Conformity or Respect?

I recently had a conversation with some teachers about rules in the classroom. I started by asking them what rules they would establish in their classrooms, and I gave them some time in groups to write up their lists before comparing and discussing and narrowing them down to a single list that all groups agreed upon.

Aside: I like this process, and I use it frequently when I want students or teachers to get to grips with a complex or multi-faceted subject. It’s essentially a pyramid discussion, for those of you that are interested in trying it out in your classrooms or workshops.

Anyway, after the discussion was done, we had a list of ten rules that the teachers all agreed on, with half a dozen or so having been cast aside through the negotiations. There was a lot of overlap right from the start, though, and when we came together with the final list, there were not many surprises. Almost every time I do this, the list is pretty much the same. They are mostly rules that we’ll all be familiar with from our own time in school, including the following regulars:

  • No talking
  • No phones
  • Don’t dress inappropriately
  • Raise your hand to speak
  • No food and drink
  • Latecomers may not enter the class

Usually, the conclusion I try to reach here is for teachers to have the students make the rules themselves, rather than rules being handed down by the teacher–authority. However, on this occasion, I tried something a little different, reflecting some of my thoughts on the matter.

I led a conversation designed to assess and evaluate intentions in rule-making. I asked what the point of these rules was, the purpose. In short, the answer came down to maintaining control in the classroom to ensure that the teacher can successfully deliver the lesson.

However, that conclusion wasn’t reached immediately. The initial suggestion was that these rules were in place to teach discipline. From there, we assessed some of the individual rules to see how well they stood up to that assumption.

Take, “raise your hand to speak”, for example. The teachers said that this was intended to teach politeness, and I can see that. But if you think about it, is there any other scenario where we are expected to raise our hands to speak when selected by a single authority? Not really outside of classrooms. Except perhaps a press junket? In truth, turn-taking in conversations is a much more democratic and self-aware process. If the rule is to encourage students to take their turn in conversation, then I don’t believe that having them raise hands and wait to be told when they can talk is actually the way to do that.

I should say at this point that it might be a useful way to introduce the concept amongst early years students. However, for this rule to still be in place in high-school classrooms seems to me to be proof precisely that it is not working!

And what about “no phones”? The teachers explained to me that if students had their phones with them, it might lead to them using them in ways that distracted the teacher and other students. This of course is true, and so keeping phones out of the classroom is a sure-fire way to prevent this from happening. However, is it actually teaching the students anything? I suggest it is not at all.

I know how tempting the smart phone is in the current digital environment. As such, every minute that a student sits in my class with a smart phone in reach and does not take it out to check their messages or scroll through Instagram, I recognise that they are making the choice to pay attention. I can appreciate them for their attention, and I can also make some deductions about engagement levels in the classroom. If a student starts playing on their phone, on the one hand, I can remind them to pay attention, and on the other hand I can recognise that perhaps something about my lesson has lost their attention.

If all of the students’ phones are switched off an locked in a box behind the teacher’s desk, then the students do not have the opportunity to make that choice at all, and as such, their attention is not an indicator of their engagement or their respect for me. So once again, while keeping the phones out of the classroom achieves the goal of maintaining attention, it does not achieve the goal of teaching students how to direct their attention consciously and intentionally.

So then we took a step back from the individual rules and thought for a while about what the real goal should be when writing rules, and what criteria we might use to distinguish between a good rule and a bad one. Interestingly, this analysis developed through several tiers, with students identifying an apparent purpose for each rule before breaking down the core objective underlying the rule. In short, we found that most rules broke down to one of three goals: maintaining control, developing respect and maximising learning.

At the very end of the line, a choice had to be made between these for each rule, and some naturally collapsed into one or another. For example, rules about attire almost unavoidably collapsed into an intention to control the students, as we all found it next to impossible to identify a genuine connection between clothing and respect or learning.

On the other hand, when we looked at raising hands to speak, we found a choice had to be made. Either we wanted to maintain control by having students raise their hands so that the teacher could decide when each student spoke, or we cared more about teaching the students to be respectful. In the end, we decided that if we truly cared about the latter, then the raising hands rule was actually not so effective. Instead, something much closer to the actual intention was preferred. For example, “listen when others are speaking” or “do not interrupt when others are speaking”.

The same for phones: “Only use phones for learning purposes” or “Don’t use your phone in a way that could distract others” allowed the rule to focus on learning or respect instead of control.

Through this process, we decided that “no food or drink” didn’t have much place as it stood, but a variation might be valuable. We decided that drink didn’t cause much trouble, but that some foods might be noisy or even smelly, which could distract others. It was at this point that the teachers suggested that perhaps the individual iterations of precise rules weren’t actually needed at all… They were all basically saying the same thing anyway. In short, it was agreed that, “Respect others, your environment and yourself” said almost everything that we wanted the rules to cover.

At first, there was some concern that this was not specific enough, but in the end we decided that the conversations that could come from that lack of specificity were more valuable than specific rules could be. For example, if a rule said “no food or drink” and a student had some food in the classroom, the teacher’s only response is to point at the rule and reprimand the student. There’s no thought process or genuine development there. But if the rule says, “respect others, your environment and yourself” and a student is eating in the classroom, we can ask them a genuine question: “Do you think you’re being respectful right now?”, which would open up a dialogue and encourage them to think meaningfully about their actions and their responsibility.

Having all agreed that this positive construction provided much more value in the classroom than the usual rules, we looked a little closer and realised that the usual rules were generally formulated as restrictions on behaviour, whereas this new positive construction could be seen as an suggestion of behaviour instead. So I asked if they could think of any other positive suggestions of behaviour that might help propagate a positive learning environment, and they came up with the following:

  • Ask questions and participate actively (consider this in contrast with “No speaking”)
  • Help others when you can (as opposed to “focus on your own work” or “no copying”)
  • Speak English as much as possible (for the EFL classroom, contrasted with the usual, “No L1”)

and finally:

  • Be awesome!

That last one flies in the face of the usual guidance for rule-making, which suggests rules must be specific and unambiguous. But I actually found it very inspiring. And while we cannot perhaps write a list of what it means to “be awesome”, I think we /can/ ask a student the question, “are you being awesome right now?”

The final discussion we had was to establish some criteria that would allow for developing further “rules” as positively and effectively as possible, and we settled on the following:

  • Rules should promote respect and effective learning.
  • Rules should focus on encouraging desirable behaviour rather than restricting undesirable behaviour.
  • Rules should allow room for autonomy and choice so that students are responsible for their behaviour.
  • Rules should apply to both students and teachers fairly.

Let’s close by taking a look at three iterations of the same rule to see how the teachers developed it to meet these criteria so that you have a blueprint for doing the same with your own classroom rules.:

Iteration 1: No L1
  • we decided that it is not respectful to forbid students from using their mother tongue, the language that comes most naturally to them and that they identify with on a fundamental level.
  • We also decided it did not promote learning, since it is likely that if a student did not know how to express themselves in the L2, then they might be forced to simply stay quiet under this rule.
  • It obviously is about restricting behaviour rather than encouraging behaviour.
  • There is no room for autonomy here at all; it is a blanket prohibition.
Iteration 2: Always speak L2.
  • It’s an improvement. The positive construction seems less totalitarian.
  • It encourages rather than restricts behaviour.
  • However, there is still no autonomy.
  • Also, it might be reasonable in an advanced classroom, but would not be fair in an elementary classroom, so would again enforce a lot of silence from less capable students.
Iteration 3: Speak L2 as much as you can.

• Respectful to the students’ own culture.
• Promotes effective learning as maximum practice is always beneficial.
• Clearly an encouragement of desirable behaviour.
• “as much as you can” places the onus on the student to know their own capability, so there is inherent autonomy
• “as much as you can” also makes concessions for the student’s level of ability

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