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Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE


A forum for staff, students, alumni and guests to write about and around CEID's five thematic areas of engagement.


Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #006 – Solaiman & Corbishley

By utnvmab, on 26 April 2021

Critical Thinking and Safe Spaces: A Dialogue  

by: Haya Solaiman and Rachael Corbishley

During the first session of the CEID Alternative Histories of Education and International Development Discussion Café, we shared some thoughts and reflections around ‘decolonising education.’ When it was suggested afterward that we write a blog to share some of these thoughts we had such mixed feelings.

On one hand, “I’m white, I grew up in the UK, only speak English, and am increasingly aware of my privilege. I’m not sure I felt comfortable writing about decolonising the curriculum as a white student. I am still not sure whether I feel comfortable about this” (Rachael).

On the other hand, “I come from Syria, a country in conflict, yet I consider myself ‘privileged’ as I can continue my education, and even pursue my studies abroad when many of my compatriots are enduring hardships back home and in the diaspora as refugees. However, when asked about decolonising education I also felt uncomfortable as the idea of censorship haunts me whenever I want to express my thoughts” (Haya).

Our contrasting backgrounds made our perspectives on decolonising education rather different. However, we both felt the need for space where we can share our critical thoughts freely and safely. Previously, our peers, Shola and Albina, talked about “creating a safe space”. They reflect that the safe space of the Discussion Café was enabled through “placing everyone at the same level … where everyone’s voices can be heard…” Here we decided to share some of our dialogue; some of our reflections, positionalities, and definitions of safe spaces in academic settings. The following text captures our conversation. We hope that these reflections will enable us to contribute to a wider discussion on safe spaces in academic settings and the hierarchies of knowledge production.

Reflecting on our own backgrounds and positions on safe spaces:

he Art of Conversation by René Magritte 1963

The Art of Conversation by René Magritte 1963

“I think that growing up in a Western Asian country in the 21st century I am still acquainted with a taboo trinity of religion, culture, and politics. This makes discussing many day-to-day topics unsafe or forbidden. Under this trinity, freedom of speech and expression is frowned upon, as expressing oneself against the norms could lead to being held liable for one’s action. This includes but is not limited to topics on gender, sexuality, political and religious opinions, and social strata. However, this issue contains contradictions as those who have power have their freedom of speech unhampered, whereas the voices of those who do not agree with the status quo are hindered. In this vein, the majority of Western Asian knowledge-producing institutions follow the same path of restraining academic freedom, that speaks voices against the mainstream.


Looking back at my 20 years in an education system restricted to rote memorisation, I realize how my schooling did not provide me with space for critical thinking. To cite an instance, to get good grades in ‘national standardised tests’ meant that I had to follow the ‘given guidelines’ by the education system without adding any outside the curriculum ideas or opinions. In this way, the education system restrains the learning process to be a top-down approach.  This approach conceptualises the student as a box filled with unquestionable facts given by their educators. In this way, educators follow a strict hierarchy in schools and universities based on the dominant social and political powers. This deprives students of their freedoms when it comes to critical discussions that speak against norms and power.


“Through my discussions with Haya, I’ve been reflecting on why such a safe space is important, and how it can be enabled and encouraged. It’s important to recognise and be aware that “safety” can mean different things to different people. Listening to Haya’s experiences is an important reminder that safety can mean social, psychological, emotional, but also physical. I’m well-aware of my own upbringing in which I was encouraged to question, critique but also of my country’s history in exporting education models of rote learning and memorisation to support the colonial project.” (Rachael)

“Speaking of history, the Western Asian region did not always follow this approach toward critical thinking. West Asia and North Africa were cradle of many civilisations that spread knowledge, science, and innovation to the world through al-Chemia (Chemistry), al-Jabr (Algebra), Indo-Arabic numerals, translations movements, and critical commentaries. For instance, the knowledge that was produced by many Muslim scholars through the middle ages, or what is known as the “Dark Ages” in Europe, is the same knowledge that contributed to the European renaissance. Rote learning and memorisation were not antithetical to critical thinking and problem-solving to make the education process broader and open to new ideas and innovations. These innovations and achievements would have not seen the light if there was never a space for inquiry in history. However, it could be argued that many factors such as coloniality, conformity, and patriarchy have played a role in exploiting the region and hindering critical thinking. (Haya)

If we are to speak frankly and openly about these lesser-acknowledged histories, then there will be moments of discomfort. Safe does not have to mean comfortable. As we discussed further, we realised that the feeling of discomfort that Haya and I share is positive – we need to have more uncomfortable conversations, particularly during our studies as post-graduate students. In this blog, we would like to share some of our thoughts, and we hope that we will contribute to the conversation.” (Rachael)

What can a safe space for students look like?

“Perhaps there could be a recognition that a safe space for critical thinking is not ceased in certain countries or certain academic/non-academic settings.   Before leaving my country, a safe space for critical discussions was with a circle of friends whom I shared with the same values of respecting differences. This circle gave me a safe environment of freedom and critical thinking as it helped me to build my own opinions without feeling censored. However, I still lacked the confidence to express my thoughts comfortably in public.

Moving abroad introduced me to new safe spaces as I was able to do away with the feeling of censorship that was produced by my society. For instance, being offered a safe space to think and learn at UCL has helped me to begin an unlearning process and to question the plausibility of many previously given facts to me. As we were writing this blog and reflecting on it throughout this term, I realized that I am feeling more confident in expressing my standpoints and not being afraid to object to mainstream thoughts. The more I discussed this issue with Rachael and throughout the modules the less stressed I felt about challenging the status quo.” (Haya)

Research in a range of contexts has demonstrated a link between feeling safe and learning outcomes, although the direction of that relationship is not necessarily always clear. A safe space for students means being empowered to explore new ideas, realise their limitations, and try something else. It means listening to our peers and feeling confident to ask questions, to be and to feel heard. Callan has written about “dignity safety” as “[to be] free of any reasonable anxiety that others will treat one as having an inferior social rank to theirs”. This does not mean never encountering opinions and experiences which differ from our own.

The pandemic has created additional challenges with ensuring safety in online learning. The practice of recording seminars enables greater flexibility for learners across time zones and limited connectivity, which in turn enables us to connect with peers from a wider range of backgrounds and contexts. As we are not all sat together in UCL, students are bringing their day-to-day experiences and challenges related to the practice of education and development to the course. At the same time – how do we know who is accessing, listening and hearing these discussions? Lecturers have reminded us that if we feel a topic is sensitive, the recording can be stopped so we can discuss our thoughts more freely.

I also think we need to talk more openly about the hierarchy in higher education institutions. Haya had the chance to work with Dr.Laila Kadiwal, Education and Muslim Communities module leader, to ‘co-produce’ the module – it would be fantastic if practices such as this could become more the norm and less the exception.” (Rachael)

While the two of us had different experiences and opinions on what makes us uncomfortable, we both agreed that tackling these issues widely with colleagues from various places and different backgrounds is a key component to a safe environment for critical thinking. How can UCL lead the way in teaching and learning to break down some of these barriers? It is the responsibility of both learners and educators. Through this discussion café and this blog series, we can start this uncomfortable journey. We need to feel comfortable in being uncomfortable.

Want to publish a blog post in this series? Send a submission or idea to:  Mai Abu Moghli or Laila Kadiwal

For everything else, please contact:  Charlotte Nussey 


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