Safe and Supportive. But not easy

As a teacher you care about our students. You understand how tough Covid has been for many of them, and you’ve seen the reports about increasing rates of stress and anxiety amongst students. As a result, you’ve become increasingly focused on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and creating "safe and supportive" learning environments in our schools.
This week I’d like to share a personal story, as a metaphor for why we need to think carefully about how we create safe and supportive learning environments – lest "Safe and Supportive" gets in the way learning.

A few years ago, a group of friends and I took up indoor rock climbing. It was a lot of fun and great exercise. And like anything, it got easier as we got better at the techniques.

One day I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and try a new route. In rock climbing, difficulty is ranked by colour, and this would be the first time that I would be going up the more difficult blue route.

I got started and made it up the first 10m without too many problems. The techniques required so far were all ones I was familiar with. But then I got stuck. To get to the next stage of the climb I needed to get past an overhang – something I hadn’t done before. The position of the overhang meant that I couldn’t quite see my next handhold and I wasn’t at all sure how to go further.

Just getting to this point had taken most of my strength. I was tired and beginning to fatigue. I knew I had to hold myself as close to the wall as I could, and push with the big muscles in my legs (not pull with the small muscles in my arms). Doing this, I got myself just high enough to see the next hand hold.

I couldn’t reach it from my position. I was going to have to take a leap of faith and make a grab for it. Drawing on the last of my strength, I committed myself to the move and made a dive for the next handhold. My fingers wrapped around its edge. For a moment I thought I’d done it! But as began to transfer my weight onto the hold, I felt my fingers slip. I tumbled backwards, reaching fruitlessly for the handhold that was now out of reach. For just a moment it felt like I was suspended in mid-air. And then I began to fall. I’m sure this only took an instant, but for me it was all happening in slow motion.

Of course, I only fell about 1m before the safety rope caught my weight. I found myself dangling harmlessly in mid-air supported by my friend who had me on belay. I took the opportunity to observe the wall from my new vantage point. What new strategy could I try for my next attempt? What could I do differently? Then my friend gently lowered me down so I could have another go.
Of course, we’re teaching students not rock climbers. So how does this experience relate to students and how we create safe and supportive learning environments?


Indoor rock climbing provided my friends and I with a very safe environment where we could face challenges in a controlled fashion. In fact, there were strict rules that ensured everyone’s safety. We had to wear safety gear and understand proper climbing communication. We had the right shoes and chalk to keep our hands from slipping. And of course, there was training to ensure we knew how to belay each other safely.

The same is true in our classrooms. Safe classrooms, where rules and norms ensure that all students are safe from physical and emotional harm, create the opportunity for students to take on challenges in a low stakes environment. Consequently students are more willing to try things that are outside their comfort zone.  
Challenge and Effort - Why "safe" doesn't mean comfortable

For me, the most important part of this metaphor is what it feels like to be challenged and to go into your learning zone. When I was faced with the overhang on the blue climb, it was a big challenge for me. And that made it unsettling. I didn’t know quite what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how to solve the challenge. And I had to take risks that were scary. It wasn’t easy!

Even though it’s not as obvious as the physical challenge that I faced, this is similar to the feeling that many learners have when they go into their learning zones. And it’s an important feeling. In classrooms, we make challenges safe, and that’s a good thing. But what we shouldn’t do is make them comfortable. We shouldn’t make them easy. Students need to struggle and feel uncomfortable in order to grow. In fact, getting comfortable with the discomfort of being in your learning zone is one of the first steps to developing ‘learnership’.

"In a world where we are increasingly focused on protecting students from harm, we might sometimes misinterpret that message. Being safe from harm doesn’t mean we remove all the struggles in a student’s path. Those struggles are a necessary part of learning. Growth is not easy, and effort is the price we pay for achieving that growth."

The necessity of challenging students, allowing them feel the discomfort and struggle of that challenge. Allowing them to fail (safely) and to recover, can sometimes run counter to our intuitive need desire to protect and nurture our students. Safe and supportive, does not mean without struggle and effort.

It’s like Fred DeVito said – "If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you".

Learnership - Becoming an Expert Learner
Of course there is much more to this metaphor. The different coloured routes up the walls represent how we differentiate. And how much time we spend challenging ourselves to do better, and how much time we spend simply climbing the routes we already know how to do, represents how we practice. And the skills we develop as we improve represent our development as skilful learners.

In my book, The Learning Landscape, I explore the metaphor of moving through a learning landscape, climbing out of challenge pits, filling your backpack with Habits of Mind and eventually scaling the mountains of expertise. It’s these actions that bring learning to life and help students to develop the invaluable skill of learnership.

In my upcoming Learnership Intensives, we learn about how to help your students become comfortable with the discomfort of their learning zone. We help them identify the types of challenges that help them grow. We show them how to engage in the right type of practice as they invest their time and energy in growth. And we "unpack" their backpacks, to fill them with the Habits of Mind they need to achieve growth.

If you’d like to learn more about Learnership click here to read more, watch the Learnership webinar and access upcoming events.

Best Wishes,

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