George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Rules, rules, rules. Everyone knows the key to success in school is to follow the rules.

Unfortunately, this belief persists in many of today's classrooms and schools. Next time you are in a classroom, take a look at the posted rules. Maybe they're rules such as, "No talking while the teacher is talking. Stay in your desk during work time. Raise your hand if you need help." If so, I think these rules say a lot about the teacher, the work environment and the level of meaningful, engaging tasks. They imply that the teacher is the only one who holds the knowledge, that the teacher will give you great wisdom only if you will listen and only if the work you undertake will be solitary and designed to measure how well you listen.

(Photo credit: mick62)

Why is it that some classrooms need these types of rules and some do not? For the teachers that do not post such rules, what is the difference? How can they manage without them?

One answer to these questions is to take a look at the type of tasks the student is being asked to undertake, to analyze the planning and preparation the teacher has given to design tasks which result in high levels of student engagement.

Think of it this way. If a teacher designs tasks that engage the student in meaningful learning, will the student be wandering around the classroom off task, disrupting others, and doing any of the other million things teachers often complain about?

But just what goes into meaningful learning and task design that results in high levels of student engagement?

Q&A About Student Engagement

I would like to give credit to the amazing staff at Erin Woods School in Calgary, AB who worked together yesterday to answer this question. When analyzing student engagement and tasks that result in high levels of student engagement, we were able to effectively answer this question: "What are the attributes of tasks that result in meaningful learning and high(er) levels of student engagement?"

Tasks resulting in higher levels of student engagement consist of these attributes:

  • Meaningful or related to the student's life or interests
  • Working together with peers
  • Incorporates games
  • Created by the student (and therefore more authentic)
  • Resulting in a piece of work the student is proud of and wants to share
  • Challenging -- but not so challenging it is unattainable
  • Considers different learning styles
  • Allows for student choice
  • Can be extended by students

Tasks resulting in lower levels of student engagement consist of these attributes:

  • Easy and quick to complete (requires low levels of thinking)
  • Teacher designed (such as a worksheet)
  • Results in right or wrong answers
  • Considers none or all of the attributes of high engaging tasks.

When considering student engagement and the types of tasks they're asked to complete, I wonder whether students given tasks designed to be highly meaningful and engaging really need their teachers to post rules such as "stay in your desk during work time." Do these rules imply that you have just entered a classroom of low-engaging task design? In my opinion, teachers who strive to design meaningful tasks that engage students are more likely to post rules such as "Work hard and do your best" or "Respect yourself and others" on the walls of their classroom.

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Karin's picture
National Board Certified 4th grade GATE teacher

I actually refrain from having any classroom rules up in my room at all until Constitution Day. We spend approximately a week learning about the Constitution and its purpose. Then the students work in groups to write a list of rules they think are appropriate for our classroom. I then have them circle the two-three that they think are the most important; we share them out loud making a class list of all the rules. After, we decide on the top five from the list, combining rules as needed. We then work to write our own class constitution focusing on the positive ways to act in the room, leaving out "no" and "not". The lesson ends with all the students signing our classrom constitution.

We also go through similar steps to create cooperative group rules. Both of these ideas came to me from a book I had to read while in my teacher credential program titled "Discipline with Dignity".

Ever since I started teaching, 11 years ago, I've had my students help create the class rules. Because they have buy in and helped to create the rules and expectations, I rarely have behavior issues. We are able to spend our time in engaging and deeper level tasks and activities.

Lori Cullen's picture
Lori Cullen
Consultant - Teacher Recruitment at Calgary Board of Education

Thanks Karin for the reply and the wonderful way you work with your students. I think what you are doing is spot-on and as you mentioned has the intended results. Good work :-)

Lori Cullen's picture
Lori Cullen
Consultant - Teacher Recruitment at Calgary Board of Education

THanks Sasha for the comment and the information on MIBLSI. Your school sounds like a place I want to be. I was on your blog - asked you a question there :-) Keep up the great work!!

Lori Cullen's picture
Lori Cullen
Consultant - Teacher Recruitment at Calgary Board of Education

Michael I have not heard classroom "rules" such as yours before and I think they are brilliant - it seems like they would give students power. Thanks for the great comment!

Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

I've had some conversations about how I don't post rules in my classroom with my administration. They want me to, but my principal has noticed that I don't have any problems with classroom management or any behavioral issues. Instead I talk to my students on the first day and hand them our classroom guide. In it, I have some tips on how to succeed in my class and to do well beyond school that were collected from previous students. My former students explain my tardy and late homework policies and supported the reasoning by providing examples of how this actually helped them finding a summer job or scholarships. (This is a great end-of-the-year writing activity for your students to leave behind a piece of their legacy). As for behavior, I just have two sayings posted in my room: "It is all right to make a mistake in this classroom, but more to your credit to make a different one each time" and "Everyone has a right to an education free from harassment, judgement, and distractions"

Pedro Alejandro's picture
Pedro Alejandro
Eight grade Spanish & ESL teacher

I think the succeess of any of this techniques is based on Team work.

Julia Gabor's picture
Julia Gabor
Director of Education

Thanks for this blog! I love what you are doing with your students/staff and how you let them 'think for themselves'. I also used a similar lesson with my students as Karin. Basic concept is: they know what they are expected to do, and how to behave. So - let them design it! After they create their own 'rules' (I like to call them 'expectations', they become accountable to each other and themselves, because they decided on what is acceptable for classroom or wherever you are working with them. What a relief for the students not to walk into class the first week and see the 'rules' up on a board or receive a handout. They enjoy the process of working in small groups to create their expectations, and they are learning valuable life skills while creating a procedure for success in their environment. I always hold a follow up discussion after they create the expectations, asking them questions about how to follow this conduct, or what happens if someone isn't following or isn't accountable, what is the expectation then? They usually know the answers. Thanks for sharing.

R. Janet Walraven's picture
R. Janet Walraven
Mentor for teachers, students, parents, and administrators

I'll try this again....Thanks, Lori. I appreciated your posting this topic. I substitute teach and am always mystified about the postings of long lists of rules in some classrooms. The one I especially question is "Zero Voice." Do we really want to take away anyone's voice? And how realistic is that expectation?
I have one classroom rule that covers everything: Be Courteous.
That's it. That's all I need. Joy in the classroom through courtesy. --Janet

Heidi Dedeaux's picture
Heidi Dedeaux
Teacher Assistant, Elem Ed. degree in progress at Western Governors Univ.

Great advice. Thank you. I get so much from this kind of input. It helps me to visualize my own future classroom with a positive learning environment!

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