Creating Safe Learning Environments (Professional Learning That Shifts Practice Part 4)

As our society evolves and schools work to meet the needs of learners, educators need to develop new skills, knowledge, and mindsets.  Working with teachers across diverse has given me insight into how they want to learn and what they want out of their professional learning opportunities. This series will feature a more in depth look at each of the 10 characteristics of professional learning that shifts practices

Part 4 of this series is focused on creating safe learning environments.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a safe environment is a foundational to powerful learning.  Many of us also know from our own learning experiences that without  a safe environment where you feel your ideas are valued and you are encouraged to question and be open about strengths and challenges, it is unlikely that much learning will take place. 


Recently I spent the day with a group of teachers, who are colleagues but do not typically work together as a team.  We spent a few minutes at the beginning of the day talking about goals and then generated a list of community agreements to ensure we met the desired goals for the day. The teachers described how they wanted to interact and the type of learning environment that they felt would be most productive and effective.

Here are some of the agreements that were generated.  (These are just to give you an idea of what was created but the power comes from the learners in the room generating the ideas themselves.)

  • Seek to improve learning (students and educators)
  • Be solution oriented
  • Focus reflection how to improve your work, not others
  • Hard on content, soft on people
  • Honor and encourage all voices in the room

This simple activity created a space where teachers felt safe and began to open up about the strengths and challenges in their classrooms.  I noticed, however, how fragile that space could be.  Although the teachers were empowered to solve their problems, the tone shifted from inquiry to compliance very quickly when someone with authority such as the principal or coach began to tell rather than question.  This is why the facilitation role in a group is a delicate balance.  There were certainly times where some clarification or direction was needed to move the team forward to meet their goals; however, attending to the dynamics of the participants highlighted the importance of questioning over telling to empower authentic problem solving. Listening to these teachers and the level of expertise and professionalism validated how important it is to create conditions where teachers feel safe to truly let down their guards and learn together.

 At the end of the day I asked how productive they felt the day was and what the next steps might be to move forward. What has stuck with me since this day was a teacher’s reflection, “We are capable of solving our own problems if we are given the time and the permission to figure it out.” At first I was struck by the the word permission but as I probed more, she was referring to the safe space to admit what wasn’t working and the opportunity to generate new ideas within a problem solving community.    They had been so caught up in the notion that they just had to implement required mandates and hadn’t had the time nor “permission” to figure out how to best meet the needs of the learners in their classrooms.

In this regard, safety in professional learning is not about maintaining the status quo, it’s about creating the conditions where there is a level of trust to share ideas, opportunities to practice and get better, and transparency about what is being learned to collectively move forward. How are you creating the conditions to ensure the learners have the permission and space to solve the problems that are meaningful and relevant to them?

“Trust demands courage; the courage to let go, the courage to trust others, and, more than anything, the courage to jump the knowing-doing gap.”

David Price– Open- How We Will Live, Work and Learn in the Future

This is the 4th part of 5 part series on the 10 Characteristics of Professional Learning that Shifts Practice. Check out the rest of the series:

Purposeful Professional Learning- Part 1

Meaningful Problem Solving- Part 2

Moving from Planning to Action- Part 3

Create Your Own Adventure- Part 5

7 Replies to “Creating Safe Learning Environments (Professional Learning That Shifts Practice Part 4)”

  1. Great post! I am often bothered by the word “permission” but I appreciate how you uncovered that what was really missing was trust (and time!). In my work with coaches and leaders I often focus on helping them plan reflective questions to ask to move the work forward without “telling” people what to do or how to do it.

  2. […] Creating Safe Learning Environments – Part 4 […]

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