Psychological Safety: A Necessary Condition of Equitable & Inclusive Science Classrooms
By Tara Sikorski, CASE High School Director
Even before I became the co-chair of the CASE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, I’ve been digging into aspects of equity, identity, and belonging in the science classroom. At some point in my journey, I stumbled upon the idea of “psychological safety”. Of course, the learner in me went digging for more information. Behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard coined the term “team psychological safety” and defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." This got me thinking about teams, how they function, and how folks show up into different spaces.
So what does this have to do with teaching science? Well, if we take the definition of “team psychological safety” and translate it into the science classroom, it refers to an atmosphere, ecosystems, environment, or insert your favorite collective science term here, where students feel comfortable, respected, and free to express themselves without fear of judgment or ridicule. In other words, do students feel safe enough to show up as their whole self and play with scientific sensemaking in authentic ways? Consider what might be the impact of psychological safety, or lack thereof, on our science students as they engage with NGSS aligned curriculum.
To further explore this idea, let’s look at a few examples of how the aspects of our CA NGSS Framework are linked to the psychological safety of our science students:
- Inquiry and Exploration: This is a fundamental aspect of science and risk taking / mistake making is an inherent aspect of the nature of science. When students feel psychologically safe they are more inclined to deeply engage and actively participate in the exploration and co-construction of ideas.
- Engagement with the Crosscutting Concepts: The CCC’s promote rich critical thinking by linking ideas across different domains of science and students should be active participants in this process. In order to empower students to question, analyze, and evaluate information critically, through the lenses of the CCC’s, they must feel safe to express their ideas without ridicule.
- Confidence in the Science and Engineering Practices: The SEP’s put students in the position of being active participants in their learning process. When students feel valued and supported, they are more likely to believe in their abilities and take on increasingly complex scientific challenges.
- Equity and Inclusion: California has an incredibly diverse student population and our Access and Equity chapter of the framework stresses that science should be accessible and inclusive to all students. In this case, psychological safety ensures that each and every student feels welcomed and valued within their classroom, which increases their willingness to collaborate, share ideas, and learn from each other.
Given these parallels, I invite you to pause for a moment to imagine what a psychologically safe learning environment might look, sound, and feel like from both the teacher and student perspective and reflect upon your own student experiences and if/when you ever felt psychologically safe in your science classes. With this reflection in mind, consider what might be your next steps to prioritize psychological safety as you build a community of young scientists within your classroom or learning environment.
If you’re interested in learning more about this idea and other aspects of equitable and inclusive science classrooms, register for the October 20th-22nd 2023 CASE Conference in Palm Springs. Hope to see you there!