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Only If I Have To


You know what compliant people are not? Engaged. Don’t get me wrong, compliance is worthy of celebration if someone was previously non-compliant—we all are happy when our kids finally clean their rooms or a student does their homework. However, let’s remember that compliant people all have in common that they do not want to do whatever task they're doing. So why are they doing it? Well, the answer to that has to do with either the consequence (positive or negative) for doing the task (or not) and/or the relationship with the person connected to the task. Here is what I mean:

In other words, compliant people tolerate the task even though they do not really want to do it. The fact that they are doing it can signal to others that there is a desire to do the task, however, do not mistake tolerance with engagement.

Compliant people will do the task, but we cannot confuse doing a task because you have to with doing the task because you want to. For this reason, compliance can be in service to the relationship, as a path of least resistance, as a means to an end, or because the task is too unfamiliar to know any other way to do it” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 52).

In my book, I share three different possible manifestations of compliance:

  1. Rule-Followers—people who do the task because they are told to; following the rules is a means to an end.

  2. People-Pleasers—people who do the task because they want to make someone else happy (or not make them mad); the person matters even if the task doesn’t.

  3. First-Timers—people who lack experience with the task and need clear direction; compliance is a result of not understanding the task well enough to find interest or disinterest.

Of these, probably first-timers is the hardest to understand. Think about it this way...

First-timers are eager to do the work but are new to the work being done. For this reason, their compliance stems from a lack of awareness of other ways to do the work. Put differently, first-timers are compliant because they need direction to successfully do what they need to do. As their skill develops, their compliance may diminish because they will know more about the task to know when or where they could cut-corners than the normalized non-compliant people do. On the other hand, they may morph from compliant to interested over time when they can shift from focusing on “am I doing this right” to “I enjoy doing this.” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 57)

In reality, there is much in our lives that we have to do. Tackling must-do tasks with more than just compliance sounds silly. Chores are called chores for a reason—they must be done but they are not fun to do. I compliantly do the laundry. It must be done. I’d rather not do it, but I am a rule-follower when it comes to doing it despite the task being boring and repetitive. Nevertheless, even with compliant tasks, there are ways to make them more manageable. With laundry, I do not do it during the week (unless I have to) and I have made sorting the laundry a task that my children must do (so I don’t have to). They must also bring their laundry to their rooms and put it away. These small steps make my compliant task that much easier. However, do not mistake my work-arounds as a desire to do the task.

With that in mind, let’s shift this conversation to classrooms. In classrooms most students quickly learn that as long as they are quiet and appear to be doing what they are told, the teacher will leave them alone. If the task is to read, students can appear to be reading, for example, without actually reading as long as they’re quiet. If a teacher is meeting with one or more students in a group and a student who is not in the group does not want to the work, all the student needs to do is to be quiet. Quiet students who are in a class where the teacher calls on volunteers who raise their hands to answer questions (rather than using some randomized method of selecting students) never have to answer the questions as long as they remain quiet. These are just two examples of why we must be on the lookout for students who are compliant with the behavioral expectations but non-compliant with the learning.

There is also something to be said for the classroom where the teacher is compliantly going through the motions of a lesson. One reason for this could be because the curriculum was selected by someone other than the teacher—after all, I have never met a teacher who didn’t have a desire to be creative and who wasn’t passionate about the kids and/or the content area. Even so, every teacher has required standards to teach to and some have mandated curriculum and assessments. Those who feel handcuffed to these requirements are likely feeling compelled to be compliant to the requirements. Unfortunately, most of what we say is actually non-verbal and the body language may be revealing the teacher’s lack of engagement with the required learning.

[I]f someone is behaving in a compliant manner, others are more than likely going to notice. If you are a teacher, that means that your students are going to feed off of your energy. Are you teaching a unit or lesson that you do not like? Are you giving a test that you do not want to give? Do not be surprised when your students start to ask why they have to do it too. It is not that they had an opinion about it to begin with—it’s that they are reflecting back to you what they have implicitly observed. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal]p. 134)

This is called modeling and even though as teachers we want to model engagement, we may actually be modeling compliance.

Finally, it’s important to note that there are what I call “Deal Breakers” regarding tasks, or ones that you may be told you have to do that you have a moral objection to. Remember in instances like this to ask yourself if this is the right person or position for you. After all, you can always walk away because you have choice. “You may not be able to leave your job that day or end the friendship at that moment, but you may want to consider an exit strategy” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 136).

So, there is it. Both non-compliance and compliance are levels of disengagement. While non-compliance can be overt disengagement, that’s not always true (think about normalizers). As well, do not be lulled into believing that people who simply do what they’re told (a.k.a. compliant people) enjoy what they’re doing. They don’t. Their motivation is not for the task at all, it’s for the extrinsic consequence and/or relationship that comes from doing the task.

With that, I’m so excited to dive into next week’s Letter because we’ll finally get to engagement! In the meantime, here are some questions you may want to think about…

  1. What are tasks you have to do that you have found a way to make work-arounds so that it’s not as bad (like me with laundry).

  2. Was there ever a time when you shifted from non-compliant to compliant and what caused the shift (the consequence or the relationship)?

  3. Think about a time when you saw an authority who was obviously being compliant. How did you know, and what impact did that behavior have on those who were being led by this person?

  4. Are there ways right now in your classroom with students where you have students who might be compliantly slipping through the cracks? What about your classroom design allows this to happen?


P.S. This week, I've asked Leigh Cassell, Founder and CCO at Digital Human Library, and author of Aubrey Bright in Stories that Connect Us, for a catch. Here's what she caught and why she wants you to know about Digital Human Library!

Digital Human Library (dHL) works with education systems across Canada to provide teachers and students with safe access to industry leaders, working professionals and digital content to support youth and learning.

In light of COVID and the shift to virtual learning, more and more teachers are reaching out to dHL to help their students build relationships with others for the purpose of learning and fulfilling a sense of belonging and feelings of well-being.

If you are interested in joining us, and the hundreds of industry professionals who are on a shared mission to create equitable experiences of learning for all students, please contact us to learn more and get involved!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead

About Digital Human Library…

Digital Human Library is a social enterprise advancing K-12 education as Canada’s premier digital experiential learning library. Through Canada’s largest network of Canadian teachers, industry leaders, business professionals, and collaborative community partners, dHL creates opportunities for K-12 teachers and students to engage in community-connected experiential learning by offering:

  • thousands of interactive 1:1 video conferences

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Learn more:

tweeps: @dHL_edu

facebook: digitalhumanlibrary

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