"Erm.don't punch anyone on the face?"
I look at Patrick approvingly.
"Yes, that's a good rule. The classroom wouldn't be a very safe place if we all went around punching each other, would it?"
I write Patrick's contribution on the flipchart, rephrasing it to give it a positive spin: "Do be kind and gentle".
Other children begin to offer their suggestions. Each time, I go through the same routine: discuss why it's important, sum up the principle and write it on the flipchart.
We're writing the class rules. Schools vary considerably in how they do this. Should you, like a benevolent dictator, simply recite the unshakeable norms of social conduct? Or should it be a more democratic exercise?
Perhaps, like me, you favour the latter course of action, and agree upon a code that you will follow as a class during your time together. This approach ensures that the children actively engage with the expectations that are being set. That's important because, like any other lesson, a buy-in from the students is crucial if you want the learning to stick.
More than that, however, this approach pulls back the curtain to show the reasoning behind the dos and the don'ts. Rules aren't there to give teachers an excuse to yell at the class, they are unspoken mutual promises.
Many people in education believe that this whole endeavour is laughably unrealistic. It sounds lovely, they say, but doesn't the very notion of allowing children to play a part in setting the rules challenge your authority in the room? If you're debating the rules, it suggests that they are, well, up for debate. That sort of uncertainty creates a very small, but very real, chink in the armour of your behaviour management. The concern is that students will then pull at that chink until it's a gaping hole.
Perhaps even worse, they add, is the dishonesty of this approach. The children don't ultimately get to change the rules, do they? The school will already have a set of non-negotiables and your job as a teacher is to ensure obedience. Sure, the children may not like it now, but they'll thank you later.
From the inside out
Let's say you take the benevolent dictator approach. After all, you're the adult, the teacher, and it's your job to ensure that the children learn as much as possible while in your care.
But by employing these tactics to deal with poor behaviour, you may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If children learn only to respond to external motivations or deterrents, they fail to fully understand why such rules are enforced in the first place.
So, what if the process of arriving at the rules became as important as the rules themselves? You're probably familiar with psychologist Jean Piaget's stages of cognitive development, but the related stages of moral development are less well known. We all begin with a pre-conventional understanding of right and wrong, in which we blindly obey authority and try to avoid punishment. It doesn't take a great deal of thought to understand why we wouldn't want children (or anyone else in society) to remain at this stage.
Instead, by exploring the reasons that underpin the rules - the mutual benefits that can be gained by agreeing to act in accordance with a code - we help children to move to a conventional understanding of morality. Eventually, if children are encouraged to reflect on their actions alongside the rights of others, we can help them to ascend to an understanding of universal rights. Hitting isn't wrong because a rule says so; the rule reflects the fact that hitting causes harm. We can all agree to that because nobody wants to be hurt.
The benevolent dictator approach will also, if applied constantly and consistently, result in the desired behaviours. But since the reason that children display those behaviours is simply to avoid punishment, you are building on foundations of sand.
Don't just take my word for it. Moral psychologists have compared different approaches to discipline and have consistently found that inculcation based on the reasons that underpin rules results in better discipline than a traditional authority-based approach, underwritten by rewards and sanctions.
So if you are the benevolent dictator type, it may be worth reassessing your options in the period before next September. We can all agree that "Don't punch anyone on the face" is a good rule, but you may find more success in enforcing it if the students have a hand in creating it.
Jon Brunskill teaches at a primary school in Leyton, East London
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