Saturday, 1 January 2011

Ground rules with learners

To protect students and discourage bad feeling amongst them, ground rules are a necessary safeguard. To be able to build consensus in a classroom, ground rules are the yardstick. This, I usually explain to students as to what ground rules are and why they are needed. When consensus building is the reason for initiating ground rules or community norms, this is sometimes referred to as a protocol (code of correct conduct). Hence, academic protocol is a code of correct conduct that are agreed on by everyone in the class (both students and myself – the teacher) to be adhered to during lessons. Ground rules could be put together in my class by me (the teacher) setting my own rules, allowing the students to set their own, or by shifting grounds to allow for both students and myself to set the rules together. Any of these I choose, depends on age, region, and other contextual factors which support the fact that there is no one correct set of ground rules; as different approaches are appropriate in different circumstances. For example, the approach used in setting ground rules for adults in adult education could be different from that used for teenagers in secondary school or children in primary school.

One of the ways I have found very effective is to allow the students to suggest the rules and so have ownership of whatever list of rules they generate. Roger and Schwarz (1994) corroborates this as it makes my students feel greater responsibilities towards the rules suggested by them. If however, students are finding it difficult to suggest rules or do not suggest any suitable rule or rules that I regard as important to the success of my class, as it sometimes happens, then, I try to guide them towards such rules or add them to the list for further discussion; that is, if they can’t still generate rules in spite of my guiding them.
Susan and Carpenter (2001) talked of the importance of equality and fairness in setting ground rules. Therefore, the use of ground rules (i.e behavior and procedures) that students consider fair in my class is my own way of sending that important message to them that everyone should be treated equally and fairly.

At the commencement of my class with new intakes, setting of ground rules is taken seriously by me as this sets the tone for how the class is to run. This is an indirect way of stamping my authority as a teacher without overtly being mistaken as autocratic by students. Paul (2010) underscores this and talked of how suggestion of rules by participants in a group could help in achieving the goals of the group. For example, the class can agree that people should attend lesson on time, that they should talk one at a time, that they raise their hands and wait to be called on, or that they speak freely, that they must listen carefully to opposing statements or views, or that they must treat each other with dignity and respect, that no one is permitted to dominate a discussion, that derogatory language or attacks on other people's values or culture are not permitted.

In setting ground rules for my class, I try as much as possible not to be autocratic (domineering or dictatorial) but to be democratic (i.e, setting ground rules popular with all or for the benefit of all). This is why in my class, when students are deviating from obeying the ground rules directly or indirectly, it is easier for me to quickly call them to order by reminding them thus: Hope you suggested and agreed to abide by the rules? This has a way of curtailing the excesses of students as they wouldn’t want to let themselves down or to be seen as immature, or irresponsible. But a rebellious stance by students could be the case when they are told by the teacher: Remember to obey the rules I gave you! (Autocratic)

However, care should be taken not to exclude the concerns of some students when making ground rules. For example, there was a student in one of my classes who raised his hand to suggest that students should always raise their hands to indicate for teacher’s attention in order to contribute to discussions or to answer questions. But most of the students in that class didn’t like the idea as they felt the suggestion would make the class immature. Unknowingly to me (the teacher), that suggestion was ignored and never made it to the suggestion list, and by implication;... the final draft. I noticed after some lessons in class that this particular student never contributed in any class discussion, nor asked questions. In fact, he excluded himself psychologically from the class. It was later when I called him out to ask why that he confided in me that he didn’t like a class where people just speak at random without students’ indication for the teacher’s permission to contribute or ask questions. The lesson I learnt from that episode is that, during students’ suggestions to ground rules, what particular students suggest shouldn’t be ignored as that could just be what would make their learning worthwhile.

Ground rules therefore are the oil lubricating the wheels of lesson plan activities with which the success of teaching and learning rest.

Carpenter S. L. and Kennedy W.J.D., 2001. Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide for Government, Business, and Citizens' Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 118.
Paul C. Gorski, 2010. Guide for Setting Ground Rules. Multicultural Education and the Internet, Second Edition. Available at:,
[Accessed 28 Oct 2010]
Roger M. Schwarz, 1994. The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 64.

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