Safety in the Classroom – Is Breaching It Ever Justified?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Dead Poets Society. If you’ve not yet seen this movie, rush right out to get it! Robin Williams plays John Keating, a teacher of poetry at an all boys prep school, and it’s the classic theme of how an “alternative” teacher who’s more than a talking head gets in trouble with the powers-that-be, despite the fact that his boys are learning for the first time in their lives.

It’s inspiring, and lovely, and sad, and hopeful. When thinking of it today, though, I realized that one of my favorite scenes depicts a very “unsafe” practice in the classroom. John Keating singles out one boy, Todd Anderson – he puts him on the spot in embarrassing ways and ultimately leads the boy to discover the poet within by pushing him to find his own “barbaric yawp” (Walt Whitman). Take a look at the video of the scene, The Barbaric Yawp:

It got me thinking, though, about the Dialogue Education principle of “safety”, which Jane Vella defines this way: “People need both challenge and safety. When the learning environment does not appear safe to adult learners, they will disappear, or resist the program dramatically to protect themselves.”

Is there ever a time where safety stifles learning, where breaching the safe environment is justified by the end results? Do things like what happened with Todd happen in real life learning, or only in Hollywood learning?


Thanks to author Joan Dempsey for this post!

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