“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” — Daniel Pink
Teachers love it when their students are compliant. What’s not to like about it? It makes their jobs easier.
Even as assessment practices continue to move away from marks and toward standards-based grading, some stubbornly cling to the idea that assessment should reflect obedience to the rules of school. Nowhere is this more true than in the gym, where many PE teachers still assess students entirely on attitude and effort (ie. compliance), ignoring standards-based assessment.
The more you obey, the higher your mark.
But that’s a whole other post.
The truth is that there’s little correlation between compliance and learning. In fact, many of the characteristics of growth that we look to see in our students don’t fit at all within cultures of compliance. Risk-taking, self-advocacy, creativity, design planning, tolerance for ambiguity, critical thinking, and an innovator’s mindset aren’t welcome when the only objective is to follow the rules.
Playing the Game of School
Compliant students are masters at playing the game of school. They’re great at coloring within the lines. They follow instructions meticulously and without a hint of pushback. They’re the students who most frequently ask teachers questions like these:
- “Do you want this in pen or pencil?”
- “How many words does this need to be?”
- “Can I change the font for this assignment?”
These are the students who obsess about performance details, so visibly anxious about violating one of our all-knowing wishes that they cannot rest until they are assured that they 1) have crystal clarity on the rules of the task and 2) are playing safe within those rules.
A part of that behavior is endearing, almost. Like I said off the top, absolute compliance makes our jobs as teachers easier. As in a dictatorship, citizens who keep their heads down and obey without question are easier to manage and control.
And yet it’s when we frame compliance in political paradigms like these that we begin to see the problem. We know that critical thinking, resistant journalism, and protest movements are all essential to the health and function of vibrant democratic systems. It’s when too many citizens shut up and do nothing that power runs amok and abuses multiply like disease.
Give Autonomy When Possible
As teachers, we can’t give up 100% control in our classrooms. For the good of our learners, our little nation-states might still operate closer to benevolent dictatorships than pure democracies where every decision is made by referendum.
But we can take baby steps toward sharing more of our control and giving more autonomy than we have in the past. Allowing — even requiring — our students to become agents of their own learning, to become masters of creative decision-making, to evaluate their own learning critically.
Practically speaking, we can share control by giving students greater voice and better choices, by allowing them to co-create assessment tools, by inviting them deeper into the assessment process through more self- and peer assessments, by allowing them to follow their own curiosities and direct their own learning through models of inquiry.
When we share more control and give more autonomy, we’re creating an environment where “Why are we doing this?” is not regarded as a threat to be stifled but a thoughtful invitation to a healthy conversation.
When I think about what’s important for our learners, I keep coming back to the 4 Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.
Compliance isn’t on that list.
Because building a culture of compliance isn’t the mission.