Why psychological safety is important in the classroom

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Psychological Safety: This is a term that can make a huge difference when it comes to teaching and learning, especially when trying to work in a group. But it is also a term that some have never heard of. What exactly is psychological safety and why is it important in schools?

That’s part of what educators at Harvard and beyond explored last week at the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching (HILT) 2022 Annual Conference, “Teamwork: Facilitate group dynamics and encourage collaboration between students.” Launched in 2011, HILT is a university-wide initiative focused on innovation and excellence in learning and teaching at Harvard.

Launching the one-day event, Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, said “success almost always depends on teamwork”. But getting students to work more collaboratively — and then bringing that collaborative mindset into the world of work — isn’t a given, he said. “Students coming out of university are expected to automatically know how to work in a team. This is actually not true.

One of the barriers, he said, is that trust in the classroom is often not established when teams first come together. Without that climate of trust, he said, students and teachers might not feel “psychologically safe” to have candid, and sometimes raw, discussions or brainstorm ideas that aren’t fully formed. They also won’t feel comfortable changing their minds when they come up against a deeply held belief.

“Has anyone actually taught you how to do this – how do you possibly change your mind?” said Luana Marques, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, of her students. “It’s something we don’t always do but have to do.”

“Has anyone actually taught you how to do this – how to possibly change your mind? It’s something we don’t always do, but we have to do.

Khurana said he realized the importance of this during his office hours earlier this semester when several students came to talk about “challenging areas” in class. There were mixed reactions. Several asked why certain stereotypes were allowed to appear in class discussions, while others wanted to address these topics but did not want to come across as racist or sexist, so they remained silent.

“We were all diminished,” Khurana says.

Beth Ames Altringer Eagle, professor of engineering at Brown University and former Harvard faculty associate, added that it’s important for educators to understand how psychological safety is often challenged, knowingly or unknowingly, by children. students.

“Can I make reasonable mistakes safely? Is it safe to take risks? ” she says. “Is it easy to ask others for help? Will my unique skills be valued? »

For Ed School teacher Monica Higgins, it starts with a quick analysis of the play as she enters the classroom.

“I look at the energy first,” she says. “Do people talk to each other?” If the energy is low, she asks questions to get them talking.

Khurana said the goal is to evolve into classrooms where “we’re tough on the problem, but not on each other.”

An example of how this played out in one of Higgins’ leadership classes involved students splitting into teams to talk about a case study on Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown , was shot and killed by police in 2014. Rather than being the sage on stage or forcing students to voice and defend their own feelings about the case, she turned to the work of crew.

“We all have a context and a story. And you have to be vulnerable with your own goals to help others stretch theirs.

“I stole a tactic from Zoomland,” she says. “I put them in small focus groups, in thirds. Each group took the perspective of one of the three superintendents from Ferguson’s neighboring school districts. She asked them not to group up with people they normally hang out with and, as they took on a specific perspective, to think about what surprised them and what they hadn’t considered before.

“It’s so important to deepen the wells of empathy for our students,” Khurana said, “and the only way to do that is to take someone else’s point of view, like Monica l did with his students.” Creating this kind of safe space in the classroom on a complex and sensitive topic allowed for “objective detachment” and expanding our “circle of us”, he said.

Marques said in these cases, it’s also important for educators to recognize that they’re bringing their own focus to the classroom.

“We all have a context and a story,” she says. “And you have to be vulnerable with your own goals to help others stretch theirs.”

This is especially true when a teacher makes a mistake in class, such as when Khurana mentioned something “didn’t hit the right grade” with some students. “I didn’t know what to answer,” he said.

Higgins said ways to bounce back and restore psychological safety in these cases include using self-deprecating humor (without going overboard) or talking to students individually outside of the classroom. But above all, she says, you need to create a relationship-based environment in advance.

“The more we get to know each other, the more we will respect, trust and show each other grace,” she said.

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