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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Habit of "Speaking Up"

As I have written about before, it is unrealistic to think that we can just tell bystanders to speak up, intervene or even report bullying and think that they will do it. No amount of cheer leading, ad campaigns or motivational slogans can change people’s habits.  Being an empowered bystander requires a mindset that is developed over time where risk taking, speaking up is not a rare occurrence.  Kids need to be in an environment where speaking up and  becoming an active participant in a community is cultivated by those in leadership positions.
Business are now realizing that getting people to speak up which includes seeing problems, raising objections, questioning and sharing ideas that don’t automatically fit conventional thinking,  is the key to the organization’s ability to innovate and keep pace with a rapidly changing environment.   The problem with the shifting to this more open and participatory,  shared leadership is that people have a lot of unlearning to do.  Leadership cannot just snap its fingers and announce, “Ok, everyone can just speak up now!”  We are wired to protect ourselves from even the slightest hint of perceived risk.   This is why even subtle signals from people in leadership positions are the crucial variable in determining whether people truly feel safe in speaking up or fall into the default mode of keeping their “mouths shut” to stay out of trouble.  Amy Edmondson in her book, Teaming states:
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 of group.  Therefore, they must also be engaged as the primary drivers in establishing a more open work environment. They must take practical steps to make the workplace psychologically safe.  That is the key phrase: take practical steps.  Psychological safety is a share sense developed through shared experience.

We can easily take the above quotation and substitute the word “teacher” for manager, supervisor or boss.  Teachers can create a psychologically safe environment for students.  This means more that just having an orderly environment with the teacher controlling what happens.  That might appear to be safe however it is not type of safety needed for speaking up and risk taking.  The problem with creating a classroom environment that is truly psychologically safe for speaking up and risking taking is that it is hard to imagine what that would look like, since the traditional ways of managing classes and schools seem to value order and compliance much more than speaking up and risking taking. 

Cooperative learning is one very effective tool for creating a psychologically safe environment where the teacher is not the dominant figure in maintaining order.  With cooperative learning and more democratic classrooms students learn responsibility through social interaction and seeing how one’s action impacts others and the whole community-not just whether is gains the approval or not from the teacher.

Since it is so difficult to re-imagine schools, having examples where “those practical steps” that show rather than just tell students that it is ok to speak up and take a risk, can help schools at least have a direction for the type of change they might want to make.  This is why I was excited to discover an example of a classroom where the teacher took “practical steps” to make her classroom psychologically safe.  This type of classroom is one where bullying prevention through student empowerment is part of its DNA and not an add-on program or curriculum. 

I will share one of the “practical steps” that this teacher does that sends a powerful message of empowerment to her students.  At the end of each lesson (I might add that the lessons are very participatory with movement and excitement) she asks and invites the students to give her feedback on the lesson.  She has three categories for responding to the lesson:

  • Authentically engaged-students found the lesson meaningful and relevant
  • Strategically compliant-students participated just out of respect for the teacher’s authority but not because they found the lesson that engaging
  • Retreatism- students were tuned out and just went through the motions of participating.

The fact that the teacher actually asks for feedback from the students is one of those “practical steps” that create psychological safety.  When kids see their teacher invite their feedback, the focus of learning becomes the learning rather than the pleasing of the teacher.  This teacher even goes one step further if the lesson is not authentically engaging she asks her students for ideas on how to make it more engaging.  She then uses this feedback to improve her lessons and acknowledges the feedback as the basis for the change.  In this way the students are not passive recipients of learning but are engaged in shaping and creating it with the teacher.  Some might think that this level of feedback could only occur with older students and it does appear to be a rather sophisticated level of responding but this happened in a second grade class.  The teacher had taught the kids what those terms meant and they gave this feedback on a daily basis.  It illustrates that kids respond (up or down) to the level of expectation we set for them as long as we provide the time and practice needed for that type of responding.
Here is the link to the lesson (it is over 25 minutes long but well worth the time) there is also a transcript available that you can download.

This is a great example of reframing the issue of bullying prevention from what we need to get kids to NOT DO to what type of learning environment do we need to create to optimize the learning for everyone.  That later goal is a lot more exciting and fun and those are pretty good things to remember about learning.

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