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Why education should care about psychological safety


This week, Karren Jensen, COO at NeuroCapability, looks at why we need to rethink our education environments if we are going to develop graduates with high-order cognitive skills and how Neuroscience of Leadership is supporting educators to bridge the gaps.

What is the future of work and how can we arrive there properly equipped? From blogs to white papers and conferences, people are contemplating how to future proof society and the individuals within it. How young and future generations can obtain the skills and education they need to survive inevitable economic and workplace changes; the integration of artificial intelligence; and the potential consequences for under-preparedness, i.e. digital stress, information overload and increased rates of depression and anxiety. Skilling and educating high schoolers now for the workplaces of the future is already an option by developing psychologically safe environments in which students thrive now, and into the future.

At this moment in time, millennials are actively driving a shift in workforce expectations and experience. So far, their era has been defined by a trifecta of forces, namely, globalisation, technology and diversity. And at its intersection is a highly-connected network of individuals that simply aren’t content with the old concept of, ‘paying one’s dues’. As millennials often disrupt the status quo with their assertions and actions, it’s not a surprise that this core part of the changing workforce is quick to insist that their turn is now, claiming no hesitation in making their mark on the world (Deloitte, 2016). The disruptive economy is creating new ways of doing things and businesses are rapidly having to adjust to keep pace.

Nowhere is this more evident, than the latest World Economic Forum Top 10 Skills list from employers and recruiters:

  1. Complex Problem Solving
  2. Critical Thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People Management
  5. Coordinating with Others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgment and Decision Making
  8. Service Orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive Flexibility

What’s wrong with the way things have always been done

Traditional business models have been built upon three key pillars — ‘Conformity, Compliance and Competition’ (Sir Ken Robinson). If we accept that one of the significant goals of education is to prepare students for a life of meaningful work ‘out there’, then it would make sense that these are the same three pillars on which education has been developed. One has to go no further than NAPLAN to see these three pillars in action. ‘Conformity and Competition,’ across students and schools at all costs!

These old-ways of doing business are so last Century! And as neuroscience is increasingly revealing they are ineffective in this new economy. Command-and-Control or Top-Down models of hierarchical organisation are being left in the wake of disruptive and agile businesses demanding high-level, effective leadership skills across organisations where individuals are required to collaborate in multi-disciplinary and culturally diverse teams. And these multi-disciplinary and culturally diverse teams, rather than fracturing expertise, are actually creating a sense of collaboration and mastery, as individuals have the chance to apply fundamental principles across disciplines. The winners will be those who successfully develop high level social and processing skills with technical skill capabilities (Deloitte). However, such skills often develop in line with one’s experiences – personal, in our everyday lives and professionally, in the workplace. All too often, this takes place after the formal education years.

If employers are increasingly indicating that they will be looking for these skills in graduates then the fundamental question remains – how can an education system, which has developed on the same three pillars of traditional business models, develop high level social and processing skills required for disruptive and agile economies? How do schools set about developing these future workforce skills when the education system itself is not designed to allow the ‘environment’ in which these skills develop and our educators themselves are locked in a system that continues to demand ‘conformity, compliance and competition’.

Developing an educational environment for higher order cognitive skill development?

To answer these questions, we have to understand what an environment in which these skills can develop would look like. For the learning brain, especially one being nurtured to grow as a leader, this environment must be psychologically safe.

Consider a high-performance athlete training for elite performance, first they must learn to respect their physiology, and understand how to work with it to get the most out of it. The brain is no different! Pushing the brain without an understanding of its physiology only results in poorer decision-making, reduced motivation, stress, burn-out or mental break-down.

Higher order cognitive skills demand more from the human brain. But you can’t just demand MORE from the brain without also creating the ‘right’ environment for it to perform at its best. And this requires the right amount of reward at the right time in the right dose. Part of the ‘right’ environment for the brain is a psychologically safe one in which students can thrive according to their own unique strengths, interests and skill sets. A dampener to a high-functioning brain performing at its best is stress that comes from externally-placed, arbitrary standards to perform and conform.

According to research by Dr. Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine, we have a brain that literally halts higher functioning thinking in times of stress. This impairment of the stress response can lead to major interruptions in the processes of abstract thinking, thought analysis, working memory, planning, decision making and regulating emotions.

Meanwhile, it’s these very processes that successful businesses require from the individuals that make up their team. The key to ‘effective’ teams, says Google’s Project Aristotle is an environment of ‘psychological safety’, the context within which ‘team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other’. And these run counter to stressful, pressurised situations where conformity is rewarded over thinking outside the box.

The failure in the existing model of education is in focusing on effects rather than the cause. In other words, we’re looking at the outcomes that might indicate ‘success’ without actually putting into place those factors that would cause or engender success to begin with.

The most obvious example of this is standardisation.

We aren’t creating psychologically-safe learning environments when students are forced to learn, be tested and compared according to a standardised curriculum and education models.

Like the term seems to indicate, students themselves don’t feel valued for their difference. How can they, when the entire program is geared towards ‘standardising’ an outcome? Or, when their mistakes are reported as ‘failures’? This is our failure to value individual preferences for fast and slow thinking (Daniel Kahneman), differing mindsets (Carol Dweck) or an understanding of the 5 social domains that influence threat and reward responses.

If standardisation already determines what the outcome should be, how can any student be encouraged, or championed for thinking ‘differently’ and finding new ways of doing things?

If we, as a society, and in business, value ‘innovation’ so much, how can we be encouraging conformity during such a formative point in a student’s life? Standardisation sets students apart in a thoroughly divisive way: In this system and methodology, there must be winners and losers. Those who are successful and those who are mediocre. If no two brains think alike, then why do we keep insisting that we rely on standardised measures to gauge a person’s thinking?

Ironically, standardisation, set up to help students transition into the workforce, is precisely what might be robbing them of their very important contributions.

Eagles can’t soar if you’re unwilling to open the cage you keep them in!

We start with educating the educators

While the education system trundles along, trying to make changes, there are more effective and organised solutions built to get to the very real heart of this dilemma in a more holistic, less piecemeal way. Programs like Neuroscience of Leadership are precisely the kind of initiatives that run parallel to more mainstream educational efforts and are supporting educators to understand the physiology of the brain and how to foster the required skills for students to thrive in work teams of the future.

It provides a ‘user’s handbook’ for the brain and is helping educators to understand how the brain works so there can be individual efforts to begin developing the essential environments where higher-order cognitive skills can thrive. Neuroscience of Leadership can help schools turn the tide, creating the environments necessary to influence these skills’ development in their students.

Through the Neuroscience of Leadership, educators can develop:

  • Cultures of psychological safety
  • Emotional Intelligence to improve self-awareness and self-regulation and support others’ emotions when a threat has been activated.
  • Social Intelligence to recognise non-conscious actions and behaviours that trigger threat responses, and brain-friendly practices to mitigate threat and positively influence behaviour and motivation; and
  • Attentional Intelligence to be able to deliberately and effortlessly improve focus and attention in increasingly distracted environments.

Neurocapability delivers Professional Development sessions to schools so educators can develop psychologically safe environments in which students thrive.

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One Response

  1. I want to see more about training you offered related to Neuroscience and: capabilities, leadership education for educators, organizational performance.

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