Pretty much everyone who's invested in what Robert Fried calls "the game of school" likes rules because they afford a sense of order to classrooms, which are among the most crowded of human social environments. But a room without rules need not be unruly--if an equally compelling alternative is offered. In my classroom, I established a Guiding Principle, which was my non-negotiable expectation for everyone in our classroom community: We must speak, act, and move in ways that let teaching and learning go on without interruption. I introduced this principle by asking students to explain what they thought it meant, and then checking to make sure that this was something that everyone felt they could agree to uphold. It was. We then brainstormed ideas about what sorts of things might interrupt learning. The resulting list included all sorts of things that might keep us from the important work of learning: teasing our classmates, talking over other speakers, using a noisy pencil sharpener when everyone needed to focus, coming to class unprepared to participate fully. We posted these examples around the large Guiding Principle, and added to them as a class as new ideas came to us from our collective experience.
The Guiding Principle helped me, as a teacher, distinguish between the “small stuff” that warranted attention and the small stuff I could let slide. I didn’t have to worry about ‘correcting’ a child who splayed themselves out on the story rug—unless and until their splayed legs threatened another child’s work space. Similarly, the Guiding Principle allowed me to pose a question to children about a given behavior, rather than simply citing a rule. “How did your un-organized desk affect your learning today?” I could ask—which invited the child to reflect, analyze, and suggest their own solution. I got the result I wanted as a teacher—the child cleaned out her desk—but I was in the role of facilitator, not dictator.
A Guiding Principle isn’t the only alternative to rules. Some Inspired Teachers use a classroom constitution, which enumerates rights and responsibilities. Others develop lists of mutual expectations, inviting their students to share the expectations they hold for their peers and for their teachers. The common thread is that these are all ways of sharing power with students, and of keeping discussions about problems in the relationship between individuals--rather than locating the reason for certain behaviors in institutional authority. And in contrast to Rules, which can have an aura of fear, expectations, rights, and responsibilities all carry an aura of hope and trust. Much more Inspired.