It is oftentimes assumed that the “rules” of the classroom must be determined solely by the teacher. He or she decides what constitutes appropriate behavior and the students immediately view themselves as a group of individuals that must be managed by an authority figure. This dynamic can create resistance, resentment, and a feeling of powerlessness.
Rules are oftentimes posted on a wall and enforced without much thought put into whether or not they make sense or are even needed. Ergo, when a student pushes back and refuses to follow them, the teacher doesn’t actually have an explanation beyond, “because it’s the rules.”
The whole point of having rules is to ensure that the classroom is safe, the learning objectives can be met, and a positive experience is shared by all. Given this rationale it makes sense to bring students and learners into the process of determining what kind of behavior is encouraged in order to foster such an environment and for the group to take ownership over enforcing the rules. Since the word, “rule,” conjures up images of the authority based model of setting class norms, the term “group agreement” has been increasingly adopted by classrooms that practices a more community-based approach to establishing the learning norms.
In this interview, peace educator Barbara Wien talks about how she helps the learning community generate group agreements in her classes.
The organization, Youth Workin’ It, provides a good definition of what constitutes a “group agreement” and what makes them different from “rules.”
“Some might consider a group agreement, ‘the rules.’ The key difference between a group agreement and ‘rules’ comes in the creation and enforcement (emphasis original).
“Rules are often top down. They’re usually created and enforced by the person in charge. A group agreement though is created by the entire group. They decide what goes on and discuss why it’s important for the group” (YouthWorkinIt.org).
Youth Workin’ It also has a good lesson plan on how to develop group agreements with learners and the forms the final set of agreements can take – flip chart, individual contracts, etc.
Reflection Question: Group agreements, as defined, are created and supported by the learners themselves, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t occasions where certain “non-negotiable” agreements must be respected. What, if any, non-negotiable agreements do you feel are necessary for the learning environments in which you work? How do you incorporate those non-negotiables into the list of agreements so that everyone understands their importance and adheres to them?