Explicit and Implicit Norms: The Classroom (and autism) as Example

It’s been a little more than two years since I finished my master’s in psychology, and I was looking through some of the work I’d done in my social psychology class when I ran across a discussion post on implicit and explicit norms. At the time I was an adjunct instructor in developmental reading and writing; I've just this semester moved to a full-time English instructor position. 
          The piece remains of interest to me, both because of my role as an instructor and as mom to three on the spectrum. Explicit norms are for obvious reasons easy to grasp; they’re the rules that are clearly stated; implicit norms are much harder, especially for folks who have difficulty with socially-based learning. 
          One of the things we have to do as parents to kids with impairments in social communication is to make those implicit norms explicit while also working to help our children learn the exceptions to the rules. It’s confusing, even for those of us who may be adept at navigating the social world, as we are often working with competing implicit norms. 
            The following is my piece from almost three years ago (little did I realize at the time that my master’s program readied me for my blogging!). It has, I think, held up well; I continue to fine tune my teaching techniques to keep students interested and actively learning, knowing that I will never reach the point where tinkering is unnecessary. Teaching is a challenging and rewarding experience. It is best viewed as a game of strategy in which the prize is the lighting of sparks in students. Laughter, joy, and keen attention to the students’ frames of mind are important tools to reaching them, engaging them, and hopefully, transferring the ideas that critical thinking and active participation are the keys to achieving their goals for themselves, even if they feel they have no particular goals: making succeeding in the course a goal may help achieve compliance with the explicit norms of the classroom. 
              (Note this was written in the winter of 2007/2008.) As an adjunct instructor at a community college, I participate in a group setting each semester with the courses I teach. Baron, Byrne, and Branscombe (2006) define roles within groups to be the “different tasks” that “different persons” perform and the specific accomplishments each is expected to attain (p. 463). My explicit role in the group of individuals meeting for, as an example, PSYC 2301, is as the instructor for the class. The other individuals in the course play the explicit roles of students. My implicit role is that of guide and nurturer (self-identified; I could easily self-identify an implicit role for myself as an alarm clock for the students, and see my role as one of forcing them to conform or leave the group). An implicit role I see that students have is that they are just as likely to have a great deal to offer to the class as a group and to the other individuals of the group if I can create a safe, accepting environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas.
            Baron, Byrne, and Branscombe (2006) define norms as the “rules established by groups” which define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors (p. 464). Horne (2004) specifically focuses on the sanctions which enforce the rules (or norms). An explicit norm for the classroom is that the students come prepared to class, as these rules are spelled out clearly in the syllabus that is handed to them and then read to them. Repeated emphasis is made that the students should read the material before hand. An implicit norm, at least at the community college I teach at, would appear to be that students need not come to class prepared (it’s what the students appear to believe, at least). An explicit norm is that classes are 1 hour and 25 minutes long, and yet an implicit norm appears to be that classes in actuality tend to run less than 45 minutes in many courses.
            Students attempt to enforce the implicit norm of short classes by creating an environment that lets the instructor know when they are ready to leave. They do this by closing their books in mid-lecture and packing their things away, making it clear that the instructor may continue to lecture but it will fall on more deaf ears than usual. Other students streaming by beginning at thirty minutes into the course time also act as enforcers of the implicit norm that courses get out early. My classes deviate from the implicit norm most of the time, while adhering to the explicit norm that classes will meet the prescribed length of time, or as close as possible, other than test day. Some of the initial consequences to my deviating from the implicit norm which my students wish I would follow is a cacophony of sighs when I tell them I assume those textbooks are closing because they are ready for a quiz so that they can demonstrate their competence. This also reinforces the explicit norm that they will come to class prepared, thus violating their implicit norm that they will not read the book beforehand.
            My father employs similar tactics in his courses and has ensured relative levels of compliance with the explicit norms by a form of sanctioning he calls Jeopardy, which is played at each class meeting. Desks are cleared while the game is played (usually between one- and two-thirds of the course time), so that students cannot attempt to enforce the implicit norm that class will dismiss early. Rewards are provided by group assessments, demonstrated orally (doing a quiz on the computer, which Dad feeds onto the projection screen), which when competence is demonstrated leads to candy, bonus points on unit tests, and the class moving on to new material. Sanctions also occur in the potentiality of looking unprepared if one is in fact unprepared. I will not go so far as to say the student feels shame over the situation, nor does my father ever create a negative environment, but the student’s lack of preparation plays an obvious role in overall group performance. If a student has enough conscientiousness to care about saving face, this leads to greater preparation by the student. My father, depending on the course, the distribution of student age, and the time of the class, often achieves better compliance with class preparedness than instructors who do not employ devices to force preparedness.
            Over my years of teaching (and observing the lessons that both my parents have shared from their teaching experience), I have learned valuable lessons on what it takes to make an effective classroom in a community college environment. It takes ingenuity and a tough skin, an awareness that students will often rise to the level of discourse you desire if you create both systems of incentive and sanction (candy, praise, rubber duckies, and good grades as well as the sanction of looking unprepared and hurting group performance and the potentiality of poor grades). I believe that a key to a productive classroom environment is that the disparate individuals must be encouraged to accept membership in the class group quickly. Knowing everyone else and some personal information allows for emotional investment. A positive, warm, and encouraging demeanor by the instructor helps foment group identity, and humor is a key ally. Creating accountability, both to the group and to oneself by creating a grading system that balances group work, daily grades, and tests is the best way to ensure a fairly smooth and regular routine to the classroom. Students unwilling to meet these explicit norms will ideally move on quickly to other courses where the implicit norms are more likely to be met or choose to adjust their behavior.

Baron, R., Byrne, D., & Branscombe, N. (2006). Social psychology (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Horne, C. (2004). Collective Benefits, Exchange Interests, and Norm Enforcement. Social Forces, 82(3), 1037-1062. 


Lisa Jo Rudy said...

Interesting post, Kim! Maybe you could say more about this? I am finding it incredibly frustrating to plow through books about "social norms" and "social skills," because they seem so odd, pointless, arbitrary - and yet understanding is apparently (according to some) CRITICAL for personal success and happiness.

Why is biting fingernails aok, but flapping hands marks you as a pariah? Where do students get the idea that it's okay to pack up halfway through your class, and what happens to the dumb cluck who's clueless enough to actually listen and respond all the way through the class period? Is that student marked as a brown noser? Ignored? Or does he/she actually end up with higher grades and a more fulfilling academic experience?


KWombles said...

Thanks, Lisa. Ah, that's probably because many social norms are arbitrary and pointless! :-)

Insisting that compliance with social norms is necessary for success ensures more people will try to comply; making folks care about societally defined concepts of success do that, too.

Hand flapping is expected if you're a beauty pageant contestant, an example of arbitrary social norms defining what is socially accepted and expected and when it is not. The nice thing about social norms is that if enough people reject them, new norms are put into place.

The student who does attend all the way through class probably doesn't care too much what other students think! :-) There is, at least, anecdotally, a correlation between attentiveness and grade outcome; 'A' students are generally easy to pick out, although not necessarily in the ways people would expect (but it shouldn't be assumed that class clowns are necessarily poor students!).

Roger Kulp said...

Social skills are odd and pointless.So is talking.Bleh indeed.