Psychological safety in the classroom
Back in April 2019, I blogged about the different mental/emotional modes that children’s minds can be in, how those modes make a difference to when and how they learn, and what teachers (and parents) can do about it. Here are some more thoughts on the matter.
There are a lot of basic modes that our minds keep switching between, depending on our appraisal of the demands and affordances of the situation we find ourselves in. These appraisals are, for the most part, pre-conscious; we don’t know that we are making them, but they change how we operate. At a deep level our brains are constantly weighing up the threats and opportunities we sense around us, and making decisions about the best mode to be in at that moment. These modes correspond to our most basic emotions. For example:
· If the most important thing seems to be the availability of something desirable, we go into Pursue-and Consume mode, and feel desire or attraction. We google likely restaurants or entertainments; we make a bee-line for the coffee table.
If there is an avoidable threat, the brain selects Flee-or-Hide mode and we feel afraid.
If someone we care about is threatened, we go into Rescue-and-Comfort mode and feel loving and protective.
If we feel the presence (or imminence) of something toxic, we close up all the possible ways it might get in (e.g. by wrinkling our nose, clamping our lips shut or closing our eyes) and the feeling of that is disgust. Or if something noxious has already got in, we have built-in mechanisms for expelling it, and we feel nauseous.
If there is someone about from whom we want to win respect or reward, or who might withdraw their favours if we don’t ‘measure up’, we go into Performance mode; we do our best to impress and put on a ‘good show’, and feel pressurised and anxious.
If there is a threat (to ourselves, or something or someone we value) and we have to stand our ground, we may select Intimidation mode and try to scare the intruder off or get them to back down, and we feel indignant or angry.
If there is a threat to our social standing or acceptability, we may ask forgiveness and feel shame, or we may hide and feel afraid.
If we are tired and there are no obvious external threats, we may go into Rest mode and have a snooze or watch TV.
And if our normal expectations are disappointed or something new comes along, and there is no more pressing call on our attention, we go into Learning mode and explore, investigate and experiment whilst feeling interested and engaged.
Of course, the way each of these general modes plays out depends on all the resources, skills and habits we have built up, all the beliefs about what constitutes a threat or a benefit that we have imbibed from our culture as we grow up, and the particular details of the situation, as we perceive them. Our learning and cognition are built on top of these basic emotional evaluations. Some cultures encourage Intimidation but not Fear; others, the reverse. Learning is just one among several modes we possess that are all designed to protect us or further our well-being. It can easily get bumped if, for example, a problem that seemed challenging and interesting at one moment flips into something that threatens to expose us to ridicule or rejection - to the loss of esteem from those whose opinion matters to us.
So that’s what’s going on in the classroom. All the time. And our job is to configure the environment so that Learning Mode looks, to most students’ brains, most of the time, like the best choice. To do that we have to minimise other things that might seem more desirable, and to reduce any potential threats that we have control over that might assume higher priority. We can never do it perfectly, and there are many things that are beyond our control, or that we simply don’t know about. But we are on the lookout for anything that might increase the likelihood that learning mode will win out.
One way teachers have done that in the past is to create threats and punishments such as loss of liberty, aka detentions, or loss of face, aka humiliation. The problem is that learning as a way of avoiding threat has a different tinge to it from learning that is self-motivated. And learning that is done for extrinsic reward is also distorted. The goal becomes gaining the reward or avoiding the threat, and not the increase in competence or comprehension per se, so the quality of learning is quite different. The mood is not “Hey, that’s interesting; that’s enriching my life” but “Did it work to get what I wanted or avoided what I feared?”
It sounds complicated, but that’s the teacher’s job, like it or lump it. It isn’t about “How do it get or keep control?” or “How do I get the results up?” It’s “What can I do to optimise Learning Mode in my classroom?” And that’s where the Learning Power Approach comes in handy.
You can order the Learning Power Approach series here.