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Psychological Safety or How to boost performance in school

By Peps McCrea, published in his blog https://snacks.pepsmccrea.com/ 6 April 2023





When students (and teachers) feel safe to open up, they’re more likely to perform better and be a good classmate (or colleague). This is the basis of Psychological Safety. Let's dive in:

Psychological safety refers to an individual's perception of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks—such as asking questions, seeking help, or admitting mistakes—without fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or retribution.


In short, it's about feeling safe to open up.


The presence of such a feeling can have a range of benefits, for both the individual and the group. For example:


  • For students in class, it can enhance learning by encouraging students to share ideas, ask questions, and give tasks a go without fear of failure.

  • For teachers & schools, it can boost innovation, reduce organisational errors, and catalyse open conversations between teachers about professional practice.

  • For everyone, it can reduce stress, promote inclusion, and increase engagement around school.


"Fear of missing a deadline is motivating. Fear of each other is problematic." — Amy Edmondson


Ways to foster psychological safety in school include:


  1. Take the temperature Regularly assess comfort levels to see how comfortable folks feel about expressing themselves.

  2. Ask for it Invite constructive feedback and model 'playing the ball, not the person'.

  3. Own your mistakes Demonstrate (and so normalise) learning-related vulnerability by admitting errors.

  4. Measure your response Ensure the 'stakes' attached to student and colleague responses are appropriate.


Psychological safety is not simply about being 'nice'. Rather, it’s about opening the door to productive disagreement and the free exchange of ideas, a situation which might not always be comfortable.


Caveat → The research base around psychological safety in educational contexts is pretty limited and we're not yet fully clear on how it plays out in school. However, there's enough evidence for us to place some smart bets.


Nuance → In particular, it seems like psychological safety is best balanced with a clear sense of responsibility, and managed in ways that avoid degeneration into complaining and comfort-zoning. Doing this well as a teacher or leader is likely to benefit from a meaty dose of (domain-specific) expertise.


Finally, all this relies heavily on trust, but we'll pick that up in the next Snacks and give it a proper treatment.


How psychologically safe is your classroom or school? What action could you take to make it more so? How might you do this in ways that don't undermine performance?


Summary

  • Psychological safety is the feeling of security when taking interpersonal risks. It has the potential to enhance learning, foster innovation, and promote wellbeing in educational settings.

  • However, it's important to balance all this with a clear sense of responsibility and high expectations of performance.

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