Norms override rules

The (under-appreciated) power of norms

Hey 👋

Hope you’re having a fabulous Thursday. This week, we’re starting a short series on norms in school. EVERYONE is talking about it…

Big idea 🍉

Norms are the unwritten rules that govern the behaviour and attitudes of a group (such as a society or school). They are so powerful that they tend to override more formal rules or policies. Which is why, in schools, we ignore them at our peril.

The power of norms arises from two main mechanisms:

  1. Life is complex and uncertain. Adopting the behaviours and attitudes of others is a quick and safe bet. This is why authors (like me) strive to get quotes on the front of our books and 5-star reviews on Amazon.

  2. The success of our species is in large part due to our ability to co-operate at scale. When norms are established, group members often collaborate to penalise those who don't conform, through approval and disapproval, through inclusion and exclusion.

Without norms, schools (and society) would simply not be able to function.

They are the reason why different cultures around the world wear different clothes and have different greetings. Why we queue up outside the cinema and sit quietly within it. Why our students wear their uniforms as they do and have the attitudes to learning that they do.

And they’re the reasons that I struggle to get my young son to put his socks on in the morning, and yet his teacher can get him and 29 other kids to do way more complex stuff for hours on end… it's not that his teacher is massively more skilled that me... it's that she has 29 other kids doing exactly the same thing at her disposal.

(All I need to do is to get 29 other kids around to my hallway putting on their socks and then getting my son to do so would be a breeze 😎)

Norms are a powerful force in school, way more than formal rules and policies. We should seek to understand, become aware of, and put them high on our agenda.


  • Norms are the unwritten rules that govern the behaviour and attitudes of a group.

  • They enable us to co-operate at scale, and represent quick and safe bets for how to live our lives.

  • When they are established, they tend to be enforced by the group, making them stronger than formal rules or policies.

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Till next week.

Peps 👊