Class Rules rule!

Ancient history in internet time is six months ago; however again, I dare to set the way-back machine to the early 1990's, yet one more time"

"I had just come from working with a major hardware vendor located in Ohio, where field engineers took classes that required *months* to complete. The engineer-students were housed on a university-like campus, and they took training Monday through Friday all day long. As you might expect there was a lot of pressure to learn some fairly sophisticated hardware well enough to diagnose and repair it quickly in the field, while maintaining the company's good name.

Every Friday there were major tests over the previous week's technical content. These Friday tests were affectionately and accurately known as "you bet your job" tests, as failing one meant simply that you didn't work for the company any more. This tradition was decades old, and in retrospect, strangely well thought of.

I'd be the first to grant that fear is a strong motivator " maybe the best " but I have never enjoyed using it in my own classes: spoils it for everybody, if you ask me. Oh, I can be draconian in the classroom, I certainly know how: but what's the point?

While teaching for a certain west-coast software manufacturer with classes typically in the two-day to two-week range, motivation of students is an extremely important factor in the overall quality of the student experience. If you care about what your students learn, you have to be concerned about motivating them. (I know, nobody motivates anybody: but try we must...)

This is particularly true in the first hours of any given class. And if you think about it, this makes complete sense. If you have a lousy day 4 of a 10 day class, you can absolutely recover the next day, getting things back on track again. If you have a lousy first half day, however, you are dinged for the duration. Ouch. At least that's been my experience.

Consequently, how the class starts off has always been of prime importance to me.

For example, the classroom itself is always cleaned up, empty wastebaskets, no trash anyplace; clean white boards (I almost wrote black boards: showing my age!) except for the large WELCOME TO CARE AND FEEDING OF THE TASMANIAN NEWT CLASS! IN 3-D!! (Yes, my little good luck charm, I always had it up on the board with a hastily drawn pair of 3-D glasses swishing by"); servers and software all set; course materials at each student station, read to be used; chairs lined up. It was my way of showing the students as they strolled in that they were in the right place, and that somebody here was IN CHARGE. Boo-yah!

Experimentally at first, and later somewhat religiously, as part of the introductory half hour (starting without starting, yes?) I would throw a set of four classroom "rules" up on the wall just before starting chapter 1 of any class.

Oh of course, before then I would have already run through the usual housekeeping items (restrooms, class start and stop times, break schedule, refreshment locations, fire escapes, what to do in the event of an earthquake). Next would have been round the class introductions (who are you? where are you from? what work do you do? why are you here? what do you hope to learn in this class?).

Then, just before page 1 chapter 1, up went the rules. I'd announce each one and describe it, usually in as improvised manner as possible. All rules are equally important, thus:

Rule 1: Break things

Oh, I don't mean drop the monitor or keyboard 3 feet to the floor of course. If we tell you that the software or hardware behaves a certain way, prove it to yourself; don't take it on faith. Experiment with my hardware and software here in the classroom, so you don't have to on your own back at the office. Try new things. Be curious, forget that dash in the command line that we told you was required: see what happens. Break things while you are here. Honest.

Rule 2: Make mistakes

Make them on purpose, make them accidentally, it doesn't matter. You must make mistakes in this class. Big, small, it doesn't matter. I suggest you make a nice big one right away, so you can stop me from scrutinizing you for any suspected perfect behavior down the road...

Rule 3: Cheat

Cheat often, without fear, and with gusto. Cheat with verve. Cheat like there's no tomorrow. If I ask you a question and you don't know the answer, find it any way you can: ask each other; look in the manuals, look in your notes, look in your neighbor's notes; hell, even look in the course material if you get desperate. Ask me, even. Find answers any way you can, just like in life.

Rule 4: Have fun

Yep, this is the final class rule. You must have fun here. Ok, fact: adults learn better when they are relaxed. Obviously we here at the training center take your educational experience very seriously. But it's completely ok if you smile a time or two along your way to software certification"

So if you're still reading, you can see how this works. Rule 1 gives students a free reign to experiment throughout the training. They are given outright permission to explore which means they will freely pursue items of personal interest.

Rule 2 comes into play so very many different ways it's almost bizarre, but, a typical situation might be somebody quite obviously or vocally making some kind of silly mistake " perhaps even very silly " and maybe realizing it in midstream. Students are often embarrassed by being in this situation, but, this rule just cuts it all off: "Thank you dear student for obeying the rules of the class..." Smiles, everyone, smiles.

Rule 3 is a bit controversial I admit, but you'd be surprised how PERFECTLY WELL UNDERSTOOD it is by virtually every adult learner. Besides, knowing where answers lie is the next best thing to actually having a photographic memory.

Rule 4 is included just to set a tone: yes, you will learn here. Yes, it should not be a dog's misery to do so. Case rested.

Well, there you have it. Class rules are NEVER what the students expect them to be, and, get things rolling beautifully at those critical first moments of any class. Try these or your own, designed to set a constructive tone in your classes. Let us know here how it goes, as well.
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