The noble lie: giving children a say in setting the rules.

In case you missed it, Tom Bennett recently passed the Dianetic testing and made all of the necessary sacrifices to join the Teach First fraternity. So, if you see him about and were wondering where his little fingers have gone, you don’t need to ask.

Apparently, neither the “this session is now full” message on the website, nor the fact that his room was at a capacity that had health and safety officers weeping into their Sippy Cups were sufficient obstacles to keep the masses from squeezing into every nook and cranny of the room.

By the time I arrived, there were more people standing than sitting, so I cotched on the floor because I’m a primary school teacher and that’s how we identify ourselves at edu-gatherings. The session was hilarious, candid and thought-provoking; a real highlight for most that I spoke to afterwards. For the 2013s, who have just finished their first year in the classroom, there was real comfort from, and resonance with, the recognition of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that we all felt until about Easter.

For the 2014s, it was an unpatronising dose of the realities that they are likely to face from September. A distinction was drawn between the formal and informal aspects of behaviour management, the latter relating to tone and persona developed over a career, and the former describing the systems and routines that can be taught quickly and implemented from day one. Some are lucky enough to get a headstart with the informal stuff, but without the formal side, all will suffer.

This post, however, isn’t about the bulk of the session. My blog is now widely read enough that a summary could seriously damage TB’s book sales (I received 12 views yesterday. Unique views.) I want to discuss here a brief exchange that I had with Tom in the Q&A session. It followed on from a comment that Tom made about setting class codes or rules. He argued that children shouldn’t be given an opportunity to ‘set the rules’ because we don’t really mean that they have a say. To illustrate his point, TB mentioned that he once asked a class what the rules should be.

Students (presumably old enough to smoke): “We want fag breaks every 15 minutes.”

TB: “Well, errr, no. No.”

S: “But I thought that you said that we agree on the rules together.”

TB: “Yes, I suppose what I meant is that you agree with my rules.”

In the classroom, just like in real life, there are rules. Non-negotiable rules. They are there for a reason: as a minimum to keep students safe, and hopefully to create some sort of optimal learning environment. Calm, ordered, stimulating. That kind of thing.

Although children might not necessarily agree with some of the rules, they have to follow them anyway because they are ultimately in their best interests and it wouldn’t be helpful to them to let them make their own rules, which would likely to be some variant of “Do what we want”. Furthermore, it removes part of your authority in the room, suggesting that the rules are subjective and changeable, and that your enforcement of them is only incidental.

When I was trained, and I think this is common, I was encouraged to give the children a say in setting the rules. The rationale was that children would then have some sort of a stake in them, or ‘an ownership’ of them. And this would make them less likely to break the rules and give your rhetoric more power when misdemeanours occur: you’ve broken your own rule. I know that you know it’s important because you actually suggested it. You’ve literally let yourself down.

I believed this, and duly allowed my children to come up with the class code. My school also has a set of 5 non-negotiable ‘Golden Rules’ that are displayed in every classroom. The class code supplements these rules and sets the specifics. So the Golden Rule ‘Do be kind and helpful’ leads to “listen to each other in class” or “hold doors open for each other”.

So when the time came, last week, to set the Class Code with my new class, I had a choice. Do I say to my kids:

(a) Listen, I really care about you, and I want you to be successful and I want you to learn the most that you can possibly learn in this class. To do that you’re going to have to follow these rules, and this isn’t a discussion…

(b) Ok, we’re going to be doing some learning together. What do you think our class rules should be? We’ll create these together because I think that it’s important that these rules come from you guys.

Although many of my newly developed principles pushed me towards (a), I actually ended up saying something along the lines of (b). My question to Tom explained the reasoning:

Me: You said that we shouldn’t let children have a say in setting the class code because we don’t really mean that. But isn’t it worth giving children the illusion of having set their own rules? You can still end up with the set of class rules that you wanted beforehand, but the children will believe that they have taken responsibility for their own behaviour and conduct.

Tom disagreed that this was a good or honest approach. I’m still swinging from one side to the other on this issue.

What do you think?



  1. My personal view, based on teaching Y5-7 mainly is that I point out at the beginning of the year that we all implicitly know the rules and that’s that. No agreeing, no dictation, just a recognition that we abide by some social norms.
    One the norms being that I’m the teacher, so I’m in charge.

  2. I’m yet to sit with my new class and set the class rules as there’s been a rearrangement, so this was very interesting to me.

    I do find the notion of ‘class rules’ interesting as they are (generally) rules that most classes follow – ones like those that were mentioned in your post.

    Like you, in my training I was advised to let children have a say. I think that this is still important but not to the stage where we give them full ownership. If we state these rules will be set in partnership, where they suggest the rules and we have to agree with them this may be appropriate. Hopefully then this will remove any suggestions the children will create, like the fag break you mentioned.

    Of course, may view on this may change in 4 weeks time! Excellent post by the way!

  3. The idea that stakeholders should have a say in rules is rooted in some pretty conclusive research by Locke & Latham although this is more about goal-setting and decision-making than ground rules as such.

    There are good reasons why there should be rules in the classroom (for students and teachers) and good reasons why students need to buy in to those rules – if they don’t you have a problem. An explanation for the rules, coupled with some forum for student input such as a school council, would probably meet Locke and Latham’s criteria.

    Bear in mind that some schools have pointless or counterproductive rules, too many rules or not enough. The rules themselves can cause problems if students don’t have any say in what they are.

  4. I think if you say ‘Let’s make some rules together’ but they end up as what the teacher really wanted anyway, kids are smart enough to know this has happened, feel duped, and you’re on a worse footing than just saying, ‘These are the rules.’ Perhaps we could present them with the rules and then say, ‘Okay, so why? Why this one?’ Or say, ‘There are ten basic rules in this classroom. See if you can guess what they are!’

  5. The children who are the most prone to following the rules are often those who can come up with the ‘correct’ set of rules (let’s face it, a teacher will hardly allow much in the way of innovation unless the school rules are appallingly misguided).

    Students who are wilfully challenging will often subvert the activity to create chaos, particularly with a trainee teacher. Even if they don’t, students like this won’t often stop and think: “I’m a stakeholder, I better follow these”.

    The one ‘sort’ of student I guess I see this working for is one who is keen to learn, vehemently opinionated in all aspects of their education (but often without the requires reflection, understanding or experience to really ‘get’ why school rules are in place without their say-so) and with a limited understanding of responsibilities that go along with their rights. They would benefit from this – but I don’t think these few students warrant this approach for everyone. I also think that students like this sometimes need to learn when it is not appropriate to express a poorly-informed opinion.

  6. I work with adults, running training events. I often invite them to set ground rules for a workshop, based on their previous experience of what works well on such occasions. I add in a few, and we agree them and police them together. That normally works well.

    Not being a teacher of children (other than my own) I probably shouldn’t make a suggestion, but fools rush in…

    I think that your ideals (‘owenrship’) and Tom’s (honesty) could both be met by making it clear what the context and the conditions of the discussion are. Something like:

    I think it would be helpful if we agree some rules for the class room. You may suggest rules which you think will make the class a better place for learning and working together, and so may I. We will discuss them, and I will have the final say, as I have a lot of experience and training in being a teacher.

  7. As an experienced primary teacher I have always given children a chance to formulate class rules. These should always supplement and not be a substitute for school rules. It is how you scaffold this that is important. Of course you don’t say ‘hey kids give me some rules’; you say ‘ we are going to decide together on rules which will help us all stay safe and happy in class’. In that way you give terms of reference and collectively decide a few simple effective rules which everyone knows and understands. You then reinforce at every opportunity until they become embedded and display in your room in a prominent place. That way there is no need for subterfuge and there is no wriggle room. Simples!

  8. Tom’s example is facetious, as was the boy’s suggestion about smoking during lessons. However, behind it is a serious question about power, authority, and compliance. By ignoring the boy’s challenge Tom missed the opportunity to explore this question and develop some learning.

    Power is ‘nested’ inside other circles of power. By offering the opportunity to discuss the class rules, we are not saying we can agree with anything they come up with, but creating an opportunity for them to be included in the thinking about why rules are necessary. And to what extent the rules we create are superseded by the more wide-ranging rules of school, society, and the law.

    Tom’s example is a trick of logic:
    A: either, we allow our students to invent whatever rules they like,
    B: or, we are lying to them.
    C: So, the more noble thing to do is never give them the option.

    This is sophistry.

    Our responsibility as teachers is to teach by creating opportunities for learning. These include exploring such questions as, ‘Why do we need rules?’ ‘How does power operate in society?’ and ‘What are my responsibilities as a member of a community?”

    By setting the rules and not discussing these questions with our students we are denying them these opportunities for learning. It is the easy way out, since the students don’t have to think, just obey.

  9. At the start of each year I remind the pupils what the school rules are. These are obviously non-negotiable. I have a few rules of my own that are also non-negotiable and I tell/remind pupils what those are.

    I then ask my classes if they are any rules they think should be added. If they come up with something sensible that isn’t covered by an existing rule then that’s great. Quite often what they come up with is simply a more specific or different version of an existing rule which is fine but not especially useful.

    I find that pupils often ask what the point of certain rules is and why certain rules exist so and when that sort of thing comes up I am happy to briefly discuss or explain it.

    I don’t see the point of discussing what the rules are going to be with my pupils in any greater detail because I don’t want to give them the impression that the rules are negotiable when they aren’t.

  10. This is at least partly a primary/secondary question, because in secondary you have lots of classes, so there’s the feeling that you need to ‘get on with it’, whereas in primary that one class is going to be ‘yours’ for the year, and the relationship you build and develop will begin on day one.

    On a practical note, I mention to new teachers that talking together about the rules may (subconsciously) send a message that you are not sure what you want, especially when you are new to the profession and you feel a bit unsure. So, I think a good approach for new teachers is to say ‘I know what I want, but I’m really interested to hear what rules you all think we should have in place’. Mostly, the teacher and the children will come up with very similar ideas (with the children sometimes being stricter than you might have been!) To be honest I have never heard a child suggest fag breaks in 20 something years. 🙂

  11. Interesting debate.

    Quick point to throw in.

    Where else in life do we get to negotiate or determine rules other than in our own homes or possibly if you run your own business ( even the you have non-negotiable regulations you must adhere to)

    Or is it about relationship setting?

  12. Loving this debate! I do think that children aren’t daft and will recognise the rules generated are what the teacher would eventually want.

    I think some ownership, even in having the children sign the rules as an agreement will hand power over to the teacher but also help (most) children recognise the need for commitment to those values.

  13. Michael Tidd hit the nail on the head with the first comment.

    “No agreeing, no dictation, just a recognition that we abide by some social norms.”

    This is important to establish that these are the social norms of the school environment as they might not necessarily be the social norms of the child’s home.

  14. 100% on the side of the teacher setting the rules and telling the students what they are.

    This is something which happens in adult life anyway (you don’t choose what the speed limit is, or at what rate you pay taxes etc.)

    I know where you’re coming from with the idea that you can tell the students they’ve broken “their own rules”, but for those who’ve chosen to break a rule I don’t think you’ll cause them to feel more guilty or think more carefully about what they’ve done by telling them it’s “their own rules” they’ve broken.

    “My room, my rules”, as explained by Tom, is a good maxim for the classroom. You’re the trained teacher. You’re the professional. You decide what happens in that room.

  15. Michael Tidd says that he tells his year 5 to year 7 classes that “we all implicitly know the rules.”

    Well, you’d hope so, but just to be sure it is *far* better to make it explicit. Not only explicit, but in language that is ultra-clear.

    This is absolutely vital, and probably the main piece of advice I’d give a new 2014 participant. In fact, I’d encourage them to get it tattoed onto the insides of their eyelids.

    The worst teaching advice I ever received was in Teach First Summer Institute 2012 when we were told by a 2010 participant that on the first day of the academic year the students would be getting “The Rules” in every single class, and so we should just say “look, I know the rules, so do you, so let’s move on…”

    The best teaching advice I ever received was during my second year, where the head of year 7 told us that he would repeat his five simple rules in clear language in every single lesson of the first term (that’s every single lesson for 15 weeks).

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