Establishing a Safe Learning Space

Cards for Democracy
Published on
September 15, 2017
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Establishing a Safe Learning Space

Pascale Mompoint-Gaillard

Inspired from activities described by Vivian Chiona and Galya Baeva in 2011.

It’s a new story, all over again. You are starting on a learning journey with your students, trainees,and co-workers.  As you prepare to  interact with a group for the first time in a course that lasts  a number of days, weeks or months, it is well worth taking some time to establish a safe learning space with all members.

Each learner has the same value and worth as any other in the group, including the teacher/facilitator. In the democratic classroom, cooperation is based on respect for the rights and interests of others while standing up for one’s own rights.

A group can run democratically when common rules and limits are identified and known to all. Mutual respect – respect for the dignity of others implies treating each member with respect, while complying with  the framework of rules and limits that shape and ‘protect’  the group interactions.

Each member, child or adult, ought to develop a sense of belonging to the whole group and feel safe in it, in order to develop full potential for learning. See the many works on the effect of emotions and hormones on learning that demonstrate how ‘good’ hormones open us to communication and learning when others close us.  For example, fear, stress and distrust release cortisol, domination floods the brain with dopamine and adrenaline while a sense of connection and love produces oxytocin.

The devil will always lurk in the details and the realisation.

It seems simple… but the devil will always lurk in the details and the realisation. For example,  handing students a pre-made set of rules is not conducive to the creation of a safe learning space and democratic ethos. You have to work on and negotiate those rules together  Another example could be that accepting and acknowledging individuals’ ideas and contributions is as necessary as learning to respectfully reject any irrelevant or unhelpful contributions without rejecting the person. Depersonalising conflicts is of the essence.

There are many ways to engage in this journey towards the creation of a safe space. This article’s focus is on establishing ‘a contract’ in a class/team/group. An important part of this is to explore and identify common rules of living and learning together. We suggest activities that might help you reach these  goals.

Developing Awareness of the Need for Rules by Experiencing the Challenge of Inequality

(25 minutes)

In the spirit of learning by doing, starting with an experience is a good idea. For example this game can help the group experience challenge and reflect on what rules are needed for the group to thrive in a safe learning environment.

  • Make or create groups of 4 ‘actors’. Groups will play the ‘game’ in parallel:
    • Player 1 has a scarf over the eyes,
    • Player 2 carries a big cardboard box,
    • Player 3 has arms tied together,
    • Player 4 has legs tied together.
  • All the actors should reach a bowl filled with sweets. The person coming first can take as many sweets as she/he wants (5 min). This activity will create emotions, winners will feel good and powerful; losers might feel angry, sad.
  • Debriefing: once the game ends every actor is invited to discuss the difficulties and the feelings experienced during the game and reflect on what can be  learnt (10 min).
    • How do you feel now? How did you feel during the activity?
    • Can we compare the feelings of participants who have candy and those who have nothing?
    • What can we compare candy to, in our group? What could the candy stand for in our group? in society? (It can be benefits such as  learning, feeling included, being respected, etc.)
    • What can we compare the handicaps to? in our group? in society? (This can be learning difficulties, socio-economic difficulties, levels of self-confidence, personal advantages/disadvantages, etc.)

Creating a Safe Learning Space with Learners

(40 minutes)

  • The “actors” go into groups (these can be the same as from the previous session).
  • Ask the class/team/group to draw a tree:

    • The roots – What are the principles and values that we want to live by?
    • The bark –  What will protect us and how will we care for ourselves and the others?
    • The trunk – What measures of support are needed before conflict arises? Who can give support? To whom?
    • The branches –  What are the  resources needed? Do we need to reach out of our group to find these resources?
    • The leaves – What positive energy are we searching for? How will we see that we are thriving and growing?
    • The fruits – What results will we get? How can we collect them? How can we best learn together?
  • Participants start to work individually, taking notes on a sheet of paper. The groups then start creating the trees, including the input of all the different players so that no one is disadvantaged in terms of feeling safe and being able to learn.
  • All the players of each group present their tree. All the trees make up a forest! You should keep these trees for display on the wall and for future reference, when you feel that things are ‘slipping’ out of control.

[/fusion_toggle][fusion_toggle title=”Activity 3: The Contract” open=”no”]

Establishing Rules for a Safe Learning Space

(40 minutes)

  • The teacher/facilitator discusses with the group how the trees can feed into a set of rules for the class/team/group and write these on a big sheet of paper.
  • Participants evaluate the rules:
    • Are they clear enough? Do any rules need rephrasing?
    • Could some of the elements be combined?
    • Are there any items that need to be added or deleted?
    • Do they follow human rights?
    • Do they contribute to creating a safe learning space for all?
  • Talk about the consequences for not following rules. Try finding out what happens when the rules are broken (consequences) and what should be done to re-establish and support respect for the rules (actions and consequences) (10 min).
  • In a next session the whole group can create a poster including all the rules and consequences for not following the rules. Every member of the class/group should sign the poster to support the individual commitment to the common created rules (or contract). The poster is kept for the time the group works together and the teacher/facilitator can make a copy for each student  or upload it on a website or platform.

Maintaining a Safe Space

You might wish to go over the contract/rules more than once, for example after a long break, and when a new member joins the class/group. At any time, items of the list can be modified, removed or added as long as the group consents to it.

Punishment or exclusion are not logical consequences for not following rules. Punishment and exclusion do not help us learn anything new. You might prefer to guide the discussion in a more positive direction. For example, creating a pleasant space (perhaps near the trees created in the session?) for a ‘time out’, when disruptions occur, provides the possibility for the person who doesn’t follow the rules to reflect on their behavior without being excluded. Pairing students for peer support in case of issues with rules is also a more positive approach.

Why Bother?

Carving out time for the creation of a safe learning space is worth the effort .  The learners will be engaged with the rules they want, not the ones imposed on them. Then, teachers/facilitators avoid difficulties in class/group management and the ‘dark sarcasm’* that often goes with it.

Everyone will save time in the end because there will be much less need for discipline management in the long run. More attention and energy  will be saved for learning.

Resources abound on the internet. Here are some links that you may find useful and inspiring.

We have just selected a few that are tried and tested. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable with the activities you choose – they should be interesting and equally appealing to you and your group.   

*Quote from Pink Floyd – “We Don’t Need No Education”

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