Safe and Engaging Learning Environment
Royal Academy of Arts The Hague - Study Group 2022/23
what we do
who we are
The Study Group on Safe and Engaging Learning Environment is a group of 9 educators coming from different departments at KABK.
We are Aref, Ingrid, Winnie, Emi, Christoph, Leo, Leon, Michou, and Frederik.
Our sessions have been occasionally joined by Ranti & Fenna, Mirjam Pol Huug de Deugd, Seika Makoni, and Ola Lanko
Navigate this website as a digital notice board by scrolling up-down or right-left.
You can also find some check-in exercises that we tested during our sessions.
Some were introduced by participants of the group, others by the guests who visited our sessions.
Works best in a circle and when meeting each-other for the first time.
Ask participants to introduce themselves by saying their name and either the meaning of their name or the story of how they were given their name.
Check-in #1: Story of your name
You will find posters around the website, together with collages of material including readings, sound, video, and multimedia references that supported our study group.
Check-in #2: Circle drawing
Take an empty page.
Draw a circle
Put a line through the edge of the circle at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock
Put a line through the edge of the circle in between the existing four lines
Choose a word for each each line you have put through the edge of the circle
Make a dot in the centre of the circle
For each word, place a dot in between the edge of the circle (the word) and the centre of the circle depending on whether you feel close to the word or far.
Connect the dots you have just placed.
Check-in #3: Walking with eyes closed
Make sure you have a clear straight path from one side of the room to the other
Position yourself on one side of the room
Close your eyes
Start walking with your eyes closed
Stop when feels good
Repeat with every participant
As one walks, others observe
During the Study Group sessions, we experimented a technique of communication coming from group activism. With a preset series of gestures, non-speakers could communicate to speakers and to the group in a non-disruptive, non-aggressive way.
Check-in #4: Drawing check-in
Take 5-10 minutes to draw on your page your:
◾ Important Influences
◾ What matters most to you
Check-in #5: Exploring Relations to Listening
◾ Work through three questions with a partner
◾ First one speaks for 5 minutes, the other listens, then switch
◾ Repeat this for each question
The questions are:
❔ When did you feel listened to?
❔ How did you notice that you were listened to?
❔ How did this make you feel?
❔ When were you misunderstood or not listened to?
❔ How did you notice that you were misunderstood or not listened to?
❔ How did this make you feel?
Check-in #6: Music as Time-keeper
This can be useful for reflection moments, feedback writing or anything that can be done alone.
◾ Play a song
◾ The duration of the songs dictates how long participants take for their activity
◾ Multiple songs can be used
Check-in #7: Sensational check-in
◾ Play a song
◾ Ask participants to write in a flow about the sensations (taste, smell, touch etc) that the song evokes in them
◾ At the end of the song, ask participants to share if they feel comfortable.
Check-in #8: Collective reading and annotating
Check-in #9: Bring something ritualistic
Check-in #10: Object Circle
Check-in #11: Hearing you say this makes me feel...
Check-in #12: Invisible Gift Giving
◾ Print out a text on a3 papers and hang them on the walls of the room
◾ Ask participants to walk around to read the text
◾ After this, ask participants to highlight or annotate parts of the text that they resonate with
◾ Use the most highlighted areas as a starting point for a group discussion.
Create a rotation whereby each-participants brings a small gift to the meeting each time
Start off your gatherings by sharing this gift
◾ Works best in a circle
◾ Everyone chooses/brings an object
◾ Sit in silence
◾ Pass the object to the person next to you.
◾ Study the object through your hands, get familiar with its texture.
◾ Past the object to the person next to you and repeat
◾ Do this until your own object is returned to you
To be done in a pair:
◾ One person starts with “At this moment, I feel....”
◾ The other person reacts with “Hearing you say this makes me feel....”
◾ Back to the first person who also responds with “hearing you say this makes me feel....”
◾ repeat for a set period of time
Works best in a circle:
◾ Pass an invisible/pretend give to the person next to you
◾ The person who receives it decides the shape, size, weight of the invisible object and what it is
◾ The receiver shares with the group what they received (most of the time it is something they need right now and it doesn’t have to be a real object – can also be an idea)
◾ Do this until the circle is completed and everyone has received a gift.
Planning the Study Group
Planning the Study Group was brought about in the same fashion as the way we hold our sessions: collective decision-making.
It took us a session, around January, to wrap up the past semester and decide on what topics to focus further
As a non goal-oriented group, decisions around how to organize and publish the knowledge produced during our sessions were projected into this website.
We published it using Hotglue, an open-source tool for web publishing and internet Samizdat
Another tool we looked at was Common.Garden, ultimately discarded because it requires a log-in interface for visitors
As we tinkered with several tools to collect and organise knowledge, Michou presented a Padlet
◾ Das Arts - A Film About Feedback
◾ Ursula le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986)
◾ Rosalba Icaza and Rolando Vázquez, ‘Diversity or Decolonisation? Researching Diversity at the University of Amsterdam
◾ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom’(1994)
◾ Ruben Pater, ‚The designer as Educator’ from Caps lock: how capitalism took hold of graphic design, and how to escape from it (2021)
◾ Critical Pedagogy as antidote to Neoliberal Fascism. With professor Henri Giroux
◾ Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987)
Selection of Sparse References
And... you can hear podcast summaries of some of our group sessions! 🎧
Reading the Code of Conduct
Our study group convened around the time that the new code of conduct for the HdK was also released. So naturally, we started with reading this new code and discussing the implications it would have on teaching. Some of us cut out pieces of the new code we didn’t agree with it. Some saw themselves in the code and appreciated that it had become more nuanced and thoughtful than the previous document. However we also recognised that as a static document, it only helps us so much within a learning environment that is constantly dynamic and changing.
Sparsed around the posters you can find some reflection notes wrote by our facilitator Frederik Klanberg 📜
In October we started a Study Group at the KABK on the topic of Safe & Engaging Learning Environment. A lot was being done on this topic on the policy side of things but it was not easy to access in-depth knowledge that would speak to the pedagogic aspects of the topic. This was problematic because the site where we struggle with safety in education is first a pedagogic one, in the classroom. So any conversation about safety and engagement should also be centered around pedagogy. This was the basic intention of such a Study Group. To have those conversations and build the local vocabulary and knowledge needed to also hold that discourse within the broader institute. With this text I put down some of the outcomes of our study from my own perspective, as the facilitator of this Study Group. This is also to say that while the text is currently authored by me, the ideas expressed within it have come about thanks to a rich collective process.
We collected, too, some of the ways we organized our group. That is the way we speak, respond to each other, store notes, publish, etc.
Safe & Engaging
If we only prioritise safety, we should close the shop and go home. Risk is inherently part of education, so the question becomes how to see it, acknowledge it, work with it instead of against it. Traditions, rituals and pedagogies need to be developed to turn safety from something that looms over education as a factor which limits, regulates and prohibits to something that enables, facilitates and open possibility. Safety, not as opposed to engagement, but safety in fact as engagement. By doing so, we can avoid education becoming boring, sterile and clinical and instead facilitate an environment which is vibrant, vivid and visceral. This requires a new kind of care and support towards each other as well as a constant and conscious affection for our learning environment. Such an approach in fact demands this affection from everyone involved. Nobody can really get away with being a passive participant. In this vision, the learning environment is dependent upon being held by everyone together.
The I and the we
Feeling “inspired” by the code of conduct, we were pulled into a conversation about the I and the we. The code being written in the “we” form, we began to question when we ourselves are part of the ‘we’ and when our ‘I’ takes over. A balance between collective responsibility, but also individual rights and obligations. Furthermore, identifying as part of the ‘we’ seems to be a possibly dubious position, as this ‘we’ in the code of conduct is imposed by a hierarchical management structure the top of which doesn’t represent the whole ‘we’. This isn’t to say that we cannot all be included in the we because we are all simply humans, but then the implication of we somehow becomes so irrelevant that in fact is rendered into a simple linguistic trick and nothing more. A kind of container for everyone but also one which we know has pre-drilled holes for students, teacher, minorities, cleaning staff and so on. It is a ‘we’ that is performed on paper rather than practiced in the academy. And so the question becomes more about determining when my actions are for the we and when they are for myself. This approach is anyway more relevant when it comes to questions of safety, as safety seems to in large part be a dance between caring for the community and at the same time taking distance when necessary to ensure your own health, safety and responsibilities. The notion of the ‘we’ should in any case not be corrupted, or used as a way to manipulate labour to be in the name of the ‘we’ where as in reality it might be a labour in the name of a policy, executive or the institution. Although the notion of the institution itself is problematic, as the institution in its simplest form should be formed from the ‘we’, yet it very often appears to be a sum of a few ‘I’s’. Keeping a lookout, identifying and addressing this kind of inequality is important in our quest towards a safe & engaging learning environment.
Systems, structures and
responsibilities of care
When we speak about reorganising the study coaches, hiring an additional student counsellor or a school psychologist I often hear the argument that the academy should not become a health care institute. Our resources should be spent on education and not on care work. But what if we were to assume that care work is part of education, learning, teaching and pedagogy whether we like it or not? I make this claim because from my countless conversations with teachers, within the study group and outside of it, some of them near tears and some in simple despair, it quickly becomes obvious that teachers are engaged in care work, support work, counselling work, coaching work, therapy work. And to put it bluntly, most of them have no idea how to go about this work and are only motivated to do it by two things . First, the desperation of the students who seek help and second, their own love for the students they cannot bare to see suffer. I do not for a moment believe that I am the only one at the academy who has had such conversations with teachers and made these observations. So it begs the question, why do we do this to our teachers? How can we ask so much of them? Or sometimes not even ask, but silently expect it. I believe that a more moral approach is to structure the care work at the academy in a precise way. This likely involves coaching, the student counsellor, the school psychologist and yes to some extent also the teachers and the students. But for the latter two, their extent of being involved in care work should be discussed and teachers themselves should feel safe enough to check-out, take distance, care for themselves. And now comes the royal contradiction : all of this should be done while keeping our pedagogies intimate, personal, informal, human. Safety should not come at the cost of connection but rather because of it. So again, we need to develop vocabularies, methods, rituals and traditions that help us to speak about the connections we build between each-other, how they support but also how they might harm. Because any conversation about safety or care must also be a conversation about harm.
We speak a lot about safety, care but very rarely anymore about harm. What are the systems, patterns and behaviours at play that actually threaten the safety and wellbeing of our classrooms? And I mean very much in terms of the notions that are beyond the obvious acts of transgressive behaviour and discrimination. What are the more hidden but still relevant actors that perpetuate harm? And how do our experiences of possibly having been harmed previously, inside and outside of the academy, inform the way we constitute safety.
Safety as a destination
When we think of safety as a result we start from a site of struggle and try to move to a site of comfort. This in some sense is necessary, as the process involves building structures and safety nets that protect students and teachers from acts of harm, violence, discrimination and all that constitutes an unsafe environment. These safety-nets are important, we need them. But while we build these safety-nets we also need to stay critical about them. For whom are they safe and who might they not be able to save? As these safety nets are often constructed top-down, there is a possibility that they become effective instruments of risk-management for institutions but not that useful for preventing harm for all students and teachers. And even when effective, they don’t really address the problem where they actually materialise, in the classroom. Here, we speak of the classroom both in a literal and abstract sense. We can consider any space of study within the institution as a classroom. In these spaces, safety is very much still the responsibility of individuals involved. Here, the safety nets we build when we think of safety as a destination do not work, because the classroom is not a result of anything but rather a beginning for possibility. While Codes of Conduct, complaints procedures, ample counsellors and so on provide a vital infrastructure for care work, they do not take away the possibility of harm. Only individuals in the classroom can do that. And so while we should build robust safety-nets through thinking of safety as a goal in itself, we should put even more emphasis on the classroom, where we can think of safety as a beginning.
Safety as a beginning
When we think about safety as a beginning to everything else that education is about we can go deeper. Here, we speak about a kind of safety that is produced in parallel to the risk of harm. Such a production of safety, requires an opening for teachers and for students to build trust. Trust can make everything possible and as such is a pre-requisite for beginnings. When we think of safety as a beginning, risks, behaviours or methodologies that we might usually feel insecure about because of their potential to harm the safe environment, suddenly become pedagogic tools demanded and longed for. It should be stated that this part of the text isn’t about inventing ways to make acceptable any kind of transgressive, boundary-crossing behaviour. No, this is always off limits. It’s more about showing that teaching, learning and pedagogy is in its purest form, a type of intellectual and creative intimacy. And I believe that this intimacy can be a tremendous catalyst for learning as it moves past all of the structures, methodologies and standardised ways of operating that yes, can be useful tools but inevitably also limit and control the kind of discourse, discovery and research that is possible. When we think of safety as a beginning, we embrace the Bell hooksian idea of education as the practice of freedom.
Governance is the antithesis of safety. But within education, somehow also an inevitable part of it . Especially when it comes to art education which throughout it has a tradition of critique towards traditional systems, structures and ways of governance, a situation emerges that very often the pedagogic quest for safety is fundamentally at odds with the institutional governance process. One is about emancipation, discovery, liberation, the other about regulation, control, domination, punitive accountability and so on. At the end of it, it becomes a question of hierarchy. Curriculum developers know perfectly the story they want to tell through their education, teachers know what part of it they might want to tell and how and students know which stories they are interested in. Throughout this process, governance is only needed to provide these participants and makers of education resources to be able to deploy it. Such a relationship would assume a distribution of power that is different to what we can observe in educational institutes at the moment. If we really want participants of study to feel safe and engaged, they should also be facilitated to become engaged in producing that safety for themselves in collaboration with one another. In fact, it should almost be a prerequisite of study. We need to move away from the notion of an educational institute being a service provider, and the student a client with the rest of the stakeholders taking on the role of customer service. This kind of a relationship does not produce safety. It produces misery, entitlement and a kind of transactional relationship that forces the students and the institution to be on opposite sides while teachers become trapped in the cross-fire. We should instead move to a model where teachers and students together are the participants within education and management, care workers and so on provide help, facilitation and support from the periphery.
Rehearsal, not preparation
If we start to think about pedagogy from the perspective of both teachers and students being the participants within it, instead of the teachers being in the mode of an expert taking the responsibility to use their knowledge to prepare students for the current world order, we arrive at a mode of study that we can refer to as ‘rehearsal’. Through the knowledge and experience of the world of the teachers, students can be invited to critically interpret the current art world or design industry. Such an invitation would hopefully result in a collective examination of what should change and through that education can become an act of rehearsal for how future generations want to relate themselves to the world and which kind of impact they ultimately want to have on their world. Preparation reproduces the inequalities and corruption that exists in the world at this moment. Rehearsal changes the academy into a safe-zone of living otherwise where customs, beliefs and ethics are formed that allow graduates to practice those values in the ‘real world’ once they leave the academy. In such an approach, the question of safety and engagement transcends the boundaries of education and also becomes a strategy through which art education institutes perform these values within the broader society. In my view, this is not something that is optional but rather fundamental to really addressing the question of safety and engagement. Education should be in the name of something and to be honest I am not convinced that if we want it to be safe and engaged, that it can be in the name of individual excellence. Collective, even societal emancipation is important. Both because it’s for lack of a better phrase, the right thing to do, but also because only such a commitment truly grounds people in a common vision. And this collective grounding is what is needed to create a culture of care, support and affection for one another that makes it possible to consider safety as a beginning for education to become a practice of freedom.
Education as a commons
How might our vision of education change if we were to think of it as a commons, or a public good. Something that is for all. It’s a slightly hypocritical endeavour as the current financing structure of tuition fees and discrimination of non-EU students doesn’t allow for Dutch education to really be a commons. But I suppose here the argument is as much about the financial and structural mechanisms at play, as well as the mentalities. And it continues from the thought of the school having to move away from the mentality of being a service provider. When we think of the academy as a commons, then teachers take the role of service. A somewhat romantic and naive idea and exactly why I am attracted to it. It’s one with passion at its core and is an antithesis to dry, clinical, anonymous institutions. Service is deliberate, in the name of something bigger than the sum of its parts. If we, as educators, start to think of our work as a work of service within the commons, we move away from the mentality of being the artists and designers that also happen to teach but with the predominant identity remaining that of the professional, instead of educator. Is this not in fact integral when we tackle questions of safety and engagement within education? That we first think of ourselves as educators, and ground ourselves in some kind of an understanding, morality, principles or values for why we do this work in the first place. How can we possibly build something, improve anything if we don’t know what it is in service of? Educating is not a simple clock-in, clock-out profession. It’s a life’s work. Both for yourself but perhaps more importantly for the students for whom the encounters we organise become formative moments for the rest of their lives. And quickly they become graduates and slowly mould the world in which we all live. So knowing what is at stake, why do we teach? How do we serve? We serve by transforming the institution into a commons, first in mentality and perhaps next in structural incentives. Not to say that we ourselves can decide to operate outside of the laws that for example discriminate against non-EU students in their tuition fees, but as a commons we can advocate for that change.
Somewhere in the middle of our process with the study group, we came up with a set of 10 questions that we at the time thought cover many of the aspects that constitute safety within the learning environment. I will share these questions here. And while I don’t have answers, I would like to annotate their relevancy so you as a reader can answer them for yourself.
1. How to ask for consent?
Or perhaps, rather how to create a space in which consent can be asked? The thing about safety is that we’re not actually after safety, at least most of the time I don’t think that’s what we are really talking about when we use that word within the educational context. What we’re afraid of is that we do something that makes a group, or an individual feel unsafe without their consent. But when there is consent, and it’s informed, given sincerely, then in fact everything becomes possible again. This is key when thinking of safety as a beginning. Because any good beginning starts with consent. So how do you ask for consent? And how do you construct an environment in which consent can be given, or withhold? The danger here is that asking for consent becomes a manipulative tool, kind of like the terms & conditions contracts where we sign off our rights without any clue as to what we are actually agreeing to. Constructing such a space where consent can be given and withheld in a sincere way, thus becomes the ultimate pedagogic and moral challenge.
2. Is too much freedom careless?
We’ve spoken a lot about education as a practice of freedom. But perhaps to practice freedom, we also need some kind of structure or framework to do it in. These parameters are what might constitute safety within this practice of freedom. But is it then freedom anymore? Or is it freedom that we are after, even with all the dangers, risks and deep responsibilities that come along with freedom? Are there degrees to freedom? And if so, could too much freedom be careless? Can we handle it? What about the students? There is something romantic about education being about a practice of freedom. Or a rehearsal of freedom. But then at the same time there is a strong sense what because the world is so upfront and intimidating already, education should be a safe space to be yourself and to take risks, experiment. This is also some kind of a freedom of course. Yet, it’s somehow confined. So how much should it be confined? By whom? When?
3. Is a safe space productive?
What are the priorities of our education? Safety is certainly not the only one. It’s also about producing something. Art, knowledge, connections. All such production inherently comes with the risk of harm. So how do we balance that? How do we create spaces that are safe but not sterile and void of possibility, potential? I find that there is a kind of paralysis at the moment to even acknowledge that yes, education should be safe, but it’s a prerequisite and not what education is actually about. As educators, we should resist this paralysis as it is a disservice to our profession. We shouldn’t resist the noble quest for safety, but if we say that education is about discovery, renewal, production and all those things that we hold dear but do not yet currently exist in the world, how can it possibly also have to always be safe? To say that something is safe, is to say that this something feels like something else we have experienced before that did not cause us harm. Yet education is also about dwelling in the unknown, so it becomes impossible to make guarantees.
4. What does care sound like?
We all have a capacity for care and we use it every day. But how do we identify it? What does it sound like, smell like, feel like, look like? How do we know when we are being cared for so we are also able to receive care. And how do we know in which ways we ourselves know or like to care in? It’s important to undergo a kind of individual analysis of these questions as it helps to make the currently ‘hot’ topic of care tangible. Is it about time-keeping? Is it about ways of facilitation? A personal chat over coffee? Specific type of feedback? A willingness to stay open with our curricula? Care takes on so many forms that the acts of care that are possible are almost limitless. And care means different behaviour for different people. And what might be care for some might come of as condescending to others. So while difficult, I encourage you to dwell in these complexities and to do so without any pressure to find concrete answers. There are too many possibilities to ever know which is ‘right’. It’s simply about developing a certain sense for this.
5. How can we see power?
6. How do we produce desire?
7. Why do we teach?
8. Why might control be harmful?
9. When am I in the we and when is the we not I?
10. What do you need from the institution to trust it?
Most learning, whether theoretical or in practice, is in the end articulated or reflected upon on an intellectual level. But what does learning do to our bodies? Embodied practices of many forms are becoming more and more prominent within arts education. They teach us about ourselves and our relations to others in a different kind of way, in a way that is more about feeling than thinking. As a result, it opens up possibilities for learning otherwise. And within the lens of social safety, embodied or somatic practices can teach us a lot about boundaries, consent and the role of connection and intimacy within a new radical pedagogy. However, endeavouring in this space is not a matter of doing it or not. It’s a way of holding space that we as educators need to become comfortable with and learn about ourselves first, before we can experiment with these strategies with our students.
As much of our education is discursive , listening becomes a mode of study in itself. This means that on an individual level, we should become more aware of what are our needs to truly be able to listen. This can be practical considerations such as what kind of space we need, how big of a group size may become overwhelming (and are there ways to mitigate this) or what time of day certain conversations take place. The more conceptual considerations are also important. What are the types of conversations where we find ourselves tuning out (and do we want this), do we feel the urge to counter or win when in a conversation, or do we actually find interest in what the person says. Do we immediately assume that when a person is stating something, it is the full truth and beliefs of that person without any room for learning, or do we assume that if we gently ask questions elaborations may occur that offer much needed nuance.
In a collective setting too, listening is not something that should only be assumed. We should make collective agreements with our students about what they need to be able to listen in a way that is most natural to them. For example in a group discussion, can people be interrupted mid sentence, do we use hand signals to allow for a more transparent method of moderation or does the teacher carefully decide who speaks and when. Etiquettes around listening should be built into any group context. And they should be designed not as rules to follow, but more as customs for everyone to create and then accept for the benefit of the group process as a whole.
Complexities of the profession
We expect teachers to excel in the knowledge of their field, then we expect an ability of you to be able to share that knowledge, and to facilitate groups, organise lessons, field-trips, collaborative assignments and so on. We have the expectation that teachers should remain professional as to avoid inappropriate behaviour, but close and intimate enough that the classroom is not too hierarchical. We expect teachers to be attentive to the group as a whole, while at the same time ensuring that individual needs of each participant are met also. We expect teachers to be able to give feedback, support and encouragement while also having to stay firm, objective and able to assess within a binary. We want teachers to be interested in their students and their practices, without showing any signs of favouritism or relating to one more than others. We want our teachers to learn specific didactic methodologies, while always staying ready to improvise and be fluid. We want them to continue learning and growing within their professional fields, while also expecting them to become professional educators. We expect teachers to create a space that is safe but at the same time stimulating and interesting for everyone. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. We expect our teachers to be miracles walking on earth. And no, they are never allowed to make excuses because after all, it is a privilege to be able to teach.
Seeking, receiving and giving validation is also all part of learning. Within the Study Group, we have specifically focused on the graduation awards as a form of validation. We’ve spoken about both sides of the argument, and perhaps in the end are more inclined to go for the more traditional option of giving awards. At the same time, there is something toxic about the idea of awards. The competition it creates between students in the final months before their graduation and the implications this may have on their group dynamics. Not to say that this has to be the case always, but it does happen. At the same time however, when we only allow external organisation to award or validate the works of particular students, we give power of what is considered currently “good” to others. Yes, they are our partners within the cultural field, but they are outside of the academy and more intertwined with the market and political forces at play then perhaps we would have to be internally. Should it also not be to the academy to dictate where art and design fields are going in the next years and decades. Awarding our students is one way to do this. Although it should also be admitted that this is not a decision you take when you prioritise safety. The aforementioned risks do not disappear just because other considerations may outweigh them.
The subject of safety and engagement within the learning environment is almost one that will never really be concluded. From the discussions and work of this study group would however make a few attempts. Safety is not about eliminating the possibility for harm. It is about being aware of that potential and controlling it, recognising it, being honest about it and putting it on the table for collective dissemination. Safety is also about thinking of our space as first and foremost a learning space. Thus we also need to think of ourselves here as educators and learners, although we might at first be inclined to label ourselves with a different tag that feels more familiar. We can only be safe when we take the time to address harm, our fears, our needs. Safety is not a condition to aim at, but rather one to start from. Such a start can only be organised collectively, and thus we need to recognise that everyone is a participant within the learning process, students as much as teachers and the other way around.