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,

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation, Active Learning, Belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, Creativity, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, Literacies and Intelligence and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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