Rules are there to be broken

18 Feb

It’s a conventional saying. What made it memorable was when it was used by one of my school teachers.

I may have misinterpreted the meaning. There’s a difference between rules ‘should’ be broken and rules ‘are there’ to be broken.

If I speed, I may be fined, or lose my licence. If I don’t pay my taxes, I’ll be in trouble. So there’s some merit in following the rules if you want a quiet life.

But look around you at the world. The rules-based post-war world order is being torn down by the current president of its principal creator. And does the Kremlin play by the rules? What exactly are the rules when it comes to dinsinformation campaigns and asynchronous warfare?

In the UK, is politics following the normal rules when a Conservative government wins a majority thanks to votes in traditional Labour seats in the north while liberals in affluent areas in the south hold their noses?

But my topic is not politics but education. We’ve created a generation of students who’ve learnt how to follow the rules just as the world is overturning the principle of ‘business as normal’. We incentivise those who respond to manageable tasks in predictable ways. We don’t do enough to encourage individualism or creativity.

This may be an appropriate way to prepare people for rules-based workplaces. But how does it allow for disruption or innovation?

Can you set an assignment when there are no rules other than the requirement to ‘go solve the problem’? Educationalists say you can’t. The world says we must.

What was memorable about my school teacher telling me that ‘rules are there to be broken’ is that it sounded subversive to me. It was unexpected and liberating. It was a valuable lesson.

We’ve learnt about the value of the memorable teacher this week from retired footballer Ian Wright. There’s a soft power in teaching that can lead to some unexpected outcomes long after the assumed ROI of grades or student satisfaction survey responses. I bet no one included that in the ‘learning outcomes’ of a long ago lesson.

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