Getting Out of the Way: Learning, Risk, and Choice

  • Lee S. Barney Brigham Young University-Idaho
  • Bryan Maughan University of Idaho


Students learn best when teachers get out of the way. Unfortunately, university classrooms continue to be intensely teacher-centric, are driven by the teacher’s agenda and calendar, and embrace simple models rather complex alternatives. These simple types of learning environments frustrate students’ development of the risk-taking and choice making confidence they need in the workplace. Bain (2004) makes the point that environments embracing choice as a priority, welcoming risk taking, and nurturing students who make mistakes, are better at preparing students for professional success. In this paper, we intend to provide context to the conversation about how learning-risks and agency impact and promote the individual growth of the student when the teacher gets out of the way.

Combining a Rapid Assessment Process (RAP) (Beebe, 2001) informed by Action Research (AR) (Stringer, 2007; Schön, 1983; Argyris, 1993) we devised an experiment to determine if a university course would invite more student growth when the environment changed from being teacher-centric with highly structured assignments and critical assessments, to one that embraces the tenets of complexity theory. The purpose of this approach was an attempt to challenge the status quo; to show how complex interactions between risk-taking, agency, learning culture, teacher-facilitator-mentors, peers, coursework, and outcomes are important to students’ preparation for successful professional work. To accomplish this we experimented within a software development course at a large university in the northwestern United States and found students appeared more prepared to move on to the professional workplace when they had experienced risk taking and agency in a learning environment based on complexity theory precepts.

Author Biographies

Lee S. Barney, Brigham Young University-Idaho

Dr. Lee S. Barney is a faculty member of the Computer Information Technology Department. His current research interests include; the application of complexity theory to course design, the roles of agency, risk-taking, and becoming in learning, and computer algorithm optimizations applicable to encryption and computer security.


Bryan Maughan, University of Idaho
Dr. Bryan D. Maughan serves as the Director of the Professional Practices Doctoral program at the University of Idaho. He serves as a member of the Dissertation in Practice (DiP) committee for the national Carnegie Project for the Education Doctorate (CPED). His current research interests include organizational analysis; translational and practitioner research methods; the role of tacit, tribal, and technical knowledge among leadership.
Research Articles