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Friday, December 28, 2012

Are Schools Psychologically Safe Places?

In Amy Edmondson’s book, Teaming, she states that psychological safety is an absolute prerequisite for optimal learning. Although she writes about business organizations, her research holds true for all organizations.

Educators must have the courage to ask if schools are psychologically safe for students and staff. Since learning is what school is supposed to be about, it would seem that making schools psychologically safe should be the highest priority. In exploring what psychological safety means in practice, one would have to conclude that many schools put order and efficiency above psychological safety.

Edmundson states: “ …In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them. They believe that others will not resent or humiliate them when they ask for help or information…Thus psychological safety is a taken for granted belief about how others will respond when you ask a question, seek feedback, admit a mistake, or propose a wacky solution…in psychologically safe environments, people are willing to offer ideas, questions, and concerns. They are even willing to fail, and when they do they learn.”
If we are honest with ourselves, can we truthfully say that schools are places where anyone is willing to fail in order to learn. Failure should be taught as a process of finding out what doesn’t work to eventually discover what does, but this is not the common understanding that students (or teachers) have. Kids who fail at school are at great risk for criticism, derision, and exclusion. Fear of failure is often used to motivate kids to work. Edmundson describes environments that have high expectations and low psychological safety:
“Managers in these organizations have unfortunately confused setting high standards with good management…Following the mistaken, though often well-intentioned belief that intense performance pressure is the best way to ensure excellent results, managers inadvertently create an environment in which employees are afraid to offer ideas, try new processes, or ask for help.”
It sounds to me those who set policies in education are very much like those confused managers. This type of thinking unfortunately permeates most of American education.
What has the greatest influence on the amount of psychological safety in an organization? No surprise, it is leadership: “The most important influence on psychological safety is the nearest manager, supervisor or boss. These authority figures, in subtle and not so subtle ways, shape the tone of interactions in a team or group.”
Edmundson says that people are very sensitive to status and authority. They will by default play it safe to avoid offending the boss or evoking any degree of disapproval. Developing a psychologically safe learning environment requires a deliberate and intentional set of leadership behaviors to overcome this default response. She lists 8 specific ones:
  • Be accessible and approachable
  • Acknowledge limits of current knowledge
  • Be willing to display fallibility
  • Invite participation
  • Highlight failures as learning opportunities
  • Use direct language
  • Set boundaries 
  • Hold people accountable for transgressions
(In future posts, I will try to explore some of these latter ones,  since they at first appear contradictory to the concept of psychological safety.)
The importance of acknowledging limits of current knowledge, displaying fallibility and highlighting failures as learning opportunities, reminded me of an experience I had as principal.
There was fourth grade student who was classified as learning disabled. This classification should not be public knowledge. In this case the student received resource room support but otherwise participated in school lessons and activities as any non-disabled student would. One day he stayed after school for sports intramurals. He happened to be taking a smaller bus home that some other more visibly disabled students were scheduled to take. The physical education teacher without thinking called for the students who were riding the special ed. bus to line up. This student felt that by responding to the teacher and lining up he would be announcing to the world that he was disabled. The teacher should have called the bus by its number or identified it any other way. This student told his parents about how he felt embarrassed by having to line up with the special education bus. His parents called me, the principal, and relayed this information. I thanked them and apologized if we caused any unnecessary stress for the student. I spoke to the physical education teacher about it-not in a critical way but rather in an understanding way. I said that I could see myself making that same mistake. I also mentioned that I was glad the parent had enough trust in us to give us that feedback. The parent wasn’t blaming us but rather pointing something out that could raise our awareness to student sensitivity. Since I wasn’t critical of him, the teacher accepted the feedback and from that day on never made that mistake again.
I felt that I should find that student and thank him for telling his father so that his father could tell us. I went down to the student’s classroom and asked him to speak with me in private. I apologized to him for any type of embarrassment we might have caused him. I told him that I spoke with the teacher who did it and he agreed that it was a mistake but one that he would learn from. I thanked him and his dad for speaking up and telling us, since we didn’t want that to happen again. I added that his speaking up probably would help us avoid making that mistake again. He quietly accepted what I said and returned to his class without saying a word.
Several months later on almost the last day of the school year, that same boy’s father came by school to pick up something his son had left at school. I happened to be out in the main office and after seeing me he said, “Do you know that you are the person my son most admires?” I said no but I was honored and I asked why. He said that coming down to apologize personally to him, communicating to him about the mistake, and showing a willingness to learn from it, had made a huge positive impression on him. I had not just earned his trust but also his admiration.
Although I didn’t have this theory to guide me at the time,  I suppose that what I did made the school psychologically safer for this student. Sometimes I think that those in management positions just need to worry less about controlling things and let themselves be caring, honest and humble people. The surprise is that they will not be diminished in the eyes of those they lead, the opposite will happen they will become more trusted and respected.

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