2016 2017

IDEA #1: Safe Spaces for Difficult Dialogue

Community plays a crucial role in carrying students through the struggle of learning to think critically by helping them “survive impostership, reduce the risk of committing cultural suicide, [and] deal with lost innocence.”1

Learning Intention

Critical thinking is a social learning process; as Brookfield says, “To some extent, we are all prisoners trapped within [our own] perceptual frameworks,” and we need feedback from others to escape that prison.4 However, sharing your ideas and fielding critical questions from peers, while useful, can be uncomfortable.5 In order for students to take cognitive risks and be open to new ideas, the classroom climate must feel supportive to students.


Discomfort is a natural and necessary part of the process of engaging in critical thinking. The challenge for instructors in encouraging critical thinking is providing a balance between comfort and conflict. Boostrom says, “If critical thinking, imagination, and individuality are to flourish in classrooms, teachers need to manage conflict, not prohibit it.”1 Safe spaces, then, are about supporting students through the difficult and uncomfortable process of challenging thinking.2


  • Create community: Provide opportunities for students to get to know their peers and encourage them to support one another. Consider establishing base groups, smaller groups within the larger class that can provide more refuge and reduce social risk for students.3,4

  • Structure activities carefully: While you can’t plan for every possibility that might arise during a simulation or discussion, be intentional about planning as clearly as possible. Consider how you will introduce the activity, plan questions to pose, and remember to provide closure for students at the end.

  • Establish clear guidelines: Make sure the ground rules are clearly stated and understood. Guidelines should include suggestions for listening carefully, responding respectfully, and sharing your perspective appropriately.4

  • Model visible humility: Critical thinking requires acknowledgement of what you don’t know rather than assuming or projecting that you know it all. Convey your own learning process, and communicate humility through your words, facial expression and posture.5

  • Build trust: Help students feel safe to ask for help or make mistakes by listening carefully and being responsive to students’ concerns and feedback. Make expectations clear so students feel a sense of order. Also, use class time effectively, and follow-through on commitments.3

  • Control the focus: Keep students’ attention centered on ideas, not individuals. Questions should aim to challenge assumptions, not character.4

  • Cultivate Confidence: Build students’ sense of self-efficacy by highlighting successes and communicating that you believe they will succeed. Frame feedback as opportunities to improve rather than emphasizing failures.<3


  • 1. Boostrom. R.B. (1998). “Safe spaces”: Reflections on an educational metaphor. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 30(4), 397-408.
  • 2. Gayle, B.M., Cortez, D., & Preiss, R.W. (2013). Safe spaces, difficult dialogues, and critical thinking. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(2). Available at
  • 3. Abdool, A.D. & Drinkwater, M. (2005). Guidelines to create a positive classroom climate for religion education: An empathetic approach. Scriptura 89, pp. 363-371. Available at
  • 4. Brookfield, S.D. (2012). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • 5. Browne, M.N. & Keeley, S.M. (2015). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking (11th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson.



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