#5. Setting norms

Posted on February 24th, 2014

From the Institute for Learning, this is Pam Goldman.

Imagine a classroom in which students propose new ideas, agree and disagree with classmates, dispute others’ reasoning or sources, propose solutions to challenging tasks, and try out new academic vocabulary. In a class such as this, students make their own thinking visible and by so doing, create openings for refinement, revision, and rethinking. This is an Accountable Talk® environment that has great potential to promote student learning. Only, there is a fundamental challenge to creating this type of environment. When students open up their thinking for examination, they also take a risk. They might be wrong. Their ideas might not yet be well formed. They might have missed an important detail. They might misunderstand another student’s contribution. In other words, in the wrong kind of community, students might open themselves up for criticism, scorn, or ridicule. A fundamental question, then, is how do teachers create classroom communities in which it is safe for students to take intellectual chances, in which, in the best of all possible worlds, students enjoy the intellectual game? The answer is easy, develop a good set of norms, set up an enforcement system to make sure they are followed, and vigilantly apply that system.

Fortunately, the process of developing and enforcing norms is not necessarily onerous. There are two basic approaches: either the teacher brings a set of norms to the table or the teacher develops norms with the class. Each has its own advantages or disadvantages. You might get more buy-in with norms established in conjunction with students.

On the other hand, there could be reasons NOT to establish norms with students. For example, a school might decide to implement Accountable Talk and to utilize a set of common norms in all classes. In this case, it is still important to discuss the norms in your room to make sure everyone has a common understanding of what they mean and how they will be enforced. By the way, the word "enforcement" may sound harsh but the enactment of it can be friendly and casual, as long as it is consistent.

No matter how norms are established, it is important that they be written down and available to students either as a chart hanging in the room or as a handout they keep in their notebooks.

Recently, Donna Bickel, an IFL fellow, conducted a webinar about establishing a classroom culture that promotes Accountable Talk. Donna and the participants had a lively and interesting exchange of ideas. A recorded version of this webinar will be posted on the IFL website later this week.

Pam Goldman

Pam Goldman is the Institute for Learning (IFL) Instructional Design Fellow. In this role, she designs, authors, produces, and edits a series of learning tools for educators based on the Institute's theory of action and practice of district and school reform.

More information on Pam Goldman.