Rules aren’t the answer

Mar 01

Thanks to a comment from Bill Ferriter, I finally took the time to watch Barry Schwartz’ recent TED talk. Schwartz talk on the Paradox of Choice remains one of my favourites but this one might surpass it.

For a great synopsis of the talk check out Rob Jacob’s post.

As Bill connected my post on worthless pursuits to this talk, I continue to believe how important it is for us to devise organizations that are focused on responsibility rather than accountability.  Accountability infers rules. Responsibility infers caring.

I’m reminded of friends of ours who are a few years older than us and when we were young parents, they talked to us about their approach to parenting. They told us they had very few rules. They preferred to invest time in developing guidelines and developed understandings with their kids that made sense to everyone. It didn’t mean their kids always did the right things but the discussions and time spent was on values and relationships, not maintaining or rewriting rules. Reminds me of SLA. I understand that many view this approach as idealistic but not realistic in every situation. I would argue, that rules often make us lazy. We would love if we could simply develop a bunch of rules and know that they will be followed. Rules, on their own are never enough.

I pulled a great quote from the talk and created another image for my collection.

<div class=Rules

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  • Alan Stange

    “I continue to believe how important it is for us to devise organizations that are focused on responsibility rather than accountability. Accountability infers rules. Responsibility infers caring.”

    That remark echoes my feelings as much as it runs counter to the stream around us. Inevitably systems that purport to be accountability driven flounder under the immense expectations they have created for themselves. Tacitly, they return to a functional reliance on responsibility, but not without straining the organization. My illustration of my assertion is the Saskatchewan Departmental examinations. Core subjects such as mathematics, sciences, English language, and social studies are deemed important enough to require standardized accountability, yet ithis accountability is compromised by the realities of limited institutional resources. The level of commitment varies over time. Social Studies is no longer being tested by the department. Apparently those teachers are accredited enough to evaluate, where the language arts teachers are not. Language Arts remains the only test involving written answers. The remainder, after a brief flirtation with essay and short answer questions, have reverted to machine scored multiple choice. These decisions are not driven by genuine concerns with accountability, they are governed by finance.

    Professionals are always accountable, but that is not what is under discussion. This is bean counting. I had an epiphany as a grad student. I was carefully crafting a concept map on my trusty (and much loved) Apple //e. It came to me suddenly that what I wanted to say was being mediated by how I could say it on a computer with limited flexibility. We see this in the mechanizms of accountability. Avenues and mechanisms of accountability govern what is deemed of value.

    The educational value of daily discourse in the classroom is left to the responsibility of the teacher because because the resources required to bring such activity under the umbrella of accountability are prohibitive. My grade five students are currently engaged in creative writing on computers. We users know exactly how dynamic and fluid this this writing process is. The writing assessment they will be taking requires a handwritten process involving planning, drafting and finishing. Why, because that is a practical way to measure the students. Even an application like wikispaces, with its detailed history of revisions, does not completely capture the writing process.

    Measuring learning or measuring action research of the practitioner, it always seems to be a compromise to our good intentions. All this can be very frustrating.

  • Alan Stange

    Why do you suppose a fifth of my comment appears trapped behind your side bar? Does your blog hate Firefox?

  • Rhondda

    I have been debating for a while about “authorities” trying to make rules for everything we do and think. People using the excuse “that there was no law that made me do or not something” when it was patently obvious that the consequence of their actions that could have been foreseen. (it is not far removed from the “I was only following orders” excuse)
    I love the picture and quote above. Sometimes it may take more effort but thinking is necessary to the human race and it sets us apart from our pets. Thinking requires us to take responsibility for our actions and this also applies to our learning. There is not always a simple solution, or even just one solution, but each individual needs to think about the problem/issue/etc. and work through to find their own meaning and understanding. This of course doesn’t mean that there should be no laws or rules at all but how much micro-managing is needed for a community to function. Rules imposed from above are not always understood, agreed to or followed.
    I have been arguing against our federal government’s proposed internet filter (that sets out to save us from ourselves) because, yet again, it can be used to abrogate all responsibility. It does not protect us from everything and, sooner or later, the users will have to understand and take responsibility for their own digital footprint.
    To be good digital citizens, our young people will need to have thought about, discussed and developed an understanding. That is what we need to allow, not make more rules for them.

  • Dean Shareski


    Great point. Rules often reflect lowest common denominator in terms of what is “doable”, not necessarily what is best. As teachers we try and create high standards for our students but often are bound but rules which don’t serve our students best.
    (thanks for the update on my blog, I needed to update the theme. I think it’s fixed now)


    This argument speaks directly to the idea of filtering. Filtering is lazy. Teaching is hard.

  • Jan Smith

    As I read this post, it occurs to me that you seem to be channeling Margaret Wheatley. Her ideas about how organizations really work are echoed in so much of what you write. In a mechanistic world view, rules and procedures exist to manage creativity and diversity. “Creativity is unwanted, because it is always surprising and therefore uncontrollable…A machine world is willing to sacrifice exploration for prediction. In our machine-organizations we trade uniqueness for control, and barter our humanness for petty performance measures.” Does that sound familiar?

    Wheatley is a Share-ski sort in that all of her essays are available on-line. Look for a chance to hear or meet her in person; you speak the same language, I think.

    Thanks for pulling threads together.

    Jan Smiths last blog post..Presenting…to those who need to know.

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  • Rob Jacobs

    Dean, your post reminds me of an interview by Ruth Walker on the writing for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge site. She summarized an interview with Roger Perkins, author of “Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.” She writes..

    “Perkins sees two unfortunate tendencies in education: One is what he calls “elementitis”—learning the components of a subject without ever putting them together. The other is the tendency to foster “learning about” something at the expense of actually learning it. “You don’t learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice,” he noted, but in learning math, for instance, students are all too often presented with prescribed problems with only one right solution and no clear indication how they connect with the real world.”

    When we focus only on rules, we fall into the trap of “elementitis.” We take rules out the greater goal of character development. Students learn not to run in the halls, and instead they skip in the halls and then we make a rule against that. We fight these separate “elements” of behavior but never connect it to the bigger goal of building character and why character is important for students. Our constant focus on the various infractions has caused us to ignore the bigger, and more important real world picture of developing students as people, as leaders, as good citizens, as children or young men and women with character.

    Rob Jacobss last blog post..Practical Wisdom: The Mashup of Moral Skill and Moral Will

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  • Gary Zeiss

    Barry Schwartz’s talk was among the best ever. I used it in a class I was recently teaching at the University of Chicago Law School on Law, Economics & Entrepreneurship