The giant book of rules

occams razor

Reading Tom Bennett’s 20-point guide to solving the behaviour crisis in the TES today, I came across this:

“3. …The class rules should be so simple that they can be remembered by the busiest or most stressed of students or staff. More than ten is probably too many.”

I finished reading James Gleick’s The Information today, which aside from its eponymous hero is also about the tension between the simple and the complex. Specifically, how humans are driven towards simplicity but live in a world which seems driven towards the complex. So I read Mr Bennett with the concept of information on the brain.

The question of how many rules you need to effectively govern a given situation is an interesing one. The God of the Old Testament gave moral guidance through ten commandments, while Jesus Christ said two (Matt. 22:36-40). Bentham tried to build an ethical theory up from just one. But seemingly opposed to these views, the law of the land runs into thousands of pages. Even a simple iTunes user agreement is too much for a sane person to read. The simple rules of ethical guidance seem to be at odds with the more complex business of outlining the rules which constitute the law.

A behaviour management system (and all of the above are behaviour systems of a kind) needs simple rules to operate. This is an unquestioned truth (probably because it is true). I was always told that if you have too many rules in your classroom, they will not be followed because no one will know what they are. Nevertheless, when teaching secondary I fantasised about a giant book of rules which had a consequence for every kind of misbehaviour. It would be called the Law of the Classroom, and could be referred to whenever there was a doubt.

Obviously, it would have been hugely impractical to refer to a physical book during a lesson. Then one day, during a 3:15pm session with my analyst, I realised: the desire for such a book was a response to being unsure of what to do in situations that I had not predicted. Experienced teachers have already encountered the majority of predicted situations. Rare situations have already occured, been dealt with ad hoc, and a precendent set, which can be referred back to at a later date. Good teachers, it seems, carry the complex Law of the Classroom in their heads, yet govern through reference to a set of (at most) ten basic rules.


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