ‘Mission or money? Competitive challenges facing public sector nonprofit organisations in an institutionalised environment’, International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 107.

Johanson, K. 2008, ‘How Australian industry policy shaped cultural policy’, International Journal of Culutral Policy, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 139-48.

McWilliam, E., Hearn, G. & Haseman, B. 2008, ‘Transdisciplinarity for creative futures: what barriers and opportunities?’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 247-53.

Mezirow, J. 1997, ‘Transformative learning: Theory to practice’, New directions for adult and continuing education, vol. 1997, no. 74, pp. 5-12.

Throsby, D. & Hollister, V. 2003, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: an Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, Australia Council for the Arts.

Weisbrod, B.A. 1997, ‘The Future of the Nonprofit Sector: Its Entwining Private Enterprise and Goverment’, Journal of Policy Analysis and Government, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 541-55.


Sustaining professional practice

I have just returned from a two week study tour of the US, where I was interviewing American artists about their professional practice.  I thought I would share some of the insights that I gained. 

For me, the key focus was looking at how emerging artists move from training to practice, and the different paths they take to be able to earn a living from their art.  Many studies around the world point to less than 20% of trained artists being able to earn a living wage from the output of their art (see ‘Don’t give up your day job’, by Throsby and Hollister, which is an Australian study if you are interested  It’s a scary statistic and one which an emerging artist is not often aware of, but rapidly becomes so.  I interviewed a number of arts organisations and artists about their experiences with this, and what activities they did to maintain their skills and interact with other artists.   I was able to identify a number of practices that artists engaged with in order to increase the income that was generated from their art…

1.       Promotion activities

Visual artists often go to art fairs and shows, buy a table and exhibit their works.  Sometimes these works are sold and they pay the fair owner a commission, other times they make contacts.  After the global financial crisis artists noted that people wanted to pay less for more, so instead of selling one £500 piece, they were selling ten £50 pieces, which took more work and materials and was often at a lower price point.  The same could be said of performing artists through auditions, taking shorter less lucrative jobs or smaller roles (but hopefully more of them)

Artists also spent a long time on their on-line identity, building their facebook or myspace profile, ensuring they had a website or blog, which was updated regularly, professional in its appearance in terms of photography, video and graphic design.  They all attempted to be multi-media even though for example, they made wood art, they would have story books and video footage and perhaps even a podcast about how they carved a certain piece.  Many visual artists used a site called etsy ( to promote and sell their work, which also requires a lot of time to ensure the store is up-to-date and interesting.

2.       Volunteer activities

This was the man focus of my interest.  This is where the artist works with artist groups, collectives, organisations and the like to promote specific causes, agitate for action, help other artists or support artist led community work.  One of the spaces I met people in Portland was called the IPRC ( which is a member driven community space to make zines and independent publishing.  It has photocopiers, computers, typewriters and a whole bunch of other cool stuff to help zine makers, along with a zine library for people to borrow and classes to help people learn the skills.  A lot of people volunteer at this space whilst they are building their arts practice, and continuing to hopefully make a sustainable income.  Other artists I met are involved in activist groups, collectives where they work together to better sustain their art, or even work collaboratively. 

3.       Skills sharing

This is one of the most common activities emerging artists are involved with, from running ‘how-to’ classes in their local centre through to teaching formally at school or FE, or even HE.  Skills sharing is a way according to the artists of maintaining their own skills, helping others, perhaps learning new skills as students, and in many cases earning an income.  However, they did address some of the issues that have arisen include copying of their work by students, protecting their creative ideas and in many cases, how time consuming it can be.

4.       Experimenting

Whilst doing the art form they know and love, many artists experiment with different forms, try out new ideas, and sometimes even fall into completely different mediums.  It keeps the creativity and innovation going, it makes the experience interesting and engaging and it supports their enthusiasm for the existing art form.  One artist spent the interview with me constantly trying out new paints and pens, cutting pictures out and layering them on a piece of paper and generally trialling new ideas. Creativity is enhanced when people experiment and try new stuff.  A former visual artist I met one day found a hunk of wood by the road side and tried sculpting it, now she is a wood artist.  Another artist found that he was only physical able to make 50 copies of his zine because each copy took so long to make, so despite not being overly computer literatre made a PDF copy so that he could distribute the zine more widely.  Experimentation is necessary to encourage creativity, and whilst it may seem an indulgence for artists trying to find a way to eat and pay the rent, it may lead to developing a dance practice class, to the development of something new and interesting.

What do you do between jobs? How do you support the growth of your professional skills and abilities?  I would love to hear some ideas in the comments!