Rule Breakers, Risk Takers & Innovators | Harbord & Khan | 4 Min Read

December 15, 2022

In the book The Sandman, Neil Gaiman refers to rules and responsibilities as “the ties that bind us.” But should we always be bound by these ties and follow the rules? There are times when breaking the rules offers greater creative opportunities for powerful change and can inspire new, innovative ideas. We love new, improved, updated versions of the products we use, as they support the new, improved, updated versions of the lives we want to lead. Leonard Mlodinow, theoretical physicist and science author, calls our love of novelty neophilia, the love of the new. New as change. We take risks to break the rules because as humans we are excited by change. Change is a form of rule-breaking. If breaking the rules is synonymous with punishment, how can we advocate it as something that is in our students’ best interests? We clearly are not saying anyone should break the law. Rather, is breaking the rules always wrong? 

Sometimes it is essential to break rules for change, so let’s have a look at some famous rule breakers. Steve Jobs is a great example as he often broke design rules throughout his time at Apple. One famous example was in 2007 with the launch of the first iPhone. Jobs placed his trust in the touch screen, which was a complete change from the existing interface elements used on mobile phones. Internet pioneer Marc Andreessen asked: “Will users be willing to give up everything they know for something they’ve never used before?” Jobs responded: “They’ll learn.” Another famous rule breaker, Italian designer Alberto Alessi advocated “a mild, pleasing hint of transgression—namely, some opposition to the rules,” which gave his design collaborators the confidence to break design rules. From this freedom came iconic groundbreaking products such as Michael Graves’ kettle with its famous bird whistle.

With freedom of expression and innovation comes the realization that failure is part of trying new ideas. Alberto Alessi recognized early on in his career the value of learning from failure: The risk of failure is implicit in real research. Furthermore, a process that does not reach the desired outcome can still become an unexpected result or be an important premise for something that has not yet been outlined. Even in cases where there is no result, I think we cannot speak of failure because the process itself is still an important experience: if the project really was innovative, its own development has allowed a deepening of methodologies, of vision, and awareness. An interview with Alberto Alessi (Harbord & Khan, 2020, p. 13).

In schools, we accept philosophically that failure is an integral part of learning. But does the school system really support innovation and the risk-taking it can require? For our students to have the agency to take risks and try something new knowing that it might end in failure, requires a learning environment that understands the process of failure is often the way to develop new and innovative ideas. Likewise, how can we support our teachers in this? If we all learn from failure, are our teachers allowed to fail too and grow from that experience or is it the case that as professionals, failure isn’t an option?

A good example of innovation combined with cheeky rule-breaking is The Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET) project, which converts disused land into free food plots for local communities. This transformed the culture of the town into one of kindness, and the economy also benefited from the ‘vegetable tourism’ that followed. When IET first began, volunteers put up signs and logos around Todmorden, and vegetable beds were created without formal permission from the police and owners of the unused plots. Mary Clear, chair of IET says: “You can do nothing and obey the rules, or you can say ‘I’m going to make a difference regardless.’” 

Alberto Alessi’s reference to the transgressive ‘component’ suggests that there may be a place for risk-taking, rule breaking, and innovation as components of a greater whole. How do we balance risk-taking, rule breaking, and innovation when our schools need rules to function effectively and our leadership serves as role models accountable to the law? It seems a divisive idea, but how can we promote the concept of rule-breaking through our curriculum content, and yet give students the understanding that this concept may not successfully apply to all aspects of life at school and in society? Perhaps discussions exploring the ethical dilemma of: ‘Are there times when breaking the rules offers us greater creative opportunities for powerful change versus there is never a time to break the rules’ can be a starting point.


Gürtler, D. (2019, March 4). Rulebreakers define the course of history. Roland Berger. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

Harbord, M. J., & Khan, S. R. (2020). INTERDISCIPLINARY THINKING FOR SCHOOLS: Ethical dilemmas myp 1, 2 and 3. John Catt Educational, Excerpt From: InterdisciplinaryThinkingforSchools-EthicalDilemmasMYP1,2.”9781913808686.”AppleBooks.Larsson, N. (2018, May 9). Incredibleedible: Yorkshire town’s food-growing scheme takes root worldwide. The Guardian. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

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Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

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