Why Should I Learn This?

A Series on Learner Motivation

(Part 3: Am I Safe?)

The young woman in my class looks disengaged and unhappy. Does she not find the content stimulating? Does she not like me or her fellow students? Does she simply not want to be here? Note to self. Seek her out in the break. A brief conversation with the student leads to the discovery that the problem is none of the above. She is simply consumed with concerns about the results of a medical test.

On another day, the classroom discussion is lively and almost all the students are involved. Except one. I attempt to draw him in with a simple “what do you think?” A shrug of the shoulders, and an “I don’t know” is the response. Is this student simply being resistant? Later I discover that the issue was not that he ‘did not know’ but rather, that his opinion was contrary to that of the majority, and he feared that if he shared it he would be ridiculed or rejected.

These two scenarios may seem to be quite different to each other– However, they both stem from the human need for security. We all need to know that we are ‘safe’. But what does this mean for our students?

Let’s start with the environment outside of the classroom. In our College we have many international and interstate students who are a long way from their usual ‘security net’ of family, friends and the familiar. Instead of actually concentrating on the class content, they may well be thinking about where they can get a job so they can pay their fees; what they are going to do about the fact that their laptop just died; or contemplating the safety of walking home alone after their late night rehearsal tonight.

Teachers and colleges should focus at least some of their time, resource and energy finding out which students are feeling vulnerable in these ways, and helping to connect them to solutions and the appropriate student support services so that they can focus on what they came here to do. Learn.

But what about safety inside the classroom? Research would indicate that the provision of a ‘safe space’ directly impacts what and how much a student learns.

A study conducted at Arizona State University investigated the perspectives of students on what constituted a safe classroom space. In this study, a ‘safe space’ was defined as a classroom climate that allowed students to feel secure enough to take risks, honestly express their view, and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours , without risk of receiving psychological or emotional harm from their instructor or their peers.

The conclusion drawn was that, although it is not possible to create a perfect environment in which all students feel safe all of the time, there are certainly things that teachers can do to provide for a ‘safer space’, enhancing the environment in which learning is possible.

The first is by displaying certain characteristics as a teacher. These include developing ground rules for class discussions, being non-judgmental and unbiased, being comfortable with conflict and raising controversial ideas, modelling participation, demonstrating caring, challenging students by posing questions, being willing to share about themselves, being informative and knowledgeable and remaining laid back, flexible and calm.

The second is by helping the students in the class to develop good discussion skills, including being respectful, listening to each other, and following the ground rules. They should be encouraged to honestly share their thoughts, ideas, opinions, and facts whilst remaining non-judgmental and open to new ideas or perspectives. The class should be taught how to respond critically and challenge one another’s thoughts, whilst keeping a positive attitude and atmosphere.

What do you do to create a ‘safer’ learning space?

Leave your comments in the section below!


Learning-Theories.com, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, <http://www.learning-theories.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs.html> Cited 24/6/16.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review,50(4), 370.

Holley, Lynn & Steiner, Sue (2005). Safe Space: Student Perspectives on Classroom Environment, Journal of Social Work Education, Vol 41, No. 1 (Winter 2005) pp 49-64, Publishers Taylor & Francis Ltd. on behalf of Council of Social Work Education.