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This Porridge Is Just Right


In last week's post I shared three different manifestations of non-compliance including (a) rebels, (b) normalizers, and (c) activists. My favorite part about thinking through non-compliance in this way is understanding that non-compliance isn’t just rebellious behavior. As well, anyone who is non-compliant has in common:

  • They do not want to do the task .

  • The extrinsic consequence (positive or negative) is not enough to motivate them.

  • The impact to the relationship between the person assigning the task and the person not doing the task is not enough to create compliance.

This means that a non-compliant person is thinking, “I don’t care about this task, I don’t care about what you will give me (or not) if I don’t do the task, and I don’t care about what impact not doing the task has on our relationship.” In truth, depending on the relationship, the reason not to do the task is to make a point. However, often times the reason for not doing the task is because the person is intrinsically motivated not to do it. I share all of this to say that non-compliance does not mean not complicated; reasons for opting out are often personal, nuanced, and complex.

As if that wasn’t enough, if you're thinking about whether or not someone might be a rebel, normalizer, or activist, there is a critical question to answer first. Before I tell you what that question is, let me remind you of a children’s story that you probably already know…

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl with golden curls named Goldilocks. One day, she wandered into the woods and stumbled upon a cabin and walked inside. She saw three bowls of porridge sitting out on the table. Goldilocks was hungry and loved porridge, so she decided to take a bite. The first bowl was too hot. The second bowl was too cold. The third bowl was just right.
I’m sure you know this story. Notice that Goldilocks rejected the first two bowls of porridge. Why? It was not because she didn’t like porridge—the story told us she “loved porridge.” So why would she not continue to eat either of the first two bowls? When she rejected the porridge that was too hot and too cold, it’s not that she was saying, “I don’t like porridge,” she was saying, “This porridge doesn’t work for me.” There is a difference. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It’s a Narwhal], p. 36).

I love this example because before I started thinking about engagement, I never thought about the fact that Goldilocks wasn’t being difficult when she refused the porridge, she was being discerning. All of us do this all the time with most things that we’re able to have a say in. I like my French fries crispy, so I often order them “well done” in a restaurant. When I order wings, I am asked how I want them and I say "medium." I will not eat wings if they are barbecue flavored. That's not because I don't like wings--it's because I only like them in certain flavors. I drink water with my meals and I would literally need to be dying of thirst to drink root beer. I don’t know what your preferences are, but I know for sure you have them and you would have to be under duress (because you were starving or maybe due to not wanting to offend) to reject to your preferences.

Goldilocks and the food and beverage examples are obvious examples of preference and easy to relate to. Let’s shift this thinking to learning.

When we think about why someone would refuse to do something (i.e., be non-compliant),we often think about the person who is being insubordinate, obstinate, and/or defiant. We think, “What’s wrong with you.” What I am suggesting here is that we need to think, “What’s wrong with this?” In other words, we need to ask if there is something interfering with the person’s ability or desire to do the task. Just like Goldilocks, who is more than happy to eat porridge that is just right for her but refuses to eat porridge that isn’t, when we see someone opting out of doing what was expected, we need to ask the question, is this task something that is just right for that person? (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It’s a Narwhal], p. 36).

This “just right” in educational terms is really about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) or the range in which something is too easy or too hard for someone; everyone’s ZPD is different. On her blog, Dr. Erica Warren writes about ZPD saying:

On the one hand, when learning is too easy, students get bored and their attention drifts away from a lesson. On the other hand, if learning is too hard, then anxiety and confusion can result and when discouraged enough, students can develop a sense of learned helplessness. The “sweet spot” is the ZPD where students are challenged enough to maintain attention and they are able to learn new concepts with guided assistance and scaffolding. Then, as learning happens, the support structure is slowly pulled away. Eventually, students engage in independent learning and practice until they reach automatization. Learning to automatization means that one has fully learned a concept to mastery and the process of completing a problem is virtually automatic and requires little to no thought.

Therefore, before figuring out if the student has enough extrinsic motivation to do the task OR enough of a relationship with the person assigning the task OR even wondering if the student wants to do the task, the question that first must be asked is, “Is the person being non-compliant because the task is too easy or too hard?” I love playing card games, but I do not want to play Go Fish for very long (if at all) because it’s too easy for me. I love reading, but I don’t want to read a quantum physics textbook because it’s too hard. Thus, if someone isn’t doing an assigned task (homework, taking out the garbage, getting to work on time, etc.), they are certainly being non-compliant. However, before diagnosing the manifestation of non-compliance as rebellious, normalized, or activism, first diagnose if the task is something that person can and should be doing.

Finally, and this is noted at the end of the chapter 4 in the book, which focuses on establishing what non-compliance is:

It is worth noting that reasoning behind behavior can change over time. In other words, the reasoning behind rebellion is frequently due to an inability to do what is expected. What manifests as a lack of skill is hidden behind the mask of a lack of will. Put differently, if I cannot do what you ask me to do, I may prefer to pretend to be unwilling rather than expose that I am actually unable. In this way, in its simplest form, rebellious behaviors may actually be a manifestation of a rebel’s fears of being unable to do what is asked. If I can’t do it, I won’t do it.
It does not take long for rebellious behaviors to become the status quo behaviors for a rebel. This means that the initial and intentional refusals can turn into habits and patterns of behaviors. This is how a rebel can transition into a normalizer.
On the opposite end, there are activists. Unlike rebels, activists have the skill to do what was asked. What they lack is the will. Those who disagree with an activist will interpret the behaviors as resistance. True activists are those who blaze the trail. Those who follow the path that is already there normalize the path for others to follow. Ultimately, depending on how well-traveled the path becomes, those who do not go down the path can become non-compliant. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It’s a Narwhal], p. 44).

Now you are well-equipped to understand the lowest form of engagement (or highest form of disengagement): non-compliance. Have I hooked you yet? Are you interested in learning what comes next? If so, I’ve got you covered! Compliance is coming in February!


P.S. This week, I've asked Rachelle Dene Poth, Spanish and STEAM Educator, Consultant, and Attorney, author of books including In Other Words, Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU, The Future is Now, Chart A New Course, True Story: Lessons That One Kid Taught Us for a catch. Here's what she caught...

A recent blog post by Dr. Katie Martin, the author of Learner-Centered Innovation and VP of Leadership and Learning at Altitude Learning. Katie posts a blog each week and I love the depth of what she shares and how she pushes you to reflect and reimagine education. In her recent post, "5 Practices to Reimagine Education in 2021 and Beyond," she offers insights into some changes that we might consider and this post really resonated with me. I recommend reading Katie's posts each week!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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