It is not uncommon for adults to harbor negative perceptions about their ability to learn and their capabilities for learning are often underestimated and underused. Older adults are especially prone to this source of anxiety and for these adults any type of in-depth learning venture is a move into foreign and unknown territory.47 For adults, emotional or psychological safety in the learning environment is one of the salient principles for effective learning. Jane Vella argues that adults are ready and willing to learn only when they sense the learning environment provides for them a sense of emotional safety.48

Renowned adult education expert Malcolm Knowles insists that adult learners actively seek psychological security, a protection against threat to their self-respect and self-image. It is this need that causes them to be cautious and reserved in a setting that is unfamiliar to them. He goes on to suggest, “When the need for security is not satisfied or is violated, various behavioral symptoms are likely to result. In certain situations some adult learners will respond to feelings of insecurity by pulling into their shell—withdrawing from participation, playing it safe until they get their bearings. Others respond to the same feelings in exactly the opposite way: they seek to protect themselves by taking over, controlling, dominating.”49 Individuals who do not feel secure in a small-group learning setting will either refrain from participating or will experience such anxiety and reduced self-esteem that learning and performance will be severely hampered.50

There are ways, however, to alleviate fear of the learning experience and to nurture an environment that offers a sense of psychological and emotional security. Vella proposes that a sense of safety can be achieved when the following characteristics are made present in a small-group learning experience:51

  1. when group members trust in the group leader or facilitator;
  2. when group members trust in the feasibility and relevance of the objectives of the small group;
  3. when group facilitators allow group members to voice their own expectations, hopes, and fears about the small-group learning experience;
  4. when participants trust the sequence of activities (i.e. facilitators begin with simple, less-threatening activities before moving to more advanced, difficult, or complex learning activities);
  5. when there is a realization by participants that the environment is non-judgmental.

Small groups should provide a safe environment where learners can feel free to ask questions, raise doubts, and explore possibilities without fear of ridicule, embarrassment, or competitiveness. Large-group formats are not designed for such interaction, and most people are uncomfortable in raising questions or expressing doubts in front of too many people. But in a small circle of amiable peers where a sense of confidentiality, understanding, and support has been established, individuals will often feel freer to open up. Jesus modeled this type of small-group interaction with his disciples, as they were encouraged and offered the freedom to ask tough questions of Him and dialogue over issues that perplexed them.52



Harley T. Atkinson, The Power of Small Groups in Christian Formation (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2018).