One of reDiscover’s favored phrases is “A Culture of Safety.” It’s the name of our core professional development workshop and top of mind for our facilitators in all of our programs. Culture is subtle, social, diverse, and vastly important. As the business aphorism goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A teacher with a great strategy for introducing tool safety, complete with a presentation, activities, assessments, and snappy patter will crash and burn if the class doesn’t have a culture of engagement, growth mindset, and situational awareness.
Because we give children sharp and dangerous tools, we work hard to establish and maintain a culture of safety among newcomers to reDiscover’s programs. We start with environmental cues to guide tinkerers into our desired ways of thought, building on the Reggio Emilia approach of treating the environment as the third teacher. We separate the tinkering space from the broader world in tinkerers’ minds by gathering the group outside of the space, establishing the authority of the facilitator, warning of safety dangers, matching emotional pitch, and only then entering the tinkering space. Inside the space, which could be a distinct room or just a designated section of a larger area, newcomers are naturally wary and unsure of how to act. These first moments are critical to establishing the social norms for the space, and the culture that will take hold among the group’s varied individuals.
We think of ourselves as culture leaders, facilitators of a newly established group and not separate from it. In the first moments in a tinkering space, we model the precursors of safe tool use, from quiet and deliberate motions to considering the positioning of every person in the room to pausing and thinking before taking an action or speaking a response. This kind of awareness flows out from a mindful facilitator to the vast majority of children that we work with, and those who do not pick up on the cultural cues are quickly targeted for more focused attention in accepting the norms from a lead or assistant facilitator.
To solidify the importance of safety, we introduce the Rules of Tinkering, starting with four basic rules around bodily safety, respect, cooperation, and growth mindset. These rules are left prominently displayed throughout the session. Through discussion of the rules, we introduce our expectations for all tinkerers’ behavior through conversation, modeling the kinds of conversations we want tinkerers to have with one another.
We progressively introduce tools and allowed techniques, starting from something relatively benign like retrieving a piece of scrap wood from a bucket or clamping onto a workbench and heading towards the operation of a band saw or chop saw. Each tool or technique is introduced by discussion of proper positioning and use, hazards to avoid, and limits of the tool, interspersed with demonstration. As much as possible, these details are drawn out socratically, asking tinkerers to generate the tool use procedures, and in the process engaging as many minds as possible. This engagement practices generating and applying safety principles, rather than memorizing safety procedures. If focus seems to be waning, we reinvigorate the discussion by telling evocative stories of past and potential injuries, using phrases like “blood bubble,” or breaking from discussion to activity. This keeps the energy levels in the right balance of engaged but not wild while modeling how tinkerers can maintain their full attention to the work at hand by shifting among different modes of engagement, including observation, design, tinkering/experimentation, construction, and assisting others.
When, inevitably, some tinkerer misses some safety detail: fails to keep their goggles on, puts their hands too close to a spinning drill bit, points the tail of a quick release clamp up in the air, etc., we don’t correct the unsafe action as much as pause the tinkerer and ask for a safety self-evaluation. If they don’t correct on their own, usually a fellow tinkerer will point out what to change, and the facilitator can move on without providing external instruction to correct the safety lapse. We reward safety tool use and peer support with verbal reinforcements, one-on-one and as shout outs at the group meetings that precede any break. The role of the facilitator is to stay constantly aware of the tenor of the room, checking for areas with inattentive tinkerers, make activity suggestions to match individuals’ energy levels and current activities, and model a safety mindset. To be a culture leader in a room of tinkerers and facilitators working together.
Through this, we’re establishing a culture of safety, reinforced by environmental cues, spread peer-to-peer as well as teacher-to-student, internalized as principles, and enforced by constant observation of the tinkering space.