Learning Over Compliance: How to Shift to Engagement Online

When I heard the news a few years ago that Phil Schlechty had passed away it was sudden and I felt sadness. I’ve never met Phil but I’ve been deeply impacted by his work throughout the years. You see it’s one of the things I’m learning about education and writing in this whole connected place: We get to know people through their work, we get to know people through their passions, and we get to know people who we actually don’t know face-t0-face.

Schlechty’s work around engagement is one of the most enlightening and simple frameworks for educators to use. What I found fascinating about his levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom (many times) working towards compliance instead of engagement.

Schlectly level of engagements

As a teacher, it’s easy to work towards compliance. And most of us have been taught that compliance is a good thing. We’ve seen this in our own lives as students. We’ve seen this in our own personal lives. We’ve seen this as employees. Compliance is almost always rewarded.

And so compliance is easy to do, it is easy to teach, and it is easy to reward. But when all we work towards is compliance, we don’t get anywhere near full engagement.

What Schlechty explained so well is the difference between compliance and engagement. In his levels, the two factors that dictate whether a student is compliant or engaged are commitment and attention.

For some reason, classroom management’s connection to student engagement was not part of my discussions as an undergrad, student teacher, or even first year teacher. We seemed to miss the piece that a “well managed classroom” doesn’t necessarily mean students are learning, and classroom management is actually very easy when students are engaged.

Students in an engaged learning environment have high attention and high commitment because of their intrinsic motivation and desire to actively learn, create, and contribute to the experience.

Students who are strategically compliant or ritually compliant may have levels of attention and commitment. But the attention and commitment have been forced by extrinsic factors (grades, tickets, rewards, quiz tomorrow, etc).

Enter remote, online, hybrid, concurrent, parallel learning (or whatever we are calling it!).

We are facing one of the biggest changes in recent education history with the majority of students in our country (and in many places around the world), shifting to a full, or partly, online learning environment.

This change in our learning environment has many challenges, but one I keep seeing in my own teaching/learning experiences and in those in schools around the country is this: How do we get kids engaged and learning, instead of simply compliant?

The answer may be simpler than I originally thought. It goes back to what we value. If we value compliance, then our students see that and play the compliance game, and realize what is most important to us and the system. If we value learning, then our activities change, our grades and assessments look different, our conversations and interactions shift.

Simply put, in what ways can we (as teachers, parents, coaches, leaders) show we value learning over compliance? Here are four ways we can demonstrate our focus on learning, even when the entire system is often focused on compliance:

We have to celebrate, look for, and assess learning (not compliance).

There is a famous saying that “What you measure is what matters.” And this is very true in the teaching and learning world. If our schools are only successful based on standardized measures, then it is no coincidence that many focus their efforts on the performance of these measures. For our students, this tends to mean they believe handing work in on time, being compliant, and doing well on traditional assessments is what makes them a good student. It’s why a third of my 11th graders during the Genius Hour project asked if they could just get a handout with a rubric instead of having to think for themselves on what they wanted to learn. Yet, when we change what we praise and look for in a classroom, students begin to adjust to what matters. When we celebrate learning, look for growth, and assess the process (instead of only the final product) then students are empowered to share their work and grow as learners in a variety of ways.

We have to support learning (not compliance).

Take for instance a school that solely focuses on standardized assessments. The teachers are not supported by the administration by bringing in new ideas or curiosity to their profession. Then it is increasingly difficult for teachers to support students when they create or make. Often they’ll never get the opportunity. Yet in schools like Wissahickon (where I taught) I was supported when I wanted to try something new in the classroom. Online and global opportunities like the Flat Classroom Project weren’t looked down upon. And when my students wanted to try something outside of the box or run with a project idea, I jumped at supporting their innovative work through ideas like Project: Global Inform. Support is a key ingredient to help those new ideas actually work.

We have to make time for learning (even when it goes against compliance).

A constant complaint I hear from teachers and students is that they don’t have enough time. It drives stress levels up and brings learning to a halt when we create curricula and schedules that are jam-packed with content and pre-determined lessons. When we make time for reflection/self-assessment, sharing, and making/tinkering our students (and our teachers) actually go out and TRY new things.

We have to allow for learning (in the face of compliance).

What we allow for in our schools and classrooms will ultimately open up avenues for new ideas to develop. If we don’t allow for inquiry, choice, collaboration, digital tools, failing, then usually only the people in charge are allowed to have ideas.

This doesn’t mean that all compliance is bad or unnecessary. We have to do our taxes. It is important to show up to school (whether in-person or online). Deadlines matter in some instances. Compliance is sometimes created for good reasons that end up having misintended consequences.

What it means is that we shift our systems from being compliance-focused to learning-focused. That we value learning over compliance, and we can demonstrate to our people that is the case (over and over again).

Continue asking yourself: Is this ___(fill in the blank with assignment, task, activity, assessment)___ focused on learning or compliance?

Then iterate as needed.

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  • Deb Schiano says:

    In my experience I too often see learning experiences with quality learning potential falling short with poorly written assessments, rubrics based on finite end results which emphasize compliance and students’  “playing the game of school”.  If habits of mind thinking skills, dispositions and responsibilities are what society most values, and appear in our collective ideal profile of a graduate, then we need to do a better job of assessing what truly matters.  The difficulty for teachers lies in the subjective nature of these assessments- how can we make this process less abstract, less subjective, and easier for teachers to make happen? A while ago I worked on creating a single point rubric which aligned habits of mind dispositions with inquiry process skills, something which may work even better with design thinking, such as the launch cycle. It’s definitely a work in progress and something I haven’t looked at in a long while, but may be worth sharing here https://docs.google.com/document/d/1-tDiR3LnKdSBl-Q4eK5OfBLvo3eTJn0jpxvbl3sWGPE/edit?usp=sharing

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