Bueller? Bueller? How to Create an Engaged, Psychologically Safe Classroom

What middle or high school teacher has not felt like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Standing in front of a room full of blank-faced students asking “any questions?” at the end of another lecture, wondering if you are talking to yourself.  Don’t these students understand you are trying to change their lives for the better and prepare them for the big world that awaits? For many reasons large numbers of students have checked out of school, given up, or are just going through the motions believing school is irrelevant to their life.

How do we create the passion, engagement and curiosity that make teaching—and learning—fun? While teaching can be a joy, at times it is exhausting. Often this is directly related to the engagement and motivation of our students. When we are able to capture our students’ attention and interests, the results can be inspiring and refreshing. Unfortunately, that outcome feels elusive when we sense that we are delivering another lesson to a class of bored, apathetic, or distracted students.      

Recently, my colleague Emily Diehl wrote a piece that summarizes the fundamental questions students will consciously and unconsciously ask themselves over the course of the school day. How they answer each of the questions in Figure 1 will have an impact on their motivation and their behaviors when asked to take chances, do difficult tasks, and learn something new. 

If you are like many teachers I have spoken with, you have been alarmed at how often students will try something one or two times, only to give up if they don’t master it quickly. If we want to change how our students respond to adversity, develop their willingness to take on challenges, increase their desire to learn, or simply re-engage students who have given up, we have to change how they answer these unconscious questions that their brains are constantly asking. 

For the most part, engagement is motivation in action. So the engagement or lack of engagement in our students can reveal a great deal about their level of motivation. A  2007 survey of high school students concluded 2 out of 3 report being bored in class every day. Even more alarming, a 2013 poll found that 45% of students were disengaged with school and as many as 60% of poor, minority and urban youth are “chronically disengaged” with school. Learning is a participation sport and if we want our instruction to be memorable, our ability to get our students to feel a sense of belonging has to come first.  

“Do I Belong?”

The first line of questioning every student continually asks is, “Do I belong here? Am I welcomed? Do I share similar values, interests and experiences with my classmates?” If we want active, engaged learners we must help our students answer “yes” to these questions. Quite simply, students who don’t feel that they are among allies are not likely to be willing to make mistakes, ask questions, or struggle in front of 30 peers and a teacher. 

School is a highly social setting and social acceptance is a primary human need. Every day, in every classroom, every move a student makes is observed and judged by their friends, enemies, crushes, and acquaintances. This makes the simple act of a teenage girl raising her hand during math class to say, “I don’t understand” an act of great courage. In order to publicly admit in front of 30 to 40 of your peers that you don’t understand something is to risk ridicule, laughter, teasing and going viral on social media.  

This is why, in highly public settings such as a classroom, it is quite natural for individuals to engage in what is called “impression management”—to attempt to manage how others perceive us. As Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson explains in her TEDx Talk (also highlighted in the table below), many students will refuse to engage in the learning process of sharing ideas, making mistakes and asking questions just to  keep from being judged and criticized.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is a term developed by Edmondson after years of observing hundreds of corporate teams to identify what makes effective teams. While her research has focused on the business world and work teams, the highly social nature of a classroom makes her findings relevant to student interactions and learning. Psychological safety can be defined as a "shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking," and "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up." A team is simply a collection of individuals who come together for a shared purpose. Having a class that functions like a team, with a shared purpose, is what makes teaching fun and is when the “magic” happens.

The brain processes emotional experiences through many of the same pathways as physical sensations. So when a child feels threatened by her environment and is afraid of rejection, being laughed at, or teased, these emotions may trigger many of the same fight-or-flight pathways as threats to physical safety. When this happens the brain is focused on self-protection and the curiosity that is so critical to learn is lost in the shuffle. This is why programs such Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and other school climate measures are so critical to learning.

How Educators Can Create Psychological Safety

As Table 1 highlights, a significant hurdle to learning in highly public social situations is the natural desire to manage the impressions others have of us. If teachers are able to create a psychologically safe classroom then Edmondson’s research suggests students will shift their focus away from managing impressions and toward what Edmondson describes as “learning behaviors”: asking questions, making mistakes, accepting feedback and so forth. And as students make that shift we can move closer to our dream of inspiring and leading young minds. 

Teach Empathy and the Give-and-Take of Conversation

The behaviors that create a sense of psychological safety with a team are essentially the same unwritten rules we use to establish relationships with individuals. In particular Edmondson’s work has highlighted empathy and conversational turn-taking as the building blocks of a psychologically safe team. Human beings are highly social animals and our sense of physical and psychological safety is rooted in our relationships with those around us. Social isolation has been linked to everything from early death to mental illness. Numerous research studies have shown that having rich, meaningful relationships is the most consistent predictor to a happy life.  

Belonging is the basis of community.

Recent research has shown that what distinguishes “good” teams from dysfunctional groups is simply how teammates treat one another and whether they see themselves as a team. In their best-selling book, Bronson and Merryman explain that “Even the barest suggestions of a shared identity can trigger an esprit de corps.”  Walton and others confirmed this idea in their research where they show that simply telling students they shared the same birthday made students more motivated and persistent. The researchers conclude, “Even small social connections lead people to adopt the goals and motivation of others for themselves.” As human influence and sales expert Robert Cialdini explains, the best relationships simply allow people to say “oh that person is one of us.” 

Create a Sense of Shared Identity

A common error in education is to focus on differences when, in truth, relationships are based on shared experiences and similarities. This is why recent research is suggesting the best way to create unity among a diverse student population is creating shared experiences and a shared identity; in short, focusing on what you and your students have in common rather than what makes them different. The more we are able to create shared goals for our classes, give students opportunities to depend on the success of their peers, and focus on shared experiences and similarities, the more our students will engage in learning behaviors.

Creating this shared sense of belonging with students is especially important for many marginalized and struggling youth. Many students feel a degree of mistrust and to expect unequal treatment in schools. These perceptions and experiences may make some students feel acutely sensitive to cues to belonging. This is why there is such a great deal of interest in “growth mindset” types of psychological interventions. These brief interventions are meant to shift the narrative that many of our struggling students replay throughout their school days. The research suggests that if we can shift this narrative we can change the results these students achieve.

Resources for Educators

The Mindset Scholars Network, has identified specific mindset interventions that are designed to create the sense of psychological safety, or belonging, that is closely related to the ability of the brain to learn. For example, a brief intervention designed to increase the sense of belonging in African-American college freshman was able to dramatically close the achievement gap in participants. As one Stanford researcher, Gregory Walton, explained “...The intervention removed a critical psychological barrier early in a major school transition—a pervasive worry about belonging, rooted in an awareness of negative stereotypes. That helped students develop the kind of supportive relationships that everyone needs to succeed.” You can learn more about their research findings about cultivating belonging in learning contexts.

Recognizing the value of creating a learning community and building relationships with students is often talked about by excellent teachers as the thing that makes them special. What these researchers exploring terms such as “psychological safety,” “impression management,” and “growth mindset” are doing is giving us the research base to incorporate these practices more directly and deliberately into the school experience of every student.

As educators it is important we understand that the human brain cannot learn from people it does not trust. So if you are curious to get a better sense of the degree of psychological safety in your class here is a psychological safety survey that can be a guide. You may also want to look through more of the exciting research being done by the Mindset Scholars Network. This network of highly regarded researchers and speakers continues to research and develop resources that can help us understand and shift the actual psychological experiences of students during the school day.

Learn how HMH’s partnership with Mindset Works is ensuring that the principles of growth mindset inform its next generation literacy and math programs.