Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Playground Rules

Thanks to a great and timely post from Richard Byrne, I ran across this video by Derek Sivers:

Don't punish everyone for one person's mistake from Derek Sivers on Vimeo.

This video helped me to frame my thoughts about how we make rules and set expectations for our learning environments. Are we proactive or reactive? Are we creating expectations for good behavior or for tolerable compliance? Are we working with our students, colleagues, and employees, or are we trying to control them?

Too much of the current educational climate is designed to regulate, standardize, limit and define what and how we learn and how we do our work. From educational legislation down to classroom rules, we seem committed to punishing the many for the sins of the few. Furthermore, the push to standardize learning and teaching through common assessments and curriculum mapping place our focus on preventing failure through efficiency instead of achieving greatness through excellence. We've lowered our expectations of our students, our teachers, our schools and our profession through threats and micro-mangement, rather than raising them through a focus on personal responsibility and passion.

I was fortunate to attend Wabash College for my undergraduate experience. While all of my friends who went to other universities received a thick "rule book" at Freshman orientation, I was introduced to the Gentleman's Rule, which was the only rule that governed the behavior of Wabash students. The rule read:

A Wabash student will conduct himself in a manner befitting a Gentleman at all times and in all places, both on and off campus.

The beauty of this approach to campus discipline was that it placed ownership of my behavior on me. I had to think about what it meant to be a Gentleman. I had to measure my choices against a standard that I owned collaboratively with my classmates, my professors and the administration.

It also meant that when gray areas of behavior came up, I tended to err on the side of caution. I didn't just ask whether I thought my behavior was gentlemanly; I asked myself whether others would perceive my behavior as gentlemanly. Could I reasonably defend my choices to my peers, teachers and school leaders?

When I began teaching, I quickly realized why trying to list every possible rule to control student behavior was a losing game. Creating long lists of classroom rules places the responsibility of the behavior on the enforcer of the rules. Imposed rules create an adversarial relationship in which the students become incentivized to seek out loopholes to the rules. Plus, every written rule must be enforced, which traps the teacher into awkward judgement calls and fairness battles.

As a result, I soon changed my syllabus to reflect a single classroom expectation that put the same pressure on my students as I felt at Wabash College. It read:

All of Mr. Wilhelmus' students will conduct themselves in a manner befitting a scholar at all times and in all places, both inside and outside of the classroom.

This approach was highly effective because even when my students weren't perfectly behaved, "The Rule" gave us a framework in which to discuss the behavior. It wasn't about being in trouble for being non-compliant, it was about being held accountable for poor character choices. It also invited students to justify choices with reason and care. Finally, it gave me a great deal of leeway in terms of how I addressed infractions. Students came to realize that fair isn't about having every instance of a behavior addressed with the same punishment. Fair is about having the same high expectation for every student and doing what is necessary to help all students meet that expectation.

The same approach could and should apply to how we address our profession. No good has come from setting a low bar with lots of rules and consequences for failures in our system. We need to set a high expectation for our profession, and help one another reach it:

All members of the education community will conduct themselves in the manner of learning leaders at all times and in all places for the good of our society and our humanity.

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