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August 19, 2021

Moving Beyond Compliance

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Ensure your practices support student engagement and self-motivation over compliance and teacher pleasing.   
Classroom ManagementEngagement
Moving Beyond Compliance (thumbnail)
Credit: Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash
“Compliance is polite disengagement.” I wish I could take credit for this quote. I heard Robyn Jackson say this at a conference a few years ago, but Robyn says she heard it from Allison Zmuda. Regardless of who first said it, it’s a great line. So often, when we think of kids who are disengaged in schools, we picture the kids who avoid eye contact or bury their heads on their desks. Or we think of kids who are openly defiant, not just apathetic. They’re the ones who shout, “This is stupid, and I’m not doing it!”  
But we should also be worried about the kids who are compliant—the ones who have abdicated their autonomy and are good at playing the “school game.” They ask us how many points each item is worth on a rubric. They want to know if their writing is good enough for us or if they’re building their model the “right way.” In some ways, these kids may seem engaged . . . after all, they seem to care. But what, exactly, do they care about? If they are compliant, they are focusing on what we want—what our expectations are.  
This won’t hold water in today’s workforce: simply doing what your boss tells you to do is no longer the key to success. Survey after survey of business leaders reveal what employers are looking for in employees: independent and critical thinking, self-direction, and self-motivation. And for the rising number of self-employed workers, these traits are perhaps even more important! 
Of course, we’re not just developing future workers in schools. We’re (hopefully) helping students uncover new interests, learn new skills, and foster a love of learning. So, what if we set our sights on boosting student engagement and self-motivation this year? How might we move beyond compliance, even within the constraints of a traditional school setting?  
Here are a few ideas to consider. 

1. Design learning with intrinsic motivation in mind. 

There are a few psychological needs that all students share, and when we tap into these needs as a part of academic work, kids can be incredibly motivated. 
  • Autonomy: Offer students some power and control over what they learn and/or how they learn it. 
  • Belonging: Structure learning so that kids learn in community with each other—in inclusive environments with mutual support. 
  • Purpose: Make sure learning feels relevant to learners and their perspectives. 
  • Competence: Get kids fired up about learning by making sure the challenge level is appropriate—and that they see themselves making progress and growing. 
  • Curiosity: Tap into your students’ interests and passions. 
  • Fun: Find ways to infuse learning with playfulness. 

2. Don’t use incentive systems. 

Gem jars, behavior charts, ticket systems, traditional grades, and other such extrinsic motivators diminish students’ intrinsic motivation—sapping their autonomy and pulling their focus away from learning. They also assume that kids aren’t already motivated and may send the message that we don’t trust students to be interested in learning or appropriate behavior for their own sakes. 

3. Teach students self-management skills. 

We can’t simply put kids in groups and tell them to cooperate. We can’t give kids choices and expect them to know how to choose well. We can’t just assign a project and expect kids to know how to manage their time. We need to teach them the self-management skills that they need to be successful. We might ask students for their ideas about how to have a good partner chat or organize research materials, or we might model how to disagree respectfully or accept feedback during a writing conference. Consider teaching these work and study skills as explicitly and deliberately as you do academic ones. 

4. Co-create rules with your students. 

Instead of posting your rules and explaining to students how to follow them, try having your students create norms, expectations, goals, etc. with you. Ask them what an ideal classroom would look like, sound like, and feel like. Then invite students to share ideas of rules that might help you all get to that vision. Take all of the guidelines that they generated and combine them into just a few broad expectations that will help everyone work toward that ideal classroom. 

5. Co-create routines with your students. 

Are there certain routines you could have your students help shape? Perhaps in a middle or high school class, students could help decide what the first two minutes of the class period should look like. Would they benefit from a chance to socialize as they ease into class? Or, would an academic question or two posted on the board help them reconnect with the current class topic? In an elementary class, you might invite kids to share ideas for putting away materials or transitioning from the circle area to workspaces. 

6. Have students look forward to academic challenges. 

Consider how you might get students excited for some of the academic work ahead of them in the school year. For example, if you use a math program, you might give students the chance to peruse the math book and put sticky notes on pages that they think look like fun. Have them share what they’re looking forward to with a partner. Or, as you begin a first academic unit, you might have students generate a list of questions they have about the topic. Collect their responses on a chart or online document and invite students to keep adding to the list. 

7. Design student-centered classrooms. 

If students’ seats are mostly arranged to face the front of the room, so they can easily see and listen to you, what does that say about who is the focus in the classroom? Instead of putting the spotlight on you, consider creating a flexible classroom, where students can gather for brief whole-class lessons but can also break apart into various workspaces. Consider your favorite coffee shop as inspiration for a student-centered classroom design
Of course, these are just a few ideas—hopefully enough to get your wheels spinning. What are some other ideas you have for how to move beyond student compliance this year? How else might you create a classroom atmosphere that supports students’ self-motivation?

Mike Anderson has been an educator for more than 25 years. A public school teacher for 15 years, he has also taught preschool, coached swim teams, and taught university graduate level classes. He now works as a consultant, providing professional learning for teachers throughout the United States and beyond. In 2004, he was awarded a national Milken Educator Award, and in 2005, he was a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. In 2020, he was awarded the Outstanding Educational Leader Award by NHASCD for his work as a consultant.

A bestselling author, Anderson has written nine books about great teaching and learning. When not working, he can be found hanging with his family, tending his perennial gardens, and searching for new running routes around his home in Durham, New Hampshire.

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