In the 1950s, the educational psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term psychological safety. By this, he meant an environment in which people can explore their creative potential, take risks, not be afraid of failure, express themselves freely and essentially feel secure in that safe space that allows them to be themselves.
The concept might go back to the 1950s, but we still need to be reminded of it today.
For decades educational systems have been built on the wrong ideas: premised on shouting at children, threatening them, hitting and humiliating them while creating a stifling, stern atmosphere wrought with fear and power hierarchy. Unfortunately this Victorian model is still in force in some institutions, practices and households today.
What this type of behaviour does is it pushes students into their reptilian brains, shredding any sense of confidence in them and, ultimately, as it models symbolic and physical violence, it reproduces this in students who will not know any better than to copy the unpleasant behaviour they have been subjected to and exact it on others.
A good school looks at students in the exact opposite way: we are here to make sure that the classroom is a place where you want to be,where your self belief is built up every day by acts of validation, kindness, recognition, gift spotting and encouragement.
Unfortunately, some of the remnants of the Victorian past still make their way into what might look like enlightened classrooms through seemingly innocuous but potentially damaging throw away comments, sarcasm, damning reports and, quite simply, an inability to be generous enough to see someone’s potential and to say it. Giving a student a bad grade can be enormously hurtful to their inner core, and it should be scaffolded carefully and sensitively, not done with a sense of impatience or superciliousness.
When students are starved of the feedback they need to garner that quantum of confidence to grow out of their shells, it can be demeaning or worse. This is all the more so since children need the validation of their teachers, in many ways it counts for more than that which comes from families and friends because it is institutional and less tinged by favouritism: it’s the first exposure to the outside world and whether that place will be friendly or hostile.
If we really want creativity, critical thinking, interpersonal sensitivity, multi literateness and human flourishing, then we have to keep reminding ourselves of the idea of psychological safety and should not be misguided into thinking that harshness, coldness, negative feedback and emotional cruelty bring out the best in students.
Some people, already down a track of mastery, already confident and thirsty to go from good to great, might actually seek out this type of “tough love”, the clichéd draconian sports coach type of relationship with their teacher, but these are exceptions and should be understood as such.
Finally, psychological safety, like so many socio-psychological concepts, is not only educational, it speaks to the professional world too. We all know how tough it is to have a supervisor who never lifts you up, loses their temper, shuts you down and tries to make you afraid: they are lost in the same Victorian illusion and are not bringing out your creative potential.
You might not be able to change that, but you can control the way you deal with your supervisees, so create a space for them to flourish and give your people what they need to thrive: a feeling that with you, they are safe, they can grow, they can fly.
(photograph: Ali Kazal)