Making some new rules

What makes a “good” rule?

I began thinking about rules a few weeks ago while I was watching the film Matilda (based on the Roald Dahl book).

Miss Trunchbull is famous for saying, “If you are having fun, you are not learning.” Her class rules look very similar to the picture on the left. I asked my students about these rules. Unanimously, they claimed to dislike the rules. There are too many. They all start with “No”. They are not fair. This is the feedback I received from my students on these rules.

Then again rules came up in The Giver by Lois Lowry, where Jonas receives a list of rules for his new job.

1.) Go immediately at the end of school hours each day to the Annex entrance behind the House of the Old and present yourself to the attendant.
 2.) Go immediately to your dwelling at the conclusion of Training Hours each day.
 3.) From this moment you are exempt to the rules governing rudeness. You may ask any question of any citizen and you will receive answers.
 4.) Do not discuss your training with any members of the community, including parents and Elders.
 5.) From this moment you are prohibited from dream-telling.
 6.) Except for illness and injury unrelated to your training, do not apply for medication.
 7.) You are not permitted to apply for release.
 8.) You may lie.

These rules prompted a lot of discussion because Jonas lives in a world full of rules and some of these rules seem to contradict the rules he normally has to live by. Lying, for example, is forbidden. Rudeness requires an apology. Dream-telling is a normal part of every day. Medication is a right, as is applying for release. Can rules be different for different people who live together in the same society? Or, in our case, in the same classroom? What happens when people are following different rules?

And now I’m in taking the Breaking Rules webinar with Professor John Fanselow. I have been reflecting on the rules I subconsciously follow in my own classes …

Lately I have let my students make the rules for the class. I did this because I learned that it would make them more amenable to following rules and accepting consequences. In theory, they would even remind each other of the rules and enforce them themselves and I could keep my hands nice and sparkly clean.

Let the kids do all the dirty work.

Clearly I was expecting magic. What actually happened brought me back to reality. First of all, they made lists as long as the one in the picture and every rule started with “No”. No running. No Korean speaking. No eating. No drinking. No chewing gum. No sleeping. No fighting. No arguing. No cheating. Don’t be rude. The list went on and on. What could I do?

I started by recasting the rules in a positive light – “No running” became “Walk” and “No Korean speaking” because “Speak English”. Some of the rules were way less clear that way, though. “Do your own work” had to be explained, and “Agree with everyone” was impossible. “Don’t be rude” got changed to the equally vague “Be respectful”.

Then I asked them to justify the rules. If they couldn’t, we threw it out. What we ended up with was a list of rules that everyone agreed on and mostly understood. We never did have time to talk about consequences.

The students did not police each other. Since consequences were not clear, even to me, students did not always find them fair. One day I tried asking a student what his consequence should be. He became so frustrated that he yelled at me “Just tell me.” He didn’t want choice. This was my wake-up call.

Something is not right!

New classes start again soon, and I am going to break my rule of learner autonomy in rule-making. I’m going to make the rules for them. I’m going to make specific rules and clear consequences. I will make only one concession: they can make changes if they can successfully explain the reasons for their changes.

Here is the list I have so far. What would you change? What would you add?

1. Speak English in class. However, seeking clarification and planning projects need not be done entirely in English.

2. Keep the classroom clean. Please clear off your desk and put all garbage in the bin before you leave the classroom. Push in your chair and clean around your desk.

3. Complete all homework on time in the manner requested (electronically, on paper, etc). 

4. Attend all scheduled classes. If you cannot attend a class, please let me know by email or text message before the class begins.


Update (January 7, 2013): Today is the first day of an elementary school English camp (252 hours of English in three weeks – that’ll larn ’em).
Making the rules did not turn out quite the way I had planned (nothing ever does), but here’s what we ended up with:


This class is very low level and ranging in age from 8 to 11. We started with the school’s pre-made rules poster. Then I asked them, one by one, whether they wanted to follow each rule. One of the girls was pretty insistent on “be quiet” but was literally shouted down by the “be noisy” camp (with whom I tend to agree anyway). That’s the rule I’m most uncomfortable with, to tell the truth. I can’t imagine enforcing it. By the end of the class, we had to add “Don’t try to kill your classmates” but otherwise, the rest of the rules held. I suspect by the end of the week there will be new rules about throwing things and staying up all night.

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  • tpmcdonald85  On November 30, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    I try doing something similar at the beginning of every new class/group. I think it’s a good idea to let students add to rules. One problem I found in my last school is that they do the same first class with every teacher and some would deliberately miss the first class. Many students would then miss out on rule making and ice-breaking. I still think it’s important to do this though.
    As for consequences, I write names on the board for rule breaking with a tally. Once they get to 3 they have to face the consequence. I have a set of tongue twisters and bad jokes (with IPA included on some difficult words), which students have to read to the rest of the class before they leave. I now find students will often break the rules twice and then stop.
    Great post,

    • livinglearning  On December 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Hi Tom,
      It’s frustrating when students don’t participate in ice-breaking and rule-making because it’s part of the coming-together process that makes the whole class run more smoothly. I like your idea of consequences. Good that you’ve had success with it. One of the difficult things for me about rules and consequences is that it seems each different age group (from very young learners up to adults) have different sets of rules/ responsibilities/ expectations that apply. It is difficult to find ways to approach this with each group in ways that are firm but face-saving. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

  • Suzanne  On November 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    This is a great post, Anne. I sometimes wonder and question the learner autonomy in rule making because I think the students still expect the teacher to have some control over the classroom, which is what your students showed you. as described above. I like your plan here of having basic rules set up by you that can be negotiated or added by others. Keep us posted with the results!

    • livinglearning  On December 18, 2012 at 2:09 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne. I certainly will. My instinct says letting students have a say in the rules (or at least explain themselves when they break the rules) is an important factor in classroom management, but maybe that’s not so in Korea. Or maybe they’ll need time to get used to it. I have a chance to try this out with elementary students, middle school students, and university students in the coming weeks. I hope the results will improve!
      Thanks for stopping by to read!

  • eflnotes  On December 1, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    i think you describe well how “learner autonomy” reaches its limits, i especially like your student exclamation “just tell me!”.

    @tornhalves post describes better than i can the limits of the current discourse on learner autonomy.

    although they start from the pov of ed tech the kernel of the argument is that unless we start by asking how can leaners be free in an unfree society then autonomy is meaningless and useless.


    • livinglearning  On December 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      Thank you for sharing that post. This sentence stood out for me: “But when the learners are happy to selectively copy and paste, rather than reconstructing the knowledge and making it their own, they start to approximate the dreaded tabula rasa.” He’s talking about copying and pasting from Google, but I think this also applies to copying and pasting from previous classes and experiences, as my young rule-makers insist on doing. They are not concerned with whether the rules are right or fair, only that they are consistent from classroom to classroom. And I’m beginning to think this is a reasonable request if it reduces their stress in a potentially stressful environment and opens more space to encourage autonomy in other areas. I have to pick my battles, it seems.
      Thanks for your comment and for reading.

      • eflnotes  On December 19, 2012 at 6:41 am

        hi anne
        yes i agree consistency is very important for young learners though they do need to deal with ambiguity and shifting ground outside the classroom so maybe rules need not be so rule-ish?

  • Rachael Roberts  On December 2, 2012 at 5:01 am

    It’s surprising, isn’t it, how authoritarian and overly tough students will be about making up rules? I think students do often seem to want strict discipline, if only to give them something to kick against! But of course, the stricter they want you to be, the more they can abdicate any responsibility themselves…
    So, I think you’re right to minimise the rules and keep it simple. I went to an unusual secondary school (a state comprehensive) where there was only one rule- not to do anything which had a negative effect on anyone else. It was amazing how that covered just about every bit of bad behaviour you can think of!

    • livinglearning  On December 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Hi Rachael,
      Thanks for the comment. You make a really good point when you write, “the stricter they want you to be, the more they can abdicate any responsibility themselves”. I think this is especially true for pre-teen learners. I worry about making rules that are vague because I think it is important that everyone have a clear idea what a rule means or entails. When my students come up with rules like “Be respectful”, I am tempted to veto them because the rule can have so many different interpretations, and can cover mistakes as well as intentional bad behaviour. How was that dealt with in your school, do you remember?

      • Rachael Roberts  On December 18, 2012 at 8:29 pm

        That’s a good question! Ultimately, I think the whole thing worked because the head was very charismatic, but very much the final arbiter. Because, I think you’re right, endless arguing about whether something is respectful or not is not the way to go. On the other hand, getting students to take some responsibility for their own behaviour is. So, I guess I’d be in favour (not for the first time) of a middle ground. A discussion about the rules and the idea of taking responsibility, but ultimately the teacher decides (for YLs at least). I think the distinction between authoritarian and authoritative is a useful one here. For example:

  • mrchrisjwilson  On December 10, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    The best thing I’ve ever done for rules in a class is set the teacher rules. The students think up some great rules and reveal a lot about what they think makes a lesson interesting. As soon as I started doing that I found that my students increased the amount of policing they did for their rules. It was also great to show that I was sticking by the rules they made and that when I “broke the rules” I had to face the consequences as well! I don’t know how it would work in Korea and it certainly isn’t magic but I like the experience anyway.

    • livinglearning  On December 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm

      Hi Chris,
      It’s awesome to hear stories where letting the students make the rules really worked. I suppose it might be down to different cultures and the expectations therein. I really like the idea of having teacher rules – I’m itching to try it out. I suspect no one will ever call me on breaking the rules in Korea – the teacher is always right, after all. (Which means they will talk about it behind my back!) I guess there are no magic solutions. Thanks for your comment. Out of curiosity, which rule did you break? 😉

      • mrchrisjwilson  On December 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

        I think I slipped into Russian and did the equivalent of saying “so,” (так) when starting a new lesson as I had just been speaking in Russian to a parent about something. The students pounced on it!
        Of course, a private language school in Ukraine probably has a very different culture from a private/public school else where.

        I like Mura’s point about the limits of learner autonomy as well. Imagine just turning up and going…okay…learn.

  • landros  On December 17, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    how old are your students?

    • livinglearning  On December 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      Hello, landros, thanks for stopping by.
      The students I had in mind when I wrote this post are between 11 and 16 years old.


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