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Everything about psychological safety in the classroom

Everything you need to know about psychological safety in the classroom

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Many teachers are often left wondering whether they have wasted their time when, at the end of the lessons, “any questions?” is met with a room of blank faces.

However, it may not be that students haven’t engaged with the teacher’s lesson. Sometimes, it can be that raising their hand and admitting that they don’t understand breaks the social norm or is too great an act of courage – as it may cause others to view them as ‘stupid’. If we are going to create more positive learning experiences, this is fear of humiliation is something that teachers need to help their students overcome.

Recently, Google commissioned a study to find why some of their teams performed better than others. They found that one of the consistent features in successful teams was the concept of ‘psychological safety’. Which begs the questions, what is psychological safety, can it be developed, and how can it be applied to the classroom?

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety can be defined as having the belief that you will not be humiliated or teased for the ideas you offer, for asking questions and admitting to one’s mistakes. When adopted in the classroom, students don’t worry about looking stupid, as the whole class knows that asking questions and making mistakes is crucial to learning.

Why is psychological safety important?

Research has demonstrated the importance of creating a psychologically safe classroom environment. If a student is humiliated for asking a question or making a mistake, the brain interprets this as a threat, and a region known as the amygdala is activated. The amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which encourages students to act quickly without thinking, meaning that they might lack perspective.

Other research has shown there to be a relationship between psychological safety at school and student well-being. When the psychological safety of teachers was high, so too was students’ well-being – they demonstrated increased levels of self-confidence, which in turn led to enhanced student development.

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How can we develop psychological safety in the classroom?

Engage in active listening

In order to develop psychological safety in the classroom, educators should teach the skill of active listening. This is where students use certain body language and summarise the speaker’s main points to demonstrate that they were listening, hence making the speaker feel as though their contributions are valued. Good listeners also involve others, as research has shown that, when one person is always the one to introduce new topics to the conversation, they can be seen as domineering and controlling, which can discourage others from expressing themselves freely and putting forward useful ideas.

For more tips to help students become better listeners, click here.

Develop an open mindset

Elite athletes often use the phrase ‘Minor Setback. Major Comeback.’ – and it is this mindset that teachers should be looking to encourage within their students to create psychologically safe classroom environments. Students need to understand how to reflect on their own mistakes and those made by others so that they can learn from them, so that they know what to do when they encounter a similar situation again.

Teachers also need to enforce the idea that feedback is not a criticism or a judgment of a student’s personality or future ability. This ensures that they do not come to fear of failure or ignore feedback in order to protect their own self-image. Instead, teachers need to install the belief that getting feedback is a positive experience, as it offers an opportunity for new ideas and knowledge to be gained.

Ask questions

A psychologically safe classroom is one in which students feel comfortable in asking questions. Teachers need to install a belief that asking for help is a positive thing and not a sign of weakness. In fact, a recent study showed that people perceive others admitting to their vulnerabilities as a positive character trait.

Create a sense of shared identity

A final way in which teachers can create a psychologically safe classroom environment is to maximise students’ sense of belonging. Creating a sense of belonging involves identifying common aspects or goals that the class share, hence initiating the development of a team environment where all students are equal. Research has shown that even the most trivial suggestion of shared identity can lead to beneficial outcomes; when students were told they shared the same birthday, they showed enhanced levels of motivation and persistence.

Final thought

The fear of humiliating themselves or making a mistake often stops students from contributing to class discussions or asking questions. Psychological safety may be key to overcoming this. This can be developed by ensuring every students feels valued, listened to, respected and part of the group.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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