Active co-operativism for active learning


Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

This is a second post looking at the student’s role and the academic skills and dispositions needed for success in the active classroom. The first looked at active listening. Here, I suggest active co-operativism is an attitude and an ethos that needs to be developed to promote successful learning in the active classroom. I will conclude with some pointers for developing student skills for co-operative learning.

Note, the term ‘co-operative learning’ has been used, especially in the US, to refer simply to group work. I use the term ‘active co-operativism’ to refer to the attitudes and behaviours that are conducive to promoting peer learning for mutual benefit. One of my ways into this was by considering Chickering & Gamson’s (1987) Seven Principles For Good Practice in Undergraduate Education in which good teaching both ‘encourages active learning’ and ‘develops reciprocity and cooperation among students’.

Active co-operativism is much more than collaboration however, though learning through collaborative activities is a key approach to thinking about how active co-operativism can be achieved.

Active co-operativism embraces all active learning pedagogies including problem-based learning, enquiry-based learning, connectivist pedagogy, and so forth, where it is axiomatic to say “two heads are better than one” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” As such, the principle reflects ideas including Actor-Network Theory, Assemblage Theory, and Distributed Cognition.

The fostering of active co-operativism is a valuable learning outcome in its own right. Having co-operative skills and knowing how to work with other people constructively, and possibly creatively, but always effectively, leads to the development of social capital and resilience, for example. For this reason, it needs to be made explicit to students.

Pointers to developing active co-operativism

Explaining why active learning methods are being used, not only how to perform them, is fundamental to engagement with active learning. First, it is naive to think students should just do as you say because you are the teacher. I have had many conversations with academics who complain about lack of learner engagement. The obvious riposte is, “Are you engaging them?” In other words, engaging students in an active learning context is an act of learning itself – it is putting the class into the ‘first gear’, orientating everyone including the teacher-facilitator through negotiation and clarification of the why, what and how.

Active co-operatativism is part of any such discussion. It’s not about using the jargon, but about communicating the value of working together for achieving the goals of the activity, as well as in terms of co-operative learning outcomes. A metacognitive approach that involves talking about, and negotiating, the ‘how’, and then later reflecting on the activity is key to developing understanding of the active co-operativist ethos.

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Active listening for active learning

Active Listening sketch note by Claudio

Advocates of active learning must consider the active learning space from many perspectives. For example, I tend to think about space experientially, creating a picture in my own mind of a space that is used creatively; one in which the learner is challenged to work co-operatively as the basis for deep and critical engagement with knowledge.

This is problematic. Whatever our rationale for reconsidering space, ultimately we must come back to the capabilities and respective agencies of the users. The teachers and the learners.

As an educational developer, I am concerned with curriculum design and the capabilities of the academic to design and deliver the active curriculum confidently. The active learning paradigm for the teacher is full of rewarding creative possibilities, nevertheless making a shift into this active paradigm can be a significant challenge for many academics especially where they are not in step with their colleagues.

But what about the students? Developing the expectations of incoming students, and their ongoing development as independent learners, is critical to successful engagement as active learners, but what exactly are the academic skills and graduate capabilities needed in the active classroom? In the next post, I will consider active co-operativism. Here, I identify active listening, not only as a learning skill, but as a graduate capability. Furthermore, its development at Level 4 signals and enables expected modes of learning within a context of professional behaviours.

Active listening requires the listener to concentrate, check their understanding and apply strategies for remembering what is said and what it means. There are various ways in which active listening can be developed, but most importantly the learner needs to see its value and be supported in applying it regularly as the basis of good learning habits. It is useful for challenging unconscious bias and for developing the respect needed amongst peers in an active learning environment. More crucially, any activity without interactivity is a wasted opportunity in a classroom.

I started to think about active listening because I am designing another learning walk. Learning walks (and twalks) are essentially, like most modes of active learning, conversational spaces. Haigh (2015) has analysed professional learning conversations and has identified serendipity, improvisation, parity, timeliness, contextuality, the use of storytelling, openness and trust as valuable features of conversational encounters. Third place theory (Oldenburg, 1989) identifies neutrality and good conversation as characteristics of an equitable and convivial social space, and that is what we are aiming for in active learning.

Learning walk structures, in my approach, are convivial and immersive. However, conversationally, they can be fast-paced. Managing the conversation so that it elicits learning value requires some skill. In particular, it requires mutual respect and good listening, so that learning can be synthesised through personal or collective reflection.
Good conversations require good listening. I suggest the following characteristics need to be developed to support active listening, therefore,

  • supportive patience to allow peers to find their right words and ideas;
  • open-mindedness and the readiness to hold judgement on ideas and views;
  • good articulation – the speaker must be responsive to the listener, observing signs of comprehension or confusion;
  • confidence to allow silence and to value contemplation;
  • generous encouragement;
  • acknowledgement, i.e. body language and verbal signals;
  • the ability to paraphrase, seek clarification and to clarify.

The attached Active Listening sketch note by Claudio from Flickr provides further useful ideas on active listening.


Haigh, N. (2005) ‘Everyday conversation as a context for professional learning and development’. International Journal for Academic Development, 10 (1) 3 — 16.

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Promoting learner autonomy and the question of fail-safe strategies


Autonomy requires engagement with the innocent or naive bystander. Image available on Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons CC0 License

As an advocate of active learning, learner autonomy is never far from my thinking. The development of confident autonomous lifelong learners and intrinsically motivated self-determined graduates captures, for me, the primary purpose of a UK higher education. It is the graduate outcome, focusing the academic on scaffolding independence.

The news media, beyond Brexit-mania, is currently concerned with the failure of autonomous vehicles: Boeing 737 Max, Norwegian cruise ships that lose control, and self-driving cars that just are not intelligent enough to avoid killing people walking with bicycles. Even scares about drones over airports have challenged the Brexit onslaught in recent months.

For example, the headline “How can Boeing regain trust?” from BBC News reminds us, that irretrievable danger is never far from autonomy. The teacher using active learning strategies must understand and manage risk, and so must their students.

Active learning, risk and a fail-safe learning environment

When talking to academics about adopting an active learning strategy, I often refer to the safe space we create for the undergraduate student. It’s not that ‘anything goes’, rather that the teacher’s role is to create safe challenges in which the learner is pushed out of their comfort zone – a space of continual challenge. On defining active learning and with reference to the literature, Bonwell & Eison (1991) say that the teacher in the active classroom must find “alternative techniques and strategies for questioning and discussion… and must create a supportive intellectual and emotional environment that encourages students to take risks.” (p. 7) They go on,

“Perhaps the single greatest barrier of all, however, is the fact that faculty members’ efforts to employ active learning involve the risks that students will not participate, use higher-order thinking, or learn sufficient content; that faculty members will feel a loss of control, lack necessary skills, or be criticized for teaching in unorthodox ways. Each obstacle or barrier and type of risk, however, can be successfully overcome through careful, thoughtful planning.” (pp. 7-8)

Risk, then, is central to active learning. The facilitator’s role is to create a safe space that instills confidence.

Holley and Steiner (2005) talk about safe classroom space in terms of identity and self-disclosure – another newsworthy topic in relation to gender politics. They say, “To grow and learn, students often must confront issues that make them uncomfortable and force them to struggle with who they are and what they believe.” Their study builds on a literature pertaining to designing the effective inclusive classroom environment. It found that the teacher in the safe active classroom is characterised as being approachable and supportive, nonjudgmental, unbiased (i.e.not punishing students who hold unpopular views), intolerant of conflict, clear and guiding, and welcoming discussion. Their own research also highlighted how inclusive teachers are knowledgeable and informative, use inclusive content, are self-disclosing, and open to sharing their own beliefs. They challenge students, and they are “laid-back, flexible, or calm.”

Learning from and through failure

An authentic learning environment is a ‘warts and all’ space. Its value comes from its credibility as a relevant, real-world representation. It has an essential integrity. Inspirational teachers know this and gain confidence to do remarkable, risky and engaging things. Rebecca Rawle, an award-winning teacher, expresses this well in an article titled “Embrace failure and active-learning”,

“I try to model failure in class. I’m very open about mistakes I’ve made and I think that’s really important,” Rawle says. “With social media, I think people, in general, feel a lot of pressure to present a near-perfect image which is not based in reality. So, I try to model that when I teach because science is messy, creative, and it’s not always perfect.” – from The Medium – The Voice of the University of Toronto Mississauga

Risk, safety and autonomy – can we create and rely on fail-safe systems?

This is the question being asked about autonomous transport. The excitement and benefits of autonomous transport are very clear. The conundrum, however, is that while some estimates claim autonomous vehicles like self-driving cars stand to reduce road accidents by as much as 90%, it seems humans may prefer the greater risk that comes with human error. There is a huge psychological adjustment needed to buy-in to the relatively low risk of machine-inflicted danger – those situations in which fail-safe systems fail.

The implications for the active teacher in the active classroom are many. For example,

  • Risks must be managed – if we are to deploy risk and failure as an active learning strategy, we must develop our risk management skills.
  • Ethics for the ‘innocent bystander’ – a safe space is one that is ethical, and the beliefs of the active teacher must be self-disclosed or at least explicit (and, by the way, this applies to any learning environment). The student should understand what they may be exposed to as well as what they are expected to do. When a pedestrian is hit by an autonomous vehicle we must hope that the pedestrian understands the risks of navigating autonomous thoroughfares.
  • Active is a range, not a binary – when moderating risky innovation in academic practice we should ask ‘what kind of active?’, not ‘active or passive?’ Risk management involves improving the essential idea, not throwing it away.
  • We are already failing – discussions about moving to an active learning paradigm can fall into the trap of assuming that existing practice is fine, but maybe it would be fun to do something more active. No, there is no room for complacency. Wherever we are on the active-passive continuum, teaching must always be designed for context and recognise that context is fluid. So, there is no wrong or right, there is only today’s context and the need to respond to the individuals in the room today. Yes, the active teacher is knowledgeable and prepared, but the active teacher is also resourceful and flexible, able to respond to the situation. In this way, the active teacher helps the autonomous learner to making personal learning connections.
  • More research is needed on safe space and managing risk in the active learning space – while I haven’t done a literature review for this post, the ideas and questions discussed here have been on my radar for many years. They relate to learning spaces, active learning, co-operative pedagogy, learner engagement, ontology, anthropology, inclusive learning, and academic innovation and other matters I follow. Can you point me to the literature please?!

Disclosure – our fail-safe mechanism?

An active learning environment has integrity and is trustful for all concerned. I look to the values and principles of the co-operative movement:

Ethical Values – In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of:

  • Honesty
  • Openness
  • Social responsibility
  • Caring for others

(from the Statement of Co-operative Identity published by the International Co-operative Alliance, available on the Co-operative College website).


Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports.
Boostrom, R. (1998). Safe spaces: Reflections on an educational metaphor. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 30, 397–408. , 397–408
Holley, L.C., & Steiner, S. (2005) Safe Space: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment. Journal of Social Work Education, 41:1, 49-64,
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#Twalk – a new active pedagogy explained


The Leeds University Twalking Group, 26 March 2019

This post, and the ones that will follow, reflect on the Twalk as a pedagogy. In particular, I consider how students can draw upon the conversational activity and use the data it generates as the basis for developing and explaining conceptual knowledge.
To demonstrate this, I will model the process by incorporating the outcomes of the #Twalk that was run on the 26th of March 2019. The subject matter of that #Twalk was Doing, Being, Belonging, Becoming and Connecting. Its concern, therefore, was the HE undergraduate learning experience as affected by the learning spaces they use.

Pedagogic Method

The #Twalk is a generative learning activity. Walkers address a given theme by discussing a series of questions presented by the #Twalk coordinator. Participants walk and talk and then generate written responses and photographs in the form of tweets (or other social media postings) that encapsulate their thinking at several points in their #Twalk. Given that this happens amongst members of a walking group located together geographically, but also through connection to other walking groups located elsewhere, a rich source of reflective data is produced quickly in a loose form ready to be reinterpreted through a reflective process. The tweet data, therefore, creates an evidence base for the reflective stage of the #Twalk pedagogy.
As with a tweetchat, the overarching theme of the #Twalk is typically structured around five sub-topics or questions. A student, therefore, reflecting on their twalking experience has a given framework to work within. In our case, the first sub-topic is Doing.
Students working individually or as a group can then analyse their Twitter feed. Specifically, they can look for responses using the #Twalk hashtag (ours was #SpacetwalkLeeds) where posts are enumerated by question (Q1, Q2, etc), with answers to that question identified as A1, A2 etc. .
As a form of experiential learning, students are reminded to interpret the data by drawing upon their own experience of the recent #Talk activity. Therefore, the account is an interpretation and further deeper exploration of the topic is discussed. It is possible, for example, that students at the end of the walk could be encouraged to form an action plan to further explore emerging thoughts and ideas shared during their #Twalk conversation. This, therefore, would take a research-informed learning approach and, depending on the educational level of the students and the nature of integration into the module or course, the #Twalk may be better understood as a stimulus for learning.
In the example I will model here, I will demonstrate this high-level approach by picking up on a selection of the tweets as the basis for developing one or two ideas that emerged for me from each of the topics.

Having reviewed my experience of the #Twalk, and gone on to research and developed emerging conceptual themes for me, I then (as student) submit my report for marking against criteria relating to the thematic conceptual knowledge, but also evidence of developing my own initial responses and drawing upon ideas and responses from c-twalkers.

My assignment

In the next few posts, I will analyse my twalking experience, it key themes, and incorporate supporting evidence based upon an enquiry prompted by the conversation.

(Nb: This may take a little time – I have several real deadlines at the moment!)

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Creating the Active Learning Space #activelearning

I was delighted to run a session today for Researchers Who Teach on Active Learning – Benefits and Strategies.

I got there early, as you do. And that’s the point. I keep reading that active Learning is more work for the teacher and the students. For example, I was reading Tabrizi & Rideout’s 2017 paper yesterday (Active Learning: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Support Critical Pedagogy) and there it was again. A great paper by the way.

So is active teaching really more work than, say, lecturing?

First, good teaching is based on good preparation whatever pedagogy you use, so it is a bit of a daft question. Where do you start measuring? I read and write a lot about my subject and I know I can talk for England given half a chance as my subject excites me, but the active teacher’s main effort (and to be honest I struggle with this) is just listening and making just a few decisive interventions.

As well as knowing your subject, the active learning teacher has to devise the right strategy for each situation. You will have techniques you like to use and reuse, but you do have to look at context (e.g. intended learning outcomes, level, familiarity with student group, its size, time of day, physical space, etc, etc) and then come up with the best session design.

While a lecturer is probably going to prepare a set of slides and possibly an additional handout, the active learning teacher will have to do that, but also think about stimuli. And if there are to be several activities within a single session, several stimuli.

Stimuli? For example, if you are using Problem-based Learning, you will devise your problems and accompanying these may be case studies or videos that create a rich picture. If you use scenario-based learning then crafting a good scenario is quite a challenge as yo instruct a credible and reliable focus for engagement. Case-based learning requires you to find or fabricate a rich set of ‘clues’. Whatever your pedagogy, active learning does require a lot of imagination and energy.

A lot of what might be lectured in didactic situations, I make available in handout form or as decent bibliographies. So, as I set up the room today I look at the handouts, the piles of post-it notes and marker pens, the laminated cards I like to use to stimulate and inform discussion. Then there’s ten minutes of shifting tables and chairs, checking lighting, cleaning boards…

So that’s the inputs, but then we need to look at the relationship of active learning to formative assessment and creating a learning environment rich in feedback.

I suppose I’m saying, yes facilitating learning takes a fair amount of effort! But then, until I wrote this, I hadn’t really noticed. Or if I had, its good fun and satisfying and a learning experience every time. You get a lot back and you do reuse most of what you produce.


Tabrizi, T. & Rideout, G. (2017). Active learning: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to support critical pedagogy. International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education (IJCDSE), 8(3)

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#spacetwalkLeeds – our route map

Here is the map we are using at the University of Leeds-Twalk-March19 tomorrow

27th March 2019, meeting by 12.55 for a 1pm start.

You might like to use a similar approach if you are planning a twalk at your own university.

Here’s the front page text:

Doing, Being, Belonging, Becoming – the role of learning space

Hashtag: #spacetwalkLeeds

The aim of a Twalk is to create an alternative conversational space around a set of campus landmarks.

Together we will walk, talk and post our thoughts for an hour in response to a structure created by 5 questions and 5 landmarks.

The Twalk will happen on the campus of the University of Leeds. Using social media, we may be joined by groups at other universities engaging with the same questions and similar landmarks.

Our Twalk is led by Andrew Middleton with Norma Martin Clement for LITE Learning Spaces Special Interest Group.

Theme: Doing, Being, Belonging, Becoming & Connecting

How do our learning spaces support the development of our students? How do they influence teaching and the learning experience? We will consider this by examining the five ideas set out in the theme. Some information on each can be found online at:

How do we ‘Twalk’?

We will walk and tweet. Use the hashtag #spacetwalkLeeds in all your tweets to connect the conversation. Walkers will be located on several university campuses, some beyond the UK hopefully.

A new question will be posed every 10 minutes for walkers to discuss using the hashtag. It will take the format:

Q1 Doing – what can students do to gain agency over their learning? #spacetwalkLeeds

You will respond (include A1 for Answer 1, A2 for Answer 2, etc),

A1 add your answer and photo here #spacetwalkLeeds

Like, reply, retweet in the usual way.

Note: it can be difficult to keep pace, but do keep in sync. See timings and questions overleaf.

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Doing, Being, Becoming, Belonging & Connecting #twalk #spacetwalkLeeds

D3BCThe Twalk next week (27th March 2019) at 1-2pm UK time, has the theme of Doing, Being, Belonging, Becoming and Connecting – the role of learning space,

This post provides a little explanation of each of those keywords.


A focus here is broadly on active learning, but we might like to think more specifically about actions that involve students in ‘making’ something. Again, ‘making’ encompasses a breadth of possibilities from creating artifacts, plans, or mental constructs.
We could think, for example, of performance in real or simulated spaces – how students put ideas into action – or authentic and applied learning.
If we are thinking about doing, we are thinking about enacting and this connects closely to the next idea of being. However, when we think about doing we may be thinking about the idea of constructionism (Papert, 1980) and how our commitment to producing an artifact establishes a rich learning opportunity, especially in a social situation where the detail of the knowledge has to be navigated and negotiateed.
In designing activity, we should also consider whether the doing is an individual act or whether there is benefit to establishing a collaborative dimension. The social dynamic can affect the richness of the act as a learning experience. An individually-focused task, for example, may allow the student to discover their flow and creativity by rising to the challenge they are given and dealing with it. The individual not only learns they can execute the task (or where they need to develop in order to execute it), but they learn that they are resourceful and generally capable. This affects their self-esteem, efficacy and readiness to adopt more self-directed approaches in the future. A social act may introduce anxiety or personally challenge the learner, while at the same time providing opportunities to adopt and try out new roles and discover new personal qualities, knowledge, and skills.
Doing will reveal the learner’s own capabilities and allow them to reflect on this.


Being focuses more on enactment and embodiment. It is more existential, heightening a learner’s sense of self through a ‘lived’ version or interpretation of learning. It relates closely to the idea of doing and so probably reflects the philosophy of active learning, however, it draws our attention to the individual trying on a role and discovering and appreciating their emerging new identity. It allows us to create space in which a student reflects on their relationship to their chosen discipline.
The idea of ‘being’ suggests that the learning environment (the space or conditions we create for learning) fosters a student’s appreciation of their subject, their learning, and themselves.
The learning space, therefore, supports personal reflection and awareness of personal change. A gallery of student work, for example, will reflect and add credence to the emerging sense of identity we wish our students to develop.


Belonging addresses the needs for our students to be part of something that they value; something that is of mutual benefit to those with whom they associate: their peers, tutors, and others who they identify as reflecting their idea of their course. We are thinking, therefore, about a co-operative ethos and a space that promotes a sense of co-operativism. This can be formal or informal in nature, but more than anything, it is reflected in the habits of the community and how they go about learning and their shared ethos.


The idea of becoming recognises the learner as a dynamic entity with an individual trajectory who, in association with others, changes over time driven by personal curiosity and goals towards arriving at an ever-changing idea of destiny.
Here we are thinking about spaces and situations that challenge the learner to review and modify their ideals as well as their sense of self, This happens as the learner learns more about their knowledge, their purpose and the application of the skills they are developing,. Importantly, the situations the learner encounters helps them to develop their attitudes and dispositions and their sense of their independence, autonomy and maturity.
In terms of learning space, for example, we might think about challenge and reflection and how spaces such as a mooting chamber for law students, a studio for artists, or a seminar room for humanities students, or a ward for nurses, challenges the learner to perform as a ‘becoming professional’.


Connecting, here, refers to the academic’s need to overcome the organisational fragmentation of the learning experience as well as to take advantage of connections that can be made in the classroom and beyond it to real world situations and networks.
Higher education is typically bound by its organisational requirements. While organisation is necessary to deliver a curriculum, it can inadvertently compartmentalise the experience of learning causing the natural flow of learning experience to be repeatedly interrupted and, so, disconnected. The pedagogies and spaces we use create an opportunity to disrupt this unrealistic compartmentalisation, however, it requires us, as academics, to look for and appreciate the richness of connections that can be made by thinking about liminality and how we can positively encourage our students to cross boundaries to make actual and semantic connections as the basis for rich learning.
This is clear, for example, in the design of feedback ‘that has nowhere to go’. Feedforward, on the other hand, is designed to ensure that learning from assessment can be applied by the learner in specific future situations.
Connecting is clearly part of this model because it is an ontological idea too – it is concerned with the interpersonal experience of learning and the development of identity. Social media space, for example, is rich and valuable because the space is essentially a connected space: both technically, and in the ways that people connect communally sharing knowledge authentically through open-ended networks (Siemens, 2003; 2005; 2008).


Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York:Basic Books, Inc. Available online:

Siemens, G. (2008). New structures and spaces of learning: the systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning.  Online at:

Siemens, G. (2005) Connectivism: a learning theory for a digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10. Online at:

Siemens, G. (2003, October 17). Learning ecology, communities, and networks: extending the classroom. Online at:

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