The Real Mr. Fitz: Are Rules Useful?                                                  

Are Rules Useful?

It seems that a lot of people in education think that the way to improve our schools is through more emphasis on adult control and student compliance. That is certainly the theory at a lot of charters, where students are told how to sit in class, how to walk down the hall, among other things. 

The district where I teach moved to school "uniforms" this year, despite many, many protests on the part of parents, students, and some teachers. 

The message students hear: You are not responsible enough to dress yourself. We will tell you how to dress. Don't think: Obey. 

But even without uniforms, schools tend to place a great emphasis on rules and compliance. Many, if not most, teachers start the year with them, from day one. Students tell me all they hear for the first week of school is an endless litany of rules in nearly every class. 

The message students hear: We can't trust you know how to behave; we are so sure you are all here to be disruptive, we must begin with the rules right away, so you know who's the boss.

I used to start with the litany of rules myself, because it was what I was told to do. 

The message teachers hear: Don't smile until after Winter Break. You must be in control. It is your job to get unquestioning obedience from your students. Control your class through bribes and punishments. Don't think about running your classroom differently. Don't think: Obey. 

My sense that something didn't seem right about all of this compliance kept nagging at me throughout the years. I guess it is teaching students how to write that made me really begin to think about how we teach students to behave. I had a few too many students tell me I was teaching them wrong, because their other teacher in their last grade or at their last school told them what the rules of writing were, and you had to follow them. 

Here are some of the rules my students have told me they follow, because a teacher told them it was a rule:
Okay, I made the last two up. But the rest are actually no less absurd. 

Many people complain that students don't follow instructions and don't follow rules. In my experience, students who follow misguided rules too faithfully are actually more of a problem. Writing is less about following a set of set-in-stone rules and more about knowing some general principles of good writing, being familiar with the kinds of choices and tools writers have to work with, and then making choices appropriate to your current writing project and audience. What if, by making writing about following rules (some of them fake) to hoop-jump for the teacher, we are actually teaching them how not to write? What if teaching students to write entirely to please their teacher means they don't really know now to write at all? Instead, they know how to follow instructions whether they make sense or not.

What if behavior in class and school- and society - should be less about obeying a set of rules and more about following a guiding sense of principles? What if, by making school about following rules to hoop jump for the adults for the building, we give students the impression that school is a performance for someone else rather than something they are doing for themselves? What if being forced to be a student means they don't really know how to be students at all?

Since my own thinking has shifted, and since I always want my students to be thinking, I have begun starting the school year differently. Instead of having rules posted in my class, I begin by having my students write about the best class they've ever been in, and the most unpleasant class. I ask them to write about, in both cases, the behavior of the teacher and the students. (I ask them to not use real names for the "unpleasant class" teachers.)

The results are remarkably consistent. A great class has a focused, attentive, enthusiastic teacher who likes students and explains things well, and students who are there to learn, are willing to work, and have manners and respect. An unpleasant class has students who are unmotivated and rude, and a teacher who exhibits any of the following traits in some combination: assigning and assessing instead of actually teaching, yelling a lot, not caring, making lots of threats, and testing students on things they never taught.

So my students and I talk about what kind of class that we want to have. It's pretty simple. There are some rules, but our class isn't built on rules. It's built on purpose. A great class exists to learn.

This year I took the activity a step further. I asked students to do the following activity in small groups: 
When are rules useful?
Some situations are clearly rule-based: without rules they simply won’t work, or in some cases, even exist. Some situations require no specific rules, but instead a set of principles, values, or shared vision. In some situations, rules may actually be destructive. Some situations are ambiguous: rules may or may not be useful. In some situations, the necessity of rules may depend on a number of factors (social structure, the purpose of the activity, the amount of flexibility required, etc.). In some places rules are unspoken, but breaking them may still cause you trouble.

Look at the list of activities below. Categorize them into groups of whether rules are
Essential (E) to the activity (without the rules, the activity wouldn’t exist), Important (I)
Optional (O), Unspoken, Depends (D) on the situation Non-existent/Not Needed (N).
     Attending a theme park
     Asking someone on a date
     Basic military training
     Being an audience member at a concert
     Being in court in any role, from defendant to lawyer
     Being part of a class discussion
     Class changes
     Dressing yourself
     Eating in a restaurant
     Football - playing it
     Football - watching it
     Going through a drive-through at a fast food place
     Going to the movies
     Having a conversation with a friend
     Interacting with people on social media
     Performing in a play
     Reading for school
     Reading for your own enjoyment
     Playing a video game alone
     Playing a multi-player RPG
     Taking a class
     Using silverware
     Using a public restroom
     Virtual school
     Working out in a gym
     Writing and sending an email
     Writing for school
     Writing for your own enjoyment
     Writing fiction
     Writing poetry

The results were interesting. We discovered that activities where rules were absolutely essential were things like being in the military or driving, but also things we do for fun - sports and games. We discovered that a lot of rules are unspoken in many, many situations. And we discovered that in many situations, rules are not needed - or may even get in the way.

This activity got students (and their teacher) thinking. Rules are paradoxical. Sometimes essential, especially for "fun" activities. Sometimes rules should step aside when they obscure the purpose of the activity rather than create or reveal it.

I followed up this activity with a simple journal for my ninth graders. What have you learned about writing and reading? I am at a new school, teaching ninth grade for the first time in over 20 years, and my students are coming from many different places: public, private, charter, and home schooling. Many students focused on writing rules they'd been taught, and those rules were nearly all "surface features" of writing. Use periods and commas. Capitalize. Indent. Spell correctly.

One type of rule many students brought up was the "X sentences per paragraph" rule. We debated it. Answers from the various schools and teachers rang out. Ten sentences! Eight to twelve sentences! Five sentences!

Finally one person in each class usually said something like this: "You stop adding sentences to a paragraph when you've said what needed saying." And I gave that person an Amen. In writing, thinking about what you are doing is more important than following rules. There are rules, but following them blindly doesn't lead to good writing. Thinking does. Making writing about rules obscures its purpose.

The same goes for school itself. Making school all about rules obscures its purpose. It should be about thinking. It should be about being there to learn. My Big Inquiry Question for this year is one that I hope will get students thinking. It's one I think more adults should think about. What is the purpose of education? 

To introduce this topic, after our discussions of about rules, I have students do the following activity:

Power of Education Pre-Unit Survey
Name ______________________________________________Date __________ Period _______

It is the first day of high school, and you are hearing “opening day” speeches from your teachers. Each speech reveals something about the philosophy of education held by that teacher. First, label each speech for what model of education it represents. For instance, there might be a “Bribery Model” or a “Testing Model.”   Rank these speeches from Most Agree With (1)  to Least Agree With (8).

_____ Mr. Gradgrind – “Welcome class. As soon as humanly possible, we will be getting our textbooks from the book room. In this class, we are all about the textbook and the facts it contains. My job is to expose you to facts and your job is to get those facts into your heads. In today’s world of internet memes and free-floating opinions based on personal bias, facts are all that matter. We won’t be discussing your ideas, your opinions, your questions. Most of all we will not be discussing your feelings. Feelings and emotions have no place in education. We will be learning about solid, set-in-stone facts. Your brains are essentially big flash drives, and we are going to download a lot of data on them.”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Ms. Bennett – “Good morning, class. How many of you have a cellphone? A computer? How many of you would like a better cellphone and computer? I see. How many of you would like a sports car some day?  Would you like to live in a big, beautiful house someday? Well, I’ll tell you how: earn lots of money! To do that, you will need good grades so that you can get into college and get a degree in a field that makes lots of money! By the way, check that out when you go to college: don’t major in something that doesn’t pay much when you get out of school. Some of students ask me why students don’t get paid to go to school. Here’s what I tell them: you do get paid, but in future money! A college graduate earns a lot more than a high school graduate, and everybody earns more than people who drop out of high school! So work hard! It pays off later in money, and stuff!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Ms. Pollan - “Good morning, students. Before we get started, do any of you have any questions? No? That’s too bad, because you should. Why do we have a seven period day and the subjects we have? Does anyone know why we have standardized testing, or who started it and why? Does anyone know, or is that just the way it’s always been, so we don’t question it? Many students think they are here to learn inert facts, dead pieces of information. But you can look up facts on your cellphone. I am here to get you asking questions, not just answering them. The best way to learn is to always be questioning. And the best way to be sure what you are learning is real is to question it. I don’t want you to just fit in to society. I want you be able to stand back and observe it… and question it. How do we know what to question? Good question.”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mrs. Paquetts – “Greetings. As I am speaking, I want you to copy down in your notes the 55 rules for my classroom, and the list of escalating consequences should you break any of those rules. I run an orderly classroom. Society cannot function properly if people are not following the rules. If people drive opposite the arrows in the Publix parking lot, that is annoying. If they drive on the wrong side of the yellow lines on the highway, that can be deadly. You are here to learn information, yes. But mostly you are here to learn how to comply, how fit in, how to obey. Are there any questions? I don’t care. You are not here to question, but to do as you’re told!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mr. Dewey – “Good morning, class. I see you’re already working on your list of enthusiasms. That’s great. In my class this year, you are going to be exploring your enthusiasms and passions, and perhaps developing interests in new ones. People are happiest when they are doing something they enjoy, and they learn more when they relate the things they have to learn at school to topics that interest them. This year, you are going to explore different topics of your own choosing, dive deep and learn about their history, look wide to see how each topic connects to other subjects out there in the world. By exploring your passions, you may discover what you want to do with your life. You will spend a lot of time at work - you may as well spend that time doing something you love. It’s not about how much money you make, it’s about whether you love your life!
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________
_____ Mr. Pardee – “Heeeelllllooooo, class! Who’s ready for a great year! I can’t hear you! Who’s ready for a great year! Cool! We are going to have a great year! Do you see these boxes? They are full of cool prizes: pencils! Paper! Little gadgets. Candy! Gift cards! As you learn things in here, I will be rewarding you for your hard work. And as we learn, we are going to have a great time! We will be doing cooking projects, art projects, working in small groups, and playing games of Jeopardy! to review for tests! Who’s ready for a great year?!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mrs. Merritt – “Good morning, class! My name is Mrs. Merritt, and I want you to know that I already know all of you! I have looked at your data, so I know all about you. I know what specific reading skills you are good at, and I know which ones you have a deficit in! I know who is a level 5 on the state test, and who is a level 1. I have used this data to individualize the practice tests you will take each week, so each of you will have the correct skills targeted! My goal this year is make sure you score well on the state tests! Your goal should be to get good grades! If you don’t get good grades, you aren’t getting smarter, and you won’t do well on the tests! I’m giving each of you a chart where you can track your data on our in-class tests!”
Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

_____ Mr. Compton – “Good morning. I need you to look at the person behind you, if there is one. Now look at the person ahead of you. Look to your left. Look to your right. You have now looked at least two and as many as four people. Now look around the room. All of these people you are seated with are in competition with you. Competition for grades. Competition for Scholarships. Competition for a better future – for a job you love and a comfortable income level! This is an advanced section, and therefore you are at the top of your class. Most of the people who aren’t in these advanced sections are not your competition. They are losers. They are unambitious. Many will drop out. The people in here are the ones you need to worry about. Education is a game of winners and losers, a struggle to get the highest GPA! Who’s ready to play?”

Philosophy of Education: _____________________________________________________________

I have students explain their top choice and their lowest choice in writing, and to each other. I then survey the class on their top and bottom choices and tally the results on the board. The results were very consistent across the board (literally - they were on the board!).

Mrs. Paquetts, with her model of unquestioning obedience and rule-following was the least popular educational philosophy by far in all five classes. Students also felt that her model is the one schools generally promote, though perhaps in a less cartoonish fashion.

Mr. Dewey, with his philosophy of tapping into students' own enthusiasms, and running an educational system based on enthusiasm, had the most popular educational model - by far. I know some people will object to his model as being too "touchy feely." David Coleman would look at my class and tell them he doesn't give a $#!+ about their enthusiasms. But I think there's something there.
Linking what I have to teach to students' enthusiasms, frustrations, and interests has been a big part of my philosophy for many years, and it seems to work.

(If you'd like to try either of those activities with your classes, feel free. And please, let me know how it goes. I think you, and your students, might find them... thought provoking.)

There is a place for rules. I happen to agree with Mrs. Paquetts about not driving on the wrong side of the road or against the arrow at the supermarket. The reasons for those rules are clear-cut, and have obvious benefits for everyone who drives.

But in many situations, rules take on a life of their own and become the only thing anyone sees. Rule-based writing becomes an exercise in unthinking rule following, and it usually results in bad writing. Rule-based education becomes an exercise in unthinking obedience.

If that is our highest good, we are in trouble.