One Rule Game

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Area: History and Social Studies, Other Areas
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School, Primary/Elementary School
Topics: ethics, fairness, rules, Society, utilitarianism
Estimated Time Necessary: 1 hour

Lesson Plan

To help a community of philosophical inquiry develop their group's rules and norms.
This is a wonderful activity to do with students early in your time meeting with them. Together, they can think about the right rules or norms to guide their community of philosophical inquiry.
Thinking together about rules and what makes a rule good or bad.
By developing rules and discussing their pros and cons together, students get to think about what constitutes a good or bad rule and what rules are best to guide their group.

This exercise attempts to give students the opportunity to formulate rules that they themselves would choose to be governed by. It explores the rules that they, as a community, would agree upon. And it tries to implement these rules in the classroom setting so as to test their viability in the crucible of real-world experience.

Here’s how it works.

Begin by talking about rules and what their purpose is. Typically, we will motivate the discussion by reading Chapter 12 (“The Schoolroom”) from E.B. White’s classic, Stuart Little. In this selection, Stuart, who, in spite of being the son of human parents, looks exactly like (and is the same size as) a field mouse, has taken a one-day job as a substitute teacher. He proposes to his class that he would like to be Chairman of the World and asks them what rules they think ought to be instituted. Stuart’s students suggest rules like “No stealing,” “No being mean,” and “Don’t kill anything except rats.”

In the classroom, discuss the pros and con of such rules, much as Stuart does in his class.

Then pass out index cards to the students and ask them to envision a classroom in which they were bound by only one rule. What rule would that be? Students should then write down their one rule on the notecard they’ve been given.

Some of the rules that students have come up with include:

• Don’t insult other people’s wonders, thoughts, opinions, and questions.

• Raise your hand if you have a question.

• Respect others.

• Don’t make fun of others’ ideas.

• The class must receive 5 minute breaks every hour.

• Respect others’ opinions and SHUT-UP when other people talk.

• Microsoft is off-limits for discussion.

• Dave has to bring candy to class every day.

Once students have formulated their rules, collect the notecards and then, after mixing them up, pass them back. Each student should now have a rule that he or she didn’t write. In groups of two, students then work to come to an agreement about which of their two rules they would choose to be bound by.

Depending upon how large the class is, you might repeat this process with groups of four, having that group come to an agreement on one rule out of the two each pair group had decided upon earlier.

In any case, once the full list of rules has been winnowed down some, write the remaining rules on the board. The class then has to pick five rules that they will choose to be bound by for the remainder of the class. (Let them know, though, that they will always have the option of reconsidering the rules they choose; if good reasons can be given for changing them and the class can agree that changes are warranted, rules can be changed.)

There’s nothing particularly special about the choice to have the agreed-upon five rules. It just seems that five is a fairly manageable number. Fewer rules than five might not provide enough guidance for the class; more rules than five might be too difficult to remember.

Ultimately, students end up voting for the five rules they prefer; often there is some overlap among the five. For instance, in one class, one rule was “Respect others.” Another rule was “Respect others’ ideas.” This led to a discussion about whether there’s a difference between respecting a person and respecting a person’s ideas; students in that class thought it amounted to pretty much the same thing. Still, they wanted to keep both rules.

Sometimes a strange or challenging rule slips in. At a middle school one of our collaborators David Shapiro regularly visited, the students chose as one of their rules “Dave has to bring donuts to class.” He made it a point to abide by the rule. The next class, he brought a box of donuts and the class used passing them out as a way to explore ideas of fairness. Once the topic of fairness was on the table, the class was able to wonder whether it was fair that Dave was the one who had to be responsible for bringing donuts each time. Some students said since he was a grown-up, it was fair; others said that it wasn’t fair to put such a responsibility on one person for the entire group. By the end of class, the students had decided to modify the rule so that it read, “Someone has to bring a treat to every class.” This went on for a few classes until students got tired of it and the rule was changed to “Students are allowed to bring their own treats to class.”