Over the course of the last week, I’ve had two separate conversations with two different principals about the critically important role that clearly articulated sets of norms play in governing the work of successful learning teams.

Both principals are leading their buildings through the transition from traditional to collaborative schoolhouses — and both underestimated the importance of the norming process.

That’s understandable, isn’t it?

Norms are one of those ideas that seems overly-restrictive.  “Why EXACTLY do we need a set of rules for our learning teams?” the thinking often goes, “We ARE all adults, aren’t we?  Why can’t we just act like it?”

Here’s the hitch: Norms are nothing more than the common patterns of beliefs, interactions and behaviors that define any collaborative group.  That means your team HAS norms, whether you take the time to articulate them or not.

What I’ve always loved the best about time spent articulating the norms of my learning teams is that it gives us the chance to really wrestle with exactly what we believe in.

Answering questions like, “What would we focus on if we were being especially productive in a team meeting?” and, “How do we best respect one another and the time that we spend together?” serves as natural openings to more significant questions like, “What does effective assessment of student learning look like?” and “How can we best serve struggling students?”

In a sense, writing norms becomes an identity building activity.

Teams that embrace the process end up with a clear definition of who they want to be as a group of collaborative professionals — and their norms can serve as a touchstone to return to whenever they feel collectively lost.

I’ve worked with dozens of different learning teams over the past few years — transition in middle schools makes that an inevitable reality — and the teams that spent the most time developing norms were also the most cohesive and productive and excited about meeting with one another.

Need a sample of what super-detailed norms can look like?

Check out this set developed by a science team that I worked with a few years back.  Notice how we broke our norms into two categories — expectations governing our work with students and expectations governing our work with each other.

More importantly, notice that we added detailed rationale for each of our individual norm statements.  Doing so allowed us to really come to agreement around what each individual statement meant.  Doing so also allowed us to integrate new members into our team easily.  After all, who we were and how we worked was spelled out clearly.

I’m also proud of this set of “We Believe” statements which help to guide the work of my current learning team.  They are an interesting hybrid between norms that govern and vision statements that guide our work.  I think they are a bit more approachable than the more formal norming document linked above.  They’re also more inspirational.

The hitch, though, is that they aren’t as effective at addressing the kinds of tangible behaviors that sometime disrupt meetings.  They don’t talk about how we’ll handle conflict or the ways that we expect team members to make contributions to our work.  They largely govern what we will do when working with students.  Norms governing the work we do with one another are just as important.

The only real rule in writing norms is WRITE THEM.  And then talk about them.  Often.  Hold one another accountable for living up to them.  Decide what you’re going to do when you — or the peers on your learning team — break them.

While they seem skip-able, skipping the norming process is a mistake for anyone working in collaborative groups.


 Related Radical Reads:

The Importance of a Clear Vision

How Much DOES the Composition of a Learning Team Matter?

Are YOU Leading by Cliche?

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