08/21/2007 02:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Breaking the Ruler

Education at the primary and secondary levels has always been rules-based: raise your hand, get a hall pass, obey the dress code, show your work, double-space, check your chewing gum at the door. As much as we hated them (and who didn't grow up hating all those rules?), schools have good reason to employ them. Understanding how rules work in society -- how to comply and function well within them -- is one of the basic socialization lessons of the education system.

We grew up learning to play by the rules while hating them all the while. It's no wonder we feel so ambiguous toward them.

The current trend is toward additional rules, not fewer. The current U.S. Federal emphasis on testing, standardized curricula, and accountability exerts a profound push towards a rules-based approach to learning and running a classroom. More rules seems to be the thinly veiled war cry underlying much of what these initiatives seek. Throughout the educational establishment, though, educators seem to be pushing back, as teachers decry more strict, standardized curriculums that hamper their ability to employ the full range of teaching tools to fulfill their students' specific needs.

I'm not expert enough to comment on whether or not these approaches to curriculum are better or worse for our students, but Rob Jacobs is writing a thoughtful series of posts on his blog, Education Innovation, where he explores HOW in the classroom. A recent installment on the influence of rules really inspired me:

We know that rules fail. Students find all sorts of clever ways around them. We adults use whatever gray area we can when the situation calls for it.

Like Rob, I wonder if the changes underway in society don't call for a new approach, whether our over-reliance on rules is truly preparing our students for the world to come.

Today's technology provides each of us with access, choice, and reach unimaginable just a few years ago and young people are early adopters. Think about the resources available to small-town middle school students in Iowa or Utah (or for that matter, Bangalore, India) as compared to a few years ago. Not only do they have the same information as their big-city peers but they have it right in their bedrooms. The technologies of tomorrow will only further these trends.As they can see out into their world, their world can see in. Social networking technologies allow young people unprecedented access to each other and unrestrained ability to share themselves. How, in the quiet dark of their bedrooms, do our kids know what information to share and what to spare? What is safe? What reveals too much? What is in their best interest over the long-term?

Rules put in place by teachers, parents, or mentors stand little change of restraining these kidsŐ behaviors and, as our kids grow up, they will encounter a world of choices that multiply faster than there will be rules to govern them. Yet we pile on more rules, seeking erroneously to counter permissiveness in the classroom. This just makes matters worse.

The more rules kids encounter, the more governance lives outside of them. These environments breed an over-reliance on rules at exactly the time when, to thrive in the world, they need to increasingly rely on themselves, their own decisions, and their own values to navigate the waters ahead.

That's why we need to help young people become more self-governing in everything they do. In a world that is more open than ever, is evolving faster than ever, and contains more choices and possibilities for more people than ever, every one of us starting at ever younger ages must get better at making decisions for ourselves, decisions that uphold our deepest values and that steer us with certainty, even in uncertain waters. It strikes me that this should begin in the classroom.

There's been a lot of interest in HOW from the education community, a trend I find both exciting and fascinating, and I think it reveals a deep vein of similar feeling. Though HOW is shelved in the Business Section, it's really a book about how we work together as groups and individuals to achieve our goals. Isn't that the real goal of our schools, too?

Let's talk more about how we can build self-governing cultures in the classroom as well as the workplace. I want to develop "10 Steps Toward a More Self-Governing Classroom," and make it available for any educator who wants it. To contribute, either offer a comment here or send a private email to our editors using this form.

Help me explore the ways in which we can we begin to help our children take on more of life's challenges. Lets not leave the real work to rules.