Schools and rules

Paula Wine blogs:

Starting a new school means creating everything from the ground up…there is a vacuum that needs to be filled with systems, structures, curriculum, timetables, and so on.  This is both an exciting opportunity and a challenge.  It certainly forces us to clarify our thinking about everything to do with teaching and learning, because decisions need to be made.  

I reckon it would be great to be a principal and/or deputies in a new school, as you do get to create everything the way you want it, rather than just inherit it.

So what rules will we have?  We’ve all come from where there have been a range of rules…no cell phones, no nail polish, only regulation hair tie colour, no jewellery, no climbing trees, no skate boards or scooters past the gates, no running, no talking, no hair down, no long hair, no hair colour, no make up, no no no.  There are other rules too…students must underline in red in one class, then underline in green in the next.  A margin must be ruled for this teacher, but not for that one.  I’ve seen where kids need to walk single file from one building to the next, with their hands linked behind their back, completely silent.  Yet another school where kids are not allowed to clap at assembly (spontaneously) until the principal instructs them to do so.  I’ve seen assemblies where kids have to sit with straight backs and arms folded for 50 minutes.  Really? 

My question is why?  Why is there a rule that no nail polish is allowed at school?  If this is a rule in your school, I’m not judging, I just need to know, how does nail polish affect learning?  Why does nail polish matter?  And why can’t kids clap spontaneously when they feel like it?  Why does hair colour matter?  Why not climb trees?  Why do we dictate which colour a child uses to write the date?  

I understand we need some rules to keep everyone safe and for learning to take place.  I’m just posing the question ‘why?’ to many of the rules we have traditionally had, and possibly under an outdated model of schooling.  Possibly the answer is that rules are part of life, that in the workplace it’s not ‘anything goes’, that discipline is good for kids?  I don’t know, I’m just guessing really.

I think both Governments and schools should ask “Why do we have this rule” and “Is it necessary”. Some are of course, but common sense can go a long way.

One thing I do know, and this goes for students and teachers, is that as soon as you start micro-managing people with rules, they stop thinking for themselves. They become compliant or they take their genius somewhere else. Enforced mediocracy eliminates all of the colour, and we are left with grey.  

Of course structure is needed – this gives people a sense of security, but let there be freedom and flexibility within the structure to be, to grow, to take risks, to fail, and possibly to soar.

Success means little without the risk of failure.

I have noticed that when there is a problem in the play ground, and if it becomes a bother, an inconvenience for busy teachers, there can be a knee-jerk reaction to create more rules.  Yes, this will make things easier in the short term, but what a wasted opportunity.  I know in many schools, for example, there have been kids fighting over the collectable supermarket cards and toys.  I understand the appeal of banning them, but isn’t that a great learning opportunity for our kids?  Will there be elevated emotions?  Probably.  Will there be frustration, tears?  Possibly.  But isn’t this a chance to develop our New Zealand Curriculum key competencies…getting along with others, problem solving, conflict resolution, compromising, negotiating, sharing, caring, showing respect for others, communicating effectively, etc. In Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk ‘Our Loss of Wisdom’ he emphasises this: ‘What happens when we turn increasingly to rules…moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn.’   

Banning the cards is the easy way out, and the wrong way.

I’ve always got a kick out of self-managing or toi mana whakahaere; don’t get me wrong, I’m all for kids developing self-managing, but what tickles me is the various  (mis) perceptions of what self-management means.  Self-managing is not about sitting up straight, being quiet, being compliant. Self-managing is about our kids actively thinking for themselves, making decisions, and dealing with the consequences.  It’s about ‘managing self’.  Sadly many of our students learn to ‘play the game’ and as Hattie (2012) describes it, they learn to be ‘…physically present, passively engaged, but psychologically absent.’ That is (in my opinion) tragic.  But if we are so controlling with our rules, when do kids ever get the chance to make decisions or learn how to manage themselves?  

A great quote from Hattie. The great teachers make sure the kids are actively and psychologically engaged.

If you want to take it even further, watch the televised No Rules School about Swanson School, a school in South Auckland that has eliminated all rules at play time.  Principal Bruce McLaughlin talks about helicopter parenting, how wrapping kids in cotton wool is taking away a lot of learning opportunities for kids.  The school has introduced risky, unmanaged play because risk is good for young brain development; the prefrontal cortex bit of the brain that manages risk and controls emotion develops when you expose it to risk and emotions; the argument is that kids need this stimulus to develop, and it is better to allow for managed risk now at 8 up a tree rather than at 18 in a bar.  Some may find this too extreme, and I agree I too feel a bit nervous about the risk, but there is something to letting kids work stuff out for themselves.  There is also something to minimising control and letting kids just get on with it and play!

I wonder how long Swanson has been doing this, and how it has worked out?

Last week we visited Matapihi Kindergarten in Te Mata…hands down the highlight of my week.  While I was struck by the emphasis on beauty, the abundance of natural and recycled materials, and all the available items for self-initiated play. There was an abundance of active play and exploration of their natural environment.  It was so cool!  But,what I really noticed was the absence of teacher intervention. Although we didn’t discuss ‘the rules’ at Matapihi, it was obvious that these children were given the opportunity to sort stuff out for themselves, and ask for help when they needed it.  They were allowed to be faced with challenges (inclement weather, risky games, asking for help, negotiating game rules and problem solving) and deal with the outcome.  We smiled as we watched two boys negotiate their way down a muddy hill on a recycled skate board (wheels removed), falling, laughing, tumbling their way down, deciding it was too dangerous, and modifying their game accordingly.  No teachers intervened.  No one said ‘no’.  No one said ‘don’t get dirty’ or ‘don’t do that’, ‘you’ll get hurt’.  It was seriously cool.  It just felt like an environment that promotes the peaceful expression of each little learner as a developing individual.  It felt like their uniqueness, their specialness, was being honoured, celebrated.  It felt like not everyone conforming to same-same.  How refreshing.  And guess what?  Every child was engaged.  Every child was learning.  Every child had their needs met.  Every child was being challenged.  Every child was happy.  

I see a parallel with this and the law allowing bars to open for Rugby World Cup games without special licenses and conditions. The Police, wowser groups and the Greens all predicted awful things. Drunk people rolling out of bars past schools. But you know what, overwhelmingly none of this happened as most people can work out where to draw the lines. And we shouldn’t always make rules for the lowest common denominator.


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