Learning the Rules of the Game

This September, when students enter classrooms across the country, they'll wonder - what are the rules here? Spoken or unspoken, articulated or assumed, what are the laws that govern how I interact with the teacher, with my peers, with the environment?

Because there are always rules to be followed.

And rules to be broken.

But why do we have rules? No, really, why?

Code of Hammurabi, 1754 BCE

Code of Hammurabi, 1754 BCE

Codes of conduct stretch as far back through history as we can see, at least as far back as 1754 BCE, as of course any global history student could tell you.

Hammurabai's Code is one of the earliest examples of rules recorded for a society to live by. While harsh by today's standards, they provided guidelines for how people could successfully interact and collaborate with one another.

6. If any one steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.
132. If the "finger is pointed" at a man's wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.
282. If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

Over time, societies have revised, rewritten, and reimagined what rules should govern, often in light of new and developing knowledge of how their world works. This allows civilizations to grow and develop, as the accomplishments of the individual grow through the collaboration of the group.

Beyond civil laws, humans form rules to govern almost every social interaction. From science to sports to sex, norms develop that govern how people collaborate.

Rules are regularly revised to reflect changes in how the game is played, and how the game can be played better based on new skills, techniques, and developments. For example, FIFA revised part of one rule after the development of hybrid material systems:

The way people interact changes based on new understanding, so those rules need to change too.

For decades, school rules often followed societal norms.

Children should be seen, but not heard.

White and colored students should be separate.

People who don't conform should be removed (suspended, institutionalized in a mental hospital, or sent to prison, the one often leading to the other).

Compliance to these norms was the standard for learning, and sadly too many of these norms continue to pervade classrooms, even while new understanding of how learning happens emerged.

The National Academy of Sciences summarizes it like this:

"The essence of matter, the origins of the universe, the nature of the human mind—these are the profound questions that have engaged thinkers through the centuries. Until quite recently, understanding the mind—and the thinking and learning that the mind makes possible—has remained an elusive quest, in part because of a lack of powerful research tools. Today, the world is in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of scientific work on the mind and brain, on the processes of thinking and learning, on the neural processes that occur during thought and learning, and on the development of competence.

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illustrate, a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today."

We have new knowledge, so we need new rules.

When we better understand how the mind learns best, we need to develop rules that encourage that learning to happen. At UAGC, we use the rules of the Learning Cultures formats to guide our interactions, formats based on decades of research on how the mind works and how learning happens.

In the 16th century, the poet John Donne wrote "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Contemporary science has proven this true, and past rules like "Be silent during class" have been found too often hindering learning than helping it.


Learning is a social process; knowledge isn't simply a transfer from one mind to another, from the teacher to the student. Knowledge comes from the interaction between minds.

Collaboration is essential for learning to occur.

In the formats, collaboration is encouraged between the student and the teacher, between the student and a resource, and, most importantly, between students themselves. One of the primary ways this occurs is in Cooperative Unison Reading, a format in which students and teachers participate in every class. And, like Messi following FIFA's laws, we follow the rules to experience success.

CUR provides a space with very clear guidelines through which students engage with each other in discourse - the sort of discourse that allows learning to happen. There are three rules to follow, and a rubric that outlines the role of students and teachers (players and refs) so that collaborative learning is as powerful as possible.

Breaching, making your thinking visible, is at the heart of CUR. One student recently compared it to a card game, but one where "you don't hold your cards up, close to your chest. The point is how can everyone in the group lay the most cards on the table." CUR is about getting everyone's cards on the table, including the author of the text. What is their intention - is it achieved? How can we engage with them. The more perspectives are engaged, the more knowledge is built. This is the foundation of everything we do, so we hold to the rules that allow the most perspectives to be heard.

So we have new rules, but do they make that big of a difference?


I mean, really, yes.

If we want to be able to achieve something together, which we now know is essential for learning, then we need to learn and follow rules and norms that get everyone in the game. All cards on the table. We need to figure out how to talk to each other because, when we don't, things get bad.

We live in a democracy, and democracy is dependent on people learning how to work together, to hear each other's positions, shift perspectives, compromise, and come to a common understanding. When that doesn't happen, things get bad.

Living, like learning, doesn't happen in isolation. In our increasingly inter-connected world, we can't just go it alone, whatever politicians or pundits say. We must figure out ways to work together to solve the issues that confront us - war, refugees, terrorism, climate change, discrimination, injustice of all kinds - or things really will get bad.

So at UAGC, we practice collaboration because there really isn't any other way to do it.

We have to work together, and now is as good a time as any to learn how.