Psychological safety: it’s a term that can make a huge difference when it comes to teaching and learning, especially when trying to work in groups. But it’s also a term that some have never heard of. What exactly is psychological safety, and why does it matter in schools?
This is partly what educators from Harvard and beyond explored last week as part of the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching (HILT) 2022 annual conference, “Teamwork: Facilitating Group Dynamics and Encouraging Student Collaboration.” Started in 2011, HILT is a university-wide initiative focused on innovation and excellence in learning and teaching at Harvard.
Kicking off the day-long event, Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, said “success almost always depends on teamwork.” But getting students to work more collaboratively — and then bring that collaborative mindset out into the work world — isn’t a given, he said. “There’s an expectation that students coming out of college will automatically know how to work in teams. That’s actually not true.”
One of the barriers, he said, is that trust in the classroom often isn’t established when teams first come together. Without that trusting climate, 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 that — how to possibly change your mind?” said Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, of her students. “That’s something we don’t always do but need to do.”
Khurana said he realized the importance of this during his office hours earlier this semester when several students came to talk about “areas of challenge” in the classroom. There were mixed reactions. Several questioned why certain stereotypes were allowed to come up in class discussions, while others wanted to bring up these topics but didn’t want to come across as racist or sexist, so they stayed silent.
“We were all being diminished,” Khurana says.
Beth Ames Altringer Eagle, a professor in engineering at Brown University and a former Harvard faculty associate, added that it’s important for educators to understand how psychological safety is often questioned, knowingly or unknowingly, by students.
“Is it safe for me to make reasonable mistakes? 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 professor Monica Higgins, this starts by taking a quick scan of the room when she walks into class.
“I look at the energy first,” she says. “Are people talking to one another?” If the energy is low, she asks questions to get them talking.
Khurana said a goal is to move toward classrooms where “we are hard on the problem, but not on each other.”
An example of how this played out in one of Higgins’ leadership classes involved students breaking 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 the stage or forcing students to voice and defend their own feelings about the case, she turned to teaming.
“I stole a tactic from Zoomland,” she says. “I put them into smaller breakout groups, in thirds. Each group took the perspective of one of the three superintendents in the school districts neighboring Ferguson.” She asked them not to group with people they normally hung out with, and as they took on a specific perspective, to think about what surprised them and what they had not considered previously.
“Deepening the wells of empathy for our students is so important,” said Khurana, “and the only way to do this is to take on the perspective of someone else, like Monica did with her students.” Creating this kind of safe space in the classroom about a complex, sensitive topic allowed for “objective detachment” and enlarging our “circle of we,” he said.
Marques said in these instances, it’s also important for educators to recognize that they bring their own lens to the classroom.
“We all have context and history,” she says. “And you have to be vulnerable with your own lenses to help others stretch theirs.”
This is especially true when a teacher makes a mistake in class, like when Khurana mentioned something that “didn’t hit the right note” with some students. “I didn’t know how to respond,” he said.
Higgins said ways to bounce back and restore psychological safety in those instances include using self-deprecating humor (without going too far) or talking to students individually outside of class. But first and foremost, she said, you need to create an environment ahead of time based on relationships.
“The more we get to know one another, the more we’ll respect, trust, and show grace,” she said.