December 10, 2019

Dr. G’s #AGU19 Spotlight – Invisible Rules in the Classroom

Posted by Laura Guertin

What invisible rules do our students perceive in a very unstructured learning environment?

Students think they know the rules when they walk into our classrooms, even if those rules do not actually exist.

The rules need to be broken by the person in charge (of the classroom, that’s the instructor).

Go out and break the rules!

This was another takeaway for me from the AGU Fall Meeting workshop on Inclusive and Effective College Science Classrooms. Dr. Kimberley Tanner (Director of SEPAL at San Francisco State University) started the workshop with an activity in building mobiles. I’m not going to be able to effectively describe the masterful way Dr. Tanner led us through the activity, but what we had to do was divide into teams and create a mobile (this is the one my team created – we called it “Sepal” after the leaves on it).

What we didn’t realize (a few people did – I did not) is that each team in the room had a different set of supplies to work with. Our multiple colors and sheets of construction paper, scissors, tape, string, 3 coat hangers, a glitter pen, and markers was a “deluxe” set of supplies that allowed us to construct the mobile we planned. Others in the room didn’t have nearly as much to work with. So why didn’t we share supplies with each other? Why didn’t anyone ask anyone else to borrow a pair of scissors to construct their mobile? Or merge our teams to create a larger mobile?

Of course, we thought that was a rule – only work with the materials you had in front of you. But Dr. Tanner never said we couldn’t share supplies or loan out the scissors. In a room full of educational professionals, why didn’t we maximize the resources so we could all accomplish the goal of making the mobile of our dreams?

Enter the idea of “invisible rules”. We all thought we knew the boundaries of the task at hand, of the assignment in front of us… yet we were mistaken. If this is what we as experienced instructors think, imagine what our students think (see the quotes above).

Dr. Tanner repeated over and over again that we need to go out and break the rules. I first need to take a step back and try to identify what the rules are my students think are in place – then, I can break them! And each of us should think about what this will do for our students, for inclusive and effective practices in our classrooms.