Rules vs norms

Although they are used interchangeably on many occasions, the terms "rules" and "norms" have different meanings and hence yield different outcomes in a classroom setting.

In opposing corners

Rules are always imposed by someone in authority. For example, education superintendents impose rules on school boards, school boards impose rules on school administrators, school administrators impose rules on teachers, and, finally, teachers impose rules on students.

Rules are made by authority figures. They are initiated and sustained by power. They are not easily changed. People for whom rules are made are not involved in the process of establishing them. They are also not allowed to question the rules or the authority figures.

As such, rules are made to be obeyed, not to be discussed or challenged. Non-compliance with rules always leads to punishment and unpleasant consequences. In most cases, the authority figures who make rules and impose them on others do so because the rules are supposedly good for the latter.

Norms, on the other hand, are collective agreements essential for the functioning of people within a group (such as a typical classroom). It is a facilitative component of group processes. In the case of a classroom, norms are agreements on the type of words, behaviours and mental patterns that are acceptable and unacceptable between teachers and students, and among students themselves. Norms are not enforced, but are agreed upon by all members of a group.


Another difference between rules and norms is that norms affect everyone in the classroom, while rules may or may not affect everyone.

A closer look at these two terms and how they operate in the real world reveals that rules often induce a spirit of disobedience. This spirit reveals the need for freedom in decision-making. It also reflects a craving for independence. Most defiant behaviours in the classroom can be attributed to the lack of a sense of independence in students. When they feel that they are severely controlled, students rebel to assert individual preferences and characteristics.

Unfortunately, rules are often approached with the following mentality by many students, both young and old: "Why are rules made in the first place? To be broken!"

On the contrary, when teachers and students collaboratively establish norms in the classroom, even badly-behaved students would eventually respect and adhere to them. In this sense, norms serve as a set of highly influential, collectively-agreed-upon guidelines.

The experience of establishing norms provides students with a chance to think hard and long about what's acceptable and what's unacceptable in the classroom. The norms agreed upon by students make sense to them. They appear to be ideal for harmonious and optimised functioning for academic purposes.

Clearly, norms are different from a set of rules that an authority figure imposes on students. Norms motivate students to honour communally-endorsed classroom behaviours and attitudes as a sign of loyalty to their friends and teacher.

Holding students responsible for their own good behaviour is very important. Norms, not rules, allow students to become accountable for their own behaviour.

And the winner is

Although they are important, rules are not powerful enough to create a positive classroom environment. Norms, while seemingly flimsy, possess greater power to elicit positive classroom compliance. This compliance is not imposed but harvested through mutual agreement and the feeling of togetherness between the teacher and students.

Effective classroom norms should be few, well-considered, enforced consistently, fair and student-centred. The successful implementation of norms creates a sense of respect between students and teachers. Since they naturally value a teacher's show of respect towards them, students tend to work hard to keep it that way by upholding classroom norms.

Dr Edward Roy Krishnan is the director of Kent Thailand, Institute of Business & Technology ( He also lectures in the Graduate School of Psychology, Assumption University. He can be contacted at To access additional articles by him, visit

About the author

Writer: Edward Roy Krishnan, PHD
Position: Writer