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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Research Link / Rules and Learning

What role do classroom rules play in effective instruction? If rules are primarily a means of maintaining discipline, then they relate to instruction only indirectly by contributing orderliness to the learning environment. Boostrom (1991) notes that a rules-as-discipline approach leads to a paradox: The rules may encourage passive acceptance instead of critical thinking and reflection in students. The solution, he argues, lies in thinking of rules not as being a means to an end, but as having direct implications for student learning. Schimmel (1997) and Blumenfeld-Jones (1996) echo this point. They argue that authoritative, patriarchal rule making by teachers is antithetical to the civic and social development of students in a democratic society.

Setting Rules with Students

One strategy is to view the rule-making process as a potential learning experience, not as an administrative chore. Instead of distributing rules as an edict, schools can encourage teachers, students, and families to work together in the rule-making process. Blumenfeld-Jones (1996) notes that such involvement must be genuine and include all students, not be limited to just a few students in student government. Such students may be least likely to challenge the rules in the first place.
Trusting students with the responsibility for shaping the rules will not lead to lax standards and nonexistent consequences; Castle and Rogers (1994) cite research showing that students frequently respond to such trust by developing rules that are strikingly similar to, and perhaps even stricter than, those advocated by their teachers. Thus, allowing them, and their parents, to participate in the process does not so much affect what the rules look like as it does their perceptions of the rules. Students are far more likely to internalize and respect rules that they helped create than rules that are handed to them (Schimmel, 1997). Further, the creation process itself catalyzes critical thinking as students reflect, make connections, and solve problems by negotiating solutions with their peers (Castle & Rogers, 1994).
Although many systems advocate consistent, unambiguous consequences for rule infractions, those administering the rules must consider the contexts of the students and teachers involved. MacNaughton and Johns (1991) caution that a schoolwide program can provide uniform guidelines, but these guidelines must be adaptable to meet the needs of individual students and teachers. They cite such factors as age, gender, personality, religious beliefs, and physical size as potential influences on a teacher's preferences for monitoring and enforcing rules.
Blumenfeld-Jones (1996) notes that teachers who respond consistently to all infractions "homogenize" these same types of differences in students, thereby failing to treat the students as unique members of a learning community. Thus, a central tension in enforcing rules is the need to treat all students fairly but to be flexible enough to adapt the response to meet the needs of the individual teacher and student. For this reason, MacNaughton and Johns (1991) feel that discipline systems, like any facet of the curriculum, should be seen as works in progress, subject to constant review and revision as the needs of the school community change.

Rules and Student Achievement

Gottfredson, Gottfredson, and Hybl (1993) note that one-third of all teachers report that student misbehavior interferes with their teaching. Presumably, then, effective rules will enhance student achievement, at least indirectly, by negating this interference. Like most studies of rules systems, however, the Gottfredson work focuses on behavioral outcomes, not on direct measures of student learning.
Freiberg (1996) bucks this trend by examining changes in standardized test scores within schools using the Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline program. The program incorporates five themes: prevention, caring, cooperation, organization, and community. To realize these themes, classes may complete their own Magna Cartas that help students anticipate and eliminate problems and make students active participants, rather than passive "tourists," in their classrooms. One organizational facet of the program involves "one-minute student managers," a system in which students identify and volunteer for management tasks (such as setting up printers) that drain a teacher's time for instruction. Freiberg found that students enthusiastically participated in such programs for the intrinsic reward of contributing to the smooth operation of the classroom, ultimately freeing up a substantial amount of the teachers' instructional time.
The results of the consistency management program are encouraging. Freiberg (1996) found that three years after program implementation, participating students from inner-city elementary schools gained an average of three-quarters of a year's achievement over students from comparison schools on state and national criterion-referenced tests. In addition, program students viewed their learning environment more positively than students did from comparison schools; they had significantly higher scores in student involvement, teacher and student expectations, and achievement motivation and academic self-concept.

Rule Making as Learning

These results appear to support the idea that educators should view rules as an integral part of the instructional process, not as bureaucratic requirements. As Schimmel (1997) points out, discipline programs should not violate laws for good teaching. We wouldn't teach about the U.S. Constitution by distributing it to students for them to read on their own, so why would we follow that model with a school discipline policy? Student participation in rule making takes more time and effort, but the rewards in improved student self-concept and understanding of critical citizenship skills make such a system well worth the additional effort.

Blumenfeld-Jones, D. S. (1996). Conventional systems of classroom discipline (the patriarchy speaks). Journal of Educational Thought/Revue de la Pensee Educative, 30(1), 5-21.

Boostrom, R. (1991). The nature and functions of classroom rules. Curriculum Inquiry, 21(2), 193-216.

Castle, K., & Rogers, K. (1994). Rule-creating in a constructivist classroom community. Childhood Education, 70(2), 77-80.

Freiberg, H. J. (1996). From tourists to citizens in the classroom. Educational Leadership, 54(1), 32-36.

Gottfredson, D. C., Gottfredson, G. D., & and Hybl, L. G. (1993). Managing adolescent behavior: A multiyear, multischool study. American Educational Research Journal, 30(1), 179-215.

MacNaughton, R. H., & Johns, F. A. (1991). Developing a successful schoolwide discipline program. NASSP Bulletin, 75(536), 47-57.

Schimmel, D. (1997). Traditional rule-making and the subversion of citizenship education. Social Education, 61(2), 70-74.

Andrew S. Latham has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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