Whether we are adult learners, or just starting our journey through academia, we are looking for safe and positive learning environments. If we are to maximize our learners ‘ engagement, which can have enormous effects on learning, all learners must feel that they can take the risks that are part of experimentation and constructivism safely. While many articles concentrate on safe learning environments that are physically safe, and this is of course extremely important, this article explores the idea of a safe learning environment from the perspective of psychological security and how to create one. When teenagers, learners may have seen school as a place for teachers to impress, who then assess them. Yet learning requires the learner’s constant contemplation as they seek to incorporate or change the current frames of reference with which they came into the learning environment. To youth, this means being free to take certain chances without being ridiculed in the classroom, or even later outside the classroom. To the adult learner, being mocked is still a threat, but they also take the risk of making mistakes publicly disclosed that could affect their professional stature.
For the teacher, why confidence is necessary, this may mean being able to admit to themselves that they have not been able to match the learning styles and different intelligences with the learners in their classrooms and make the lesson more engage. For example, a few years ago, during a lecture on differentiated instruction, a teacher unexpectedly hit the’ ah-ha’ moment and realized she had heard many times about the learning styles, but after 17 years of teaching, she never really understood how it applied to practice. Her admission in the workshop would be the inspiration for others, as they too worked to establish their own connections. They are free to do this in a safe learning environment and obviously she felt safe enough to do so herself. To our children the healthy learning environment is especially important. Negative learning experiences can affect future learning and in order to realize how true this is, we only need to reflect on our own experiences. I also discuss with my learners that I felt I had a learning disability for the first third of my life, the middle third trying to figure out how to conquer it, and the latter third knowing I had no learning disability. Instead, I was exposed to many teaching disabilities that I grew up with. It wasn’t until graduate work in curriculum and education and technology, and later during my doctoral studies, that this difference became so obvious.
The point here is to demonstrate how negative learning situations and environments can last and influence future learning. It is essential that all learners are safe. Horace Mann stressed that instruction should be adapted with tenderness and affection to the learner, with reward rather than punishment, and with a purpose of meaningful learning rather than rotary memorization. The learner enters kindergarten full of wonder and fourth grade; some get switched off to studying and schooling. Full of collaborative learning experiences, kindergarten is often the time of safe learning, movement during instruction and risk-taking. Later, and far too often, this environment turns to one of competition, rather than one where each learner is a vessel capable of adding the subject matter to another’s understanding.
Passive approaches, where the learner is an observer rather than a participant, often become a practice, rather than incorporating active learning techniques. This whole cycle also affects the way learning takes place within the brain.
If we really want to make a difference for our learners, we have to help create the optimal conditions for learning to take place. This optimisation involves setting the context within which learning occurs. A instructor has the ability to create the best or worst learning experiences, and influence the path that the learner can go when they accept formal and informal learning opportunities. One final thought involves remembering the need for patience in a positive, safe learning environment.