Educators have a variety of strategies they use to set the norms and expectations for participation in their classroom or learning space. Some of those norms are rule-based and are made explicit in school handbooks, but most expectations are unspoken. As educators, we often assume that our students already know the culture, either from previous experience or that they will pick it up from their peers and your presentations. A lot of the time that is true. However, we find it helpful to be explicit in articulating norms and expectations in order to make them clear for all learners, regardless of their previous experiences or learning styles. Classroom contracts can be particularly helpful in those moments in which you find that someone has broken an unspoken rule – either sharing a private comment from a peer or responding improperly to a fellow student’s comment.
Educational researchers have found that establishing classroom contracts is an effective way to promote a positive learning environment. We think they are particularly important when lessons touch on sensitive personal, political or historical themes.
What is a classroom contract? Why might they be useful? And, how do you create one? Think of a classroom contract as a formal expression of expectations, norms, and even rules that are agreed to by all members of the classroom community. Many educators like to have their students co-construct the contract with them, and then have each member of the community affirmatively agree to abide by the document. Some educators have each student sign the contract and post it.
A few notes that are worth thinking about: It is helpful to frame expectations in positive language; however, you might want to help students have an idea of what kinds of behaviors would violate the contract. Finally, once you have created the contract, return to the contract occasionally, both for positive reinforcement, as well as a reminder when the contract is violated. While we prefer positive, over negative, reinforcement, it is useful to consider the consequences if students don’t adhere to the contract.
Below are two resources that outline lessons for creating classroom contracts: