I came across this interesting article form New Zealand, about a school that has gotten rid of all the little rules regulating their playground. The unexpected result: A safer school with more confident children.
It’s a pattern I’ve often observed. In the Information Commons we try and minimise rules and give students the ownership and responsibility for their space (have a look at our code of conduct). It isn’t a perfect solution, but largely it works well. Taking into account the volume of visitors (1.3M per year, and growing), we have surprisingly little behaviour problems, thefts etc.
I’ve thought about the dynamics of this a lot. A side effect of a rule it seems, is that it moves responsibility away from an internally motivated judgement to something external, generic and anonymous. There are 2 main risks linked to this. The first is that human judgement is far more versatile then a rule. It is almost impossible to define a rule that covers all possible circumstances adequately. The second problem is that we’ve removed the development of an internal motivation to moderate behaviour. People tend to be far more casual about braking an externally imposed rule, then an internally motivated behaviour.
When we find people are no longer always internally motivated to obey our rules, the response to that is often to introduce sanctions, an external motivation to comply. Sanctions and punishments however also introduce a new problematic side effect: The sanction now becomes the most ‘visible’ consequence of breaking the rule. In stead of weighing up what the effects of their actions are, people might now just consider whether the risk of incurring a sanction is a price worth paying for breaking a rule.
It’s a funny dynamic. Rules seem a great way to solve a problem on paper. But in my experience they seldom work as expected. That is not to say that all rules are bad of course, but we often are far too casual introducing them to solve a problem in my view. This school seems to have found an interesting solution where the group as a whole discusses and commits to a possible rule or guideline that is deemed to be required to solve a problem. This means people are still internally motivated and engaged with moderating their behaviour, which might circumvent the problem. I’m glad some research is being done into this, and great results like the outcome in this New Zealand school are achieved.