A friend recommended Adam Grant’s podcast “Is it safe to speak up at work?” As I listened to this episode, I was thinking about the concept of psychological safety through my educator lens. My work focuses on supporting leaders, coaches, and teachers in transitioning from traditional teaching practices to blended learning. Blended learning is the combination of active, engaged learning online and offline.
Blended learning prioritizes student agency, striving to give them a high degree of control over the learning activities and environment. The fundamental shift in control from teacher to learner demands that classrooms be spaces where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas, taking risks, and making mistakes. To do any of these things, students must feel safe taking interpersonal risks. This is where the concept of psychological safety–what it is, what it looks like, and how to create it–fascinates me.
What is psychological safety?
Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard University, defines psychological safety as “a climate in which one feels one can be candid. It’s a place where interpersonal risks feel doable, interpersonal risks, like speaking up with questions and concerns and half-baked ideas and even mistakes.”
Students in a learning community, much like members of a team in an organization, must feel safe sharing their ideas, asking questions, learning from mistakes, and taking interpersonal risks.
What characterizes a psychologically safe space?
In a journal article titled “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Edmondson (1999) says a climate of psychological safety is “characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
As I listened to the podcast, the qualities of a psychologically safe space resonated. They include:
- Being candid, open, and honest
- Experiencing low levels of fear and anxiety
- Respectfully disagreeing and offering different perspectives
- Brainstorming, idea sharing, and thinking outside-of-the-box
- Valuing feedback and construction criticism
- Asking for help
- Identifying and discussing challenges or problems
- Embracing mistakes as opportunities to learn
- Committing to high standards
These characteristics are also critical to a high-functioning learning community where students enjoy high levels of autonomy and agency.
What are the benefits of psychological safety?
Dr. Edmondson identified three key benefits of psychological safety: 1) preventing errors, 2) fueling creativity and innovation, and 3) creating inclusive work environments. These benefits are valuable in the context of the classroom as well.
#1 Preventing Errors
Making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Mistakes or errors are simply opportunities to learn. Yet, in many classrooms, mistakes are penalized instead of normalized. Students may lose points on homework assignments or practice activities because they answered questions incorrectly. This causes students to fear mistakes instead of working to understand and learn from them.
Instead of collecting homework or practice activities and grading that work for accuracy, teachers can encourage pairs or small groups of students to spend time assessing their work using an answer key or exemplar and rubric. The goal of these self-assessment sessions is to encourage students to think critically about their work, engage in discussions, problem-solve with their peers, and reflect on what they learned using the two questions posed by Captain Bill Wilson in the podcast. What did you learn? What are you going to do differently next time?
#2 Driving Creativity
Fear kills creativity. Students cannot be creative if they work in an environment where they do not feel safe taking risks. Teachers must work with students to cultivate a respectful, trusting, and supportive learning environment. This work begins with co-creating class agreements around behaviors and norms, prioritizing team-building activities, encouraging brainstorming and spitballing of ideas, and allowing students to make key decisions about their learning. As students develop trust in their teachers and peers, they are more likely to take the interpersonal risks necessary to drive creativity.
#3 Valuing Inclusion
Inclusion means all students in a learning community have access to resources, opportunities, and a voice in the class dialogue. Creating inclusive learning environments is hard to achieve in a one-size-fits-all, whole group, teacher-led lesson. Blended learning offers teachers technology-enhanced instructional models designed to shift from a whole group to a small group dynamic, offer students flexible pathways toward firm goals, and shift the focus from the teacher to the learners. These shifts make it easier to create more accessible, equitable, and inclusive learning environments.
3 Steps to Creating a Psychologically Safe Learning Environment
Adam Grant makes the point that psychological safety doesn’t just happen. Leaders, or in this case teachers, must create it. Students have likely experienced psychologically dangerous learning environments in the past. They may have had teachers who humiliated them or criticized them for making mistakes in front of their peers. These painful past experiences may initially cause them to hold back or function from a place of fear.
According to Dr. Edmondson, there are three key steps in creating psychological safety. These steps can be applied to learning environments as well.
- Set the tone in a classroom by acknowledging that you make mistakes. Let students know that you are not perfect. You won’t always get it right or have the answer. That’s okay. As the “lead learner” in the classroom, you must communicate that you are committed to learning from your students and welcome their ideas.
- Invite input by regularly collecting feedback from your students. Use a weekly feedback form to streamline feedback and make this practice sustainable. Asking your students for feedback demonstrates your desire to continue learning and improving while also communicating your respect for their experience and perspective.
- Show students respect and earn their trust by working alongside them. Instead of positioning yourself at the front of the room for the bulk of a lesson talking at students, design learning experiences that allow you to work directly with students to meet their specific needs. When you work with students, model the kinds of behaviors you want them to demonstrate in their interactions with one another.
As teachers explore technology-enhanced instructional models designed to release control to learners, it is crucial to create spaces that are psychologically safe so students feel comfortable engaging in conversation, taking risks, working collaboratively, asking for help, and thinking outside of the box. These qualities are necessary to achieving a high-functioning learning community capable of making meaning.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
I’ve created a 10-week course that includes the following modules to support coaches, TOSAs, teacher leaders, and administrators in developing their coaching skill set and blended learning knowledge.
Each cohort is limited to the first 100 people to register. The first round of this course will be offered from November 15-January 15 to help coaches prepare for the second half of the. It includes two 90-minute synchronous sessions in Weeks 3 and 6. In addition, participants will have access to a Google Classroom where they can participate in discussions paired with each module. I encourage teams of coaches on a campus or in a district to register for the same cohort so they can collaborate and create resources together.
This course will provide a clear coaching cycle designed to maximize the impact of coaching and help coaches develop a higher-level understanding of blended learning. That way, they feel confident coaching teachers in designing and facilitating learning to combine active, engaged learning online and offline.
Leaders can request a quote for a group rate here.