By Steve Joordens

Why are many faculty members seemingly disinterested in keeping on top of, and utilizing, new innovative approaches to education?  This article is focused on that question, addressing it from a psychological perspective by highlighting several established phenomena and theories that are seemingly relevant.  

These include the power of context, the role of habit, the desire to be seen as competent, and the resistance to engage in learning that feels outside of one’s zone of proximal development.  The hope is that through a better understanding of why faculty might not embrace innovation, higher ed leaders will be in a better position to come up with solutions that will allow us to ensure the education we provide our students remains relevant to their opportunities for success in their careers and in their lives more generally.

Executive Summary:

  • Impact of Technology. We are increasingly relying on technology to allow us to provide powerful and relevant educational experiences to our students.
  • Psychology of Resistance. Many faculty, however, seem disinterested in even learning about educational innovations despite their role as educators — but why?  This question is considered in the context of four psychological theories in hopes of gaining a better understanding.
  • Power of Context. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the power of one’s institutional context to shape their behavior, which is relevant given that most educational institutions reward research excellence above teaching excellence — something faculty members come to know well even from the graduate school experience.  This helps to explain why many professors focus their innovative thinking on research rather than in the classroom.
  • Power of Habit. Habit, a favorite topic of William James, explains how this tendency to focus innovation on research becomes “second nature,” and thus resistant to change.
  • Fear of Appearing Incompetent. Once these habits are in place they are further enforced by the desire on the part of nearly all faculty to be seen as competent educators — consistent with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — where competence may be equated with “looking like an expert” in the eyes of one’s students.
  • Fear of Failure. The fear that trying something new might result in some form of failure could be in part due to the fact that, for some faculty, the amount of technical and pedagogical knowledge needed to implement an innovation in a competent manner may actually fall outside their “Zone of Proximal Development” (Vygotsky).  That is, they may feel that even with heavy support, they simply are not prepared to use innovative approaches because they just don’t “get it.”

Impact of Technology

We are now within what I see as the second wave of technology-supported educational innovation.  The first wave involved the widespread adoption of learning management systems allowing us to communicate with large student groups, share educational artifacts, and of course do so within a protected space.  The current wave involves the further use of these systems as to directly support innovative pedagogy, either through tools native to the LMS, or made available by third party vendors.

Increasingly, it falls on institutions of higher education to consider which technologies align with institutional goals — and then to procure, integrate, and support the use of those technologies.  The goal, of course, is to enhance the relevance of the educational experiences of the student body, but there is a problem. It can be a challenge to get faculty interested in learning more about, and perhaps trying out, new innovations.

Psychology of Resistance

Educational technologies will only have significant impact if they are used by more than just a few faculty members, so a consideration of the general apathy of many faculty with respect to technology-based innovation is worthy of consideration.

This article will consider this apathy to innovation from a psychological perspective.  In the sections that follow I will highlight a number of psychological principles relevant to the psychology of non-innovation.  Each will be described in a general sense first, then within the context of educational innovation.

The Power of Context 

In the Summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo began the Stanford Prison Experiment to demonstrate the power of context in terms of shaping behaviour.  Participants were randomly assigned to serve as either guards or prisoners within a mock prison.  The guards were in charge of controlling the prisoners and were given free license to do that as they please.  Over the course of six days, the guards became increasingly aggressive and sadistic in their treatment of prisoners, and the prisoners became depressed, submissive, and in some cases suffered nervous breakdowns.

Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo argued that this context, which rewarded guards for abusing their power, brought out the “evil” versions of themselves — a principle Zimbardo also applied to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in his book The Lucifer Effect.

The central point is that those living within some institution will behave in ways that mirror the reward structures within that institution.  As graduate students, would-be professors quickly learn that research-focused educational institutions reward research excellence in a deeper way than teaching excellence.  They are rightfully advised that their eventual job prospects will depend primarily on the quality and quantity of research they publish. For those able to land a tenure-track position, they then must demonstrate the ability to lead a research lab, evidenced by the production of publications as the senior researcher, and the ability to win grants to support future work.  And they also shouldn’t mess up, too badly at least, in the classroom. The message is clear: research quality and quantity is what gets you a job, keeps that job, and makes you a “star.”  Those with an excellent track record for research might even be rewarded with less, or even no, teaching.  It should not be at all surprising that new faculty invest their innovative thinking on their research and not their teaching.

The Power of Habit

William James, a great theoretical psychologist, repeatedly emphasized the powers of habit — both for ill and, when managed well, for good.  If you never want to lose your keys again all you must do is spend two weeks or so “consciously” placing your keys in a specific spot.   Once you establish this habit, it will serve you well. You will “find” your keys automatically — they are just there when you need them, freeing up your time and mind for other tasks.

However, as nearly every cigarette smoker or candy lover can tell you, habits also have a dark side.  If you allow some reward, like nicotine or sugar, to entice you into some repetitive behaviour, and if you later decide you’d prefer to avoid that behaviour, quitting the habit can be extremely difficult.  Habit can pop that candy or cigarette into your mouth without you thinking much about it. It becomes an independent influence on behaviour that simply pushes you to continue behaving the ways you have behaved in the past.

Bringing context and habit together, our institutional tendency to base the most important rewards on research excellence — especially during the period prior to and just after faculty are hired — creates a habit to be innovative in research while being merely competent in teaching.  This habit is enforced over four to six years of graduate school, and then the first five years as a faculty member. That’s a decade strong habit of not being an innovative teacher.

These two concepts alone give us a better understanding of how a resistance to educational innovation can form.  But it may not be just habit and context that is holding them back — they may also be actively avoiding innovation because of other psychology-related reasons.

Fear of Appearing Incompetent

Abraham Maslow proposed a fascinating “hierarchy of needs” for explaining what motivates people.  The lowest rung level corresponds to basic human needs like food, warmth, and shelter.  If one does not have these basic needs met, meeting them will be the sole focus of their motivation and behaviour.  However, if those needs are met, then the person moves up to the next wrung, the need for security. If security needs are met, the next rung corresponds to social needs, the need for friends, and eventually perhaps, life partners.  Most of our students are at this level.

Humanistic Theory

Above that on the hierarchy come competence needs, the desire for one to feel competent and valued in terms of their efforts in career and life contexts more generally.  Most professors are likely at this level. The final and highest level is labelled self-actualization, and is assumed to apply to those who feel they have found their purpose in life — and, in fact, that purpose is so clear that it becomes a defining characteristic of that person.  For example, consider Gandhi’s embrace of peaceful resistance.

The primary point to take from Maslow’s work is that when faculty are teaching, they want to come off as competent, especially to the students they are teaching.  Most know the content area of their courses well, thus the structuring and delivering of lectures is comfortable for them, as is the testing on that content. However, when it comes to using new technologies, or designing activities on the basis of pedagogical theory and evidence, they may feel far less expert. Especially in terms of technology, they may feel even less expert than the students in the class.  If things go wrong, or they need to explain why they are doing things certain ways, they may feel a lack of competence — something they do not want to feel in front of their students. Due to this fear of appearing incompetent, faculty members may resist any innovation if they feel they do not thoroughly understand its basis, or the way to use it without running into issues.

Fear of Failure

In fact, some educational innovations may even fall outside of what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development.  Imagine a set of math problems of increasing difficulty.  A given student may be able to solve the problems to a certain level on her own, but may be able to solve even more challenging problems with the help of a teacher.  This “zone” between what one can do without assistance versus with assistance is the Zone of Proximal Development, and Vygotsky argued that this is the zone to focus on for optimal learning.  The student will feel motivated when she reaches a new level of ability.  However, if she is given problems that cannot be solved even with assistance, attempting these problems only leads to frustration and negative views about the learning process.

Zone of Proximal Development

Educational innovations are often based on technologies that many faculty members are not familiar with, and almost always require the faculty member to learn the technology to a certain level in order to use it well.  In many cases a given faculty member’s current level of pedagogical or technical knowledge may be much lower than that needed to wield the innovation in a fully competent manner, even with support. It’s possible that the necessary level falls outside of that faculty member’s zone of proximal development, or at least seems to in the eyes of that faculty member.  Thus, they may feel that some form of failure is likely, and would rather not follow a path that could leave them feeling incompetent at a stage in their life when competence is a primary motivating force.

How Can These Forces Be Countered?

In order to arrive at successful solutions, one should first take the time to understand the problem.  My hope is that by considering an apathy for innovation through the psychology lens provided in this article, we can better understand why many faculty might be resistant to educational innovation.

With this understanding as a backdrop, we can then consider potential approaches for enhancing the embrace of education innovation in a more informed manner.  Stay tuned for my next article exploring these possible solutions, coming in the April issue of Higher Ed Connects.

About the author

Professor Steve Joordens in the Director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough.   He teaches a very large Introduction to Psychology class at his institution, and also on  His research focuses primarily on the creation and assessment of educational technologies, especially those focused on formal approaches to skill development.  His teaching and research have won him a number of institutional, provincial and national awards recognize a sustained and significant impact on higher education in Canada.

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