Making spaces safe
Nov 28, 2021

One of my first jobs was teaching computer skills to adults at night school.

Imagine what it was like for someone older in the 90s, who knew they had to “learn computers” to keep jobs they had for years. Then, having to to go to night school, and be taught by some teenager!

I started new classes by showing caring and support, but there was a weird problem: how could someone so young have the authority of a teacher? People would be taken aback when they saw someone so young setting up the classroom.

One of their big fears was breaking these expensive computers, so I’d start classes by letting them know they wouldn’t be able to break them. I tried to use my youth as reason they’d feel protected and safe. I’m there to help. I can easily fix them. Don’t worry.

But somehow this wasn’t enough.

They’d still hesitate to right click, or panic when something new happened on the screen.

So I tried something different. On the first day of class, I arrived early, and sat in one of the student seats. As people came in, I said hi like I normally did, and asked questions to get to know them. As more people showed up, we all got to chatting.

Then I looked at the clock, and realized we were supposed to start 10 minutes, ago!

“Oh, we better get started!” I said, and walked to the front of the classroom.

Nobody had realised I was the teacher, and some of them blurted out laughing!

This time, when I went into the whole spiel about not worrying you’ll break something, it was different. This time, I was one of them. All because I hadn’t made our first impression about the student meeting the teacher.

What I’d missed was that they weren’t just afraid of doing something stupid and breaking a computer. They were afraid of doing something stupid in front of others, or in front of a kid who was way too young to hold any kind of teacher-student authority over them.

The students were way more willing to just try stuff to see what happened. They were more willing to ask stupid questions. And they’d even laugh and call attention to their mistakes. It was such a fun, supportive place.

Safety comes from care

If you’re someone who thinks of education as a kind of information downloader, then you’ll see your authority as valuable. You can tell the students what to do.

But this also works against us because it makes students feel like they have something to prove, even if it’s just proving they followed our instructions correctly.

Creating a safe space helps people learn because that’s where people don’t hesitate to try, and don’t worry about failing. There’s way more momentum, because they’re actually doing what they learn faster, and also supporting each other when someone doesn’t get it on the first try.

I had always tried to create that kind of safe space by showing care and getting to know students personally, but the student/teacher authority was getting the way.

Teaching Roma kids

When I was teaching Roma teenagers how to code, we were advised we’d need to maintain some authority as teachers, otherwise they’d become unruly.

But this was at odds with hacker culture, where people just code stuff, try things, and help each other when we’re stuck.

I didn’t realise at first what these kids had to go through to be there. Every week, to come to the computer lab, they’d have to pass quickly through white neighbourhoods, heads down to avoid racial slurs or rocks being thrown at them. Their grandparents told them not to trust us, their friends called them nerds.

Imagine all that anxiety before they’ve even started, and that’s on top of how a typical 15-year-old wants to prove themselves.

When I taught, I had a translator, but they loved it when I echoed back the translation, aping some Bulgarian words. It became a kind of deal that I taught them coding, they taught me Bulgarian.

We got stuck on one word: bug. Translating it to “error” or “mistake” sent the wrong message. You can’t really call it a mistake, since bugs are part of the process. Everyone writes bugs and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. You can’t call it an error because that’s a more specific scenario in programming.

So we went into this comical conversation about bugs, insects in computers, and when pop stars choose bad outfits. (All bugs!)

Nothing is more frustrating for a programmer than not being able to see a bug that you know right in front of you. You break your flow, and now have to spend 20 minutes of trial-and-error and checking code letter-by-letter.

After our bug conversation, whenever someone got stuck, they’d yell out “bug!” The rest of us would gather around, look at the screen, and find the bug. We turned the annoying necessity of debugging into a fun, cooperative game.

The frustration from debugging is flipped when you have another set of eyes on the problem. The problem is spotted in less than a minute. Less stress, better knowledge retention, more momentum, more confidence. On the whole, way more effective learning.

This environment only happens when the learners feel like we’re all in it together.

Do you your students feel like you represent them?

Let’s look at a professional context, like commercialising scientific inventions, or helping programmers figure out crypto. How do you deliver an education program in subjects where there are no best practices, and nobody has good lectures or content? Here be dragons! Nobody is sure what really works!

We can find people who have been-there-done-that, but they’re not educators.

In peer learning, we drop the student/teacher distinction, and instead look at learners, domain experts and facilitators.

It’s the facilitators’ job to steward the learners, to know what they want to learn and why, and to create spaces where they can learn those things. Sometimes it’s from each other, other times we pull someone in with useful experience to share.

New facilitators see their role as simply asking the learners what they want to know, then getting that knowledge out of the domain experts. And they end up having a hard time.

What’s missing from that equation is caring.

When a learner walks in for the first time, we look them in the eye, smile at them, get to know them. We show empathy, and let them know we see them, we get them. Every experienced school teacher does this too.

The ones who succeed are the ones who make sure the caring environment comes first. The mechanics and roles of education don’t challenge that.

Let’s look at an event with a guest speaker, say a dinner talk, or an online AMA (Ask Me Anything). Do the learners’ feel at ease, to ask their questions? After they ask the questions, do they feel enabled? Are they worried about how they’ll appear to others, or to the guest speaker?

When a facilitator puts caring first, they’ll also show that caring to the guest speaker. They won’t put them on a pedestal, but instead welcome them to a safe space where they can be themselves. The guest feels they can be vulnerable and not prove themselves as an all-knowing expert. The facilitator will already know the “stupid questions” their learners’ won’t feel comfortable asking themselves, and how they’ll want to apply what they learn. It’s the facilitator that will ask those questions first, to set the tone.

You’ve diffused the authority of the guest speaker, to make them feel safe to open up. You’ve stuck your neck out first, to ask a simple question on behalf of the learner. You show that you also have worries and things to learn. Why? Because you care about these people as people, not as targets of teaching.

That’s how you create an environment where the learners feel you truly represent them. When they trust you have their backs, they aren’t afraid to go where you lead.

That’s a safe space.

What's new?

Ramping up for my Gitcoin Kernel Fellowship, working on new blockchain primitives for workgroup coordination.

Writing DAOistry which summarizes ideas from blockchain visionaries into practical chunks.

Helping BanklessDAO and Polygon with some peer learning stuff

For fun, made Nonfungo - completely on-chain NFT sale notification bot for Discord. (Look ma! No Opensea API!)

More about me.

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