This post is co-written by Giedre Kligyte & Tyler Key (Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation). 

What do you do in your teaching to encourage students to take responsibility of their own learning?

How are students scaffolded to prepare for this challenge?

These were the questions we posed at the First and Further Year Experience (FFYE) Forum in June 2019, as a provocation inviting the forum participants to think about the aims of their teaching.

When we talk about the First and Further Year transition pedagogies, we often discuss strategies for making learning experiences more accommodating of student needs. We look for ways to start from where our students are to create a less threatening environment for learning. In structuring personalised curriculum, we often begin with simple tasks and basic concepts upon which students build key knowledge and skills, gradually leading to more complex questions and disciplinary practices.

In this session we wanted to challenge a common perception that the aim of education is first and foremost to impart knowledge and develop skills. Drawing on Biesta’s (2015b) framework of educational purposes, we asserted that personalised learning could and should also be used to socialise students into a discipline or profession, and even more importantly, to encourage students to “become subjects of initiative and responsibility rather than objects of the actions of others” (p. 77). In other words, one crucial aim of personalised learning is to develop students’ agency, as learners and as citizens who will graduate and make a difference in the world.

We argue that student agency does not necessarily emerge in the process of learning knowledge and skills. In the same way as we break down complex concepts, we have to consider how students could be guided to gradually take more responsibility of their learning over the course of the study.

Learning in the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation

These types of considerations underpin the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation (FTDi) undergraduate programs: Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII), Diploma in Innovation (DI) and Bachelor of Technology and Innovation (BTi). These future-oriented degrees aim to prepare students to act as ethical and imaginative citizens who can make a positive contribution to the rapidly changing world that is fraught with complex challenges.

Biesta (2015a) argues that while “our responsibility is simply ‘there’, exercising agency requires a[n individual] to rise to this responsibility or take it” (p. 22).

How can educational experiences encourage students to ‘take’ this responsibility?

What tasks can be used to help students develop this type of agency?

At the workshop, we drew on lessons from the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (BCII) degree to explore how our staff foster a student’s capacity to exercise agency by encouraging them to bring their whole self to an educational experience. Building on our recently published paper written together with student and staff co-authors (see Kligyte et al., 2019), at the forum we advocated for the need to build ‘brave’ rather than ‘safe’ spaces in education (Cook-Sather, 2016). ‘Brave’ spaces invite both students and teachers to not to shy away from challenges and risky situations in learning and teaching. Indeed, learning experiences that challenge us to push boundaries into the unknown are frequently the most rewarding ones – Biesta (2015a) calls this “the beautiful risk of education”.

BCII is an interesting case for exploring personalised learning and ‘brave’ spaces. It is a combined degree with students coming from 25 different UTS degrees to complete an additional program of study. Throughout their time at UTS, students work to integrate their core degree with the BCII curriculum and in this process develop a unique transdisciplinary/creative intelligence and innovation profile – no single student graduates the same.

While this diversity of prior experiences and knowledges presents challenges in devising meaningful curriculum, it also creates exciting opportunities. In particular, it challenges the teaching staff to draw on students’ true current state of experiences and knowledge rather than our assumptions about them to build personalised learning experiences that also develop students’ agency.

Creating ‘brave’ spaces

At the forum, we invited the participants to consider how the conditions for ‘brave’ spaces can be created in their own teaching. To explore this, we ran an exercise adapting the first assessment task that BCII students complete upon commencing the program. In this first assessment task* BCII students are invited to:

  • Bring their own passion/curiosity
  • Share and learn from others (thinkers, speakers and peers)
  • ‘Stretch’ their initial ideas by ‘taking them for a walk’ on a speculative adventure
  • Formulate ‘beautiful’ questions
  • Form a collective ‘web of ideas’ that connects their ideas to those of others within the cohort

The forum participants (UTS staff) were invited to first consider the educational purpose of their teaching, bring their existing teaching experiences, and swap and learn from others. We then asked the participants to collectively ‘stretch’ their ideas, make connections and re-imagine possibilities that can be opened up by foregrounding student agency in their teaching. These new ideas were then formulated into provocations – ‘beautiful’ questions – inviting others to think differently about their teaching.

Some of the questions posed by the participants were:

“What if we gave first year students a capstone project task so they could identify gaps in their knowledge and skills – they might appreciate the need for disciplinary approaches that help them to address these types of challenges.”

“What if students could be honest with us about their goals and articulate them without guilt or shame – for some, study might not be as important as we might imagine”.

“What if there was only one learning outcome in our subjects – what would it be?”

Personalised curriculum design has traditionally aimed to build students capacity to tackle complex tasks over time, by progressing from ‘safe’ to ‘risky’ tasks because ‘they aren’t ready’ in the early years of their study. What if our students are capable of more and we are the ones holding them back?

On the basis of our experiences in creating ‘brave’ spaces in FTDi undergraduate programs, we recommend that those who seek to encourage students to take responsibility of their learning should:

  • Prime staff and students to embrace uncertainty (together);
  • Encourage connections and a sense of belonging;
  • Design assessment that is open to emergent rather than predetermined outcomes; and
  • Encourage a pattern of “stepping into” conditions of uncertainty and “stepping out” into reflexive spaces where insights can be consolidated (Kligyte et al., 2019).

Let’s create brave, rather than safe spaces and help students find their potential.

*The task has been designed by the BCII course team, including Bem Le Hunte and Tanja Golja. It has now been transformed and adopted by other FTDi undergraduate programs.


Biesta, G. J. (2015a). Beautiful risk of education. London and New York: Routledge.

Biesta, G. (2015b). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75-87.

Cook-Sather, A. (2016). Creating brave spaces within and through student-faculty pedagogical partnerships. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, 1(18), 1.

Kligyte, G., Baumber, A., Bijil-Brouwer, M., Dowd, C., Hazell, N., Hunte, B., Newton, M., Roebuck, 21 D., & Pratt, S. (2019). “Stepping in and stepping out”: Enabling creative third spaces through transdisciplinary partnerships. International Journal for Students as Partners, 3(1). https://doi.org10.15173/ijsap.v3i1.3735

Feature image by Benjamin Davies.

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