Should Compliance Drive Education? (8-14-15)

Note (7-19-2020): This post from five years ago takes on new urgency in the midst of various people in authority telling teachers, students, administrators, and staff that schools must reopen.

I posted the following status update on Facebook the other day that received, for me, a lot of comments and views. It simply read:

Two news stories today disturbed me. One was about Volusia County going to uniforms next year. The word Compliance kept coming up. The second story was about New York State (my home state) planning to use economic sanctions against schools that have too many students opt out of standardized tests, and they are talking to the feds about doing the same nationwide. Compliance again. When did we become all about compliance? 

“All learning that is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.” (Plato)

The response interested me on any number of levels. Most of the comments were specifically about the issue of school uniforms and their merits. People assumed I had a real problem with them, and there were pros and cons on both sides of the issue. The issue of testing and the Opt Out movement was less controversial. I think everyone who commented agreed that forcing tests onto schools and students was not a good thing.

But my post was only partially about uniforms and testing. My post was mainly about the use of the word compliance. Having it show up so often in reference to uniforms and testing, disturbed me because no one using the word seemed to question the importance of compliance.

Some of the people commenting focused in on the compliance issue. One pointed out that the Plato quote I put at the end of my post (“All learning that is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.”) seems to imply that compulsory school attendance is a bad thing. Maybe it does. A colleague a talked to pointed out that without some level of compliance, we’d have chaos. Someone else noted that a focus on compliance is a bit Orwellian. I always think of the Borg, villains on Star Trek: The Next Generation saying, “You will comply.”

I guess there is a need for compliance. But why people comply, and what they are compliant about, matters.

If we look at society, it seems obvious that there are some rules we should comply to, simply because they are so obviously important to the safety and well being of all of us. We should comply to the traffic rules like driving on the correct side of the road, because head-on collisions are bad. We should comply to laws that tell us not to go around robbing stores and killing people. Those things are bad. Seems simple. 

School has some of the same issues. Obviously wandering around campus pounding on people smaller than you is bad. Standing on your desk in class and screaming and throwing paper at the teacher is bad. We need you to comply. 

It is obvious that we need compliance about some issues. Those issues are the “what” of compliance. 

But what about the “why” of compliance? 

If you have ever taught, you know that there is a big difference between a class you have to force to behave and a class that just… behaves. If I have a class who is only behaving because I am watching them every second and threatening punishments if they misbehave, a class that will go all Lord of the Flies if I turn my back or leave them with a sub for the day, I may get compliance out of them if I use enough sticks and maybe some carrots, but it will never be a really great class, because everything is being forced. Education in this scenario is a terrible thing that is forced on you by adults who demand blind obedience. 

A really good class, on the other hand, is one the students understand why they are there–to learn–and they control their own actions because they, like the teacher, are trying to create a good environment for learning. I suppose you could say everyone is then being compliant to the ideal of learning being a good thing, but I would hope that learning is an obvious good.  

Even in society, someone isn’t really a good citizen just because they are always compliant. If someone is compliant only because he is afraid he will get in trouble, the minute no one is looking he may try to get away with whatever he can. A good citizen goes beyond compliance, has a higher moral vision, and tries to create a better society. Martin Luther King, Jr. was non-compliant for a cause. So were the founding fathers. The United States was founded, quite frankly, on non-compliance. 

And though the evils of non-compliance are often talked about–unruly kids in school, and criminals in society–the evils of compliance are less often referred to. When school is all about compliance, it becomes an exercise in hoop jumping for everyone involved. Students focus on grades instead of learning, on pleasing the teacher rather taking intellectual risks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given students the opportunity to be creative, only to have them come up to me and ask, “Am I allowed to…?” It’s creativity. Yes, it’s allowed. You don’t get curious, creative, self-motivated students through compliance.Is it really our ideal that students go through school hating learning, hating everything about the educational process, but doing it anyway just to be compliant? 

The culture of teaching has been shaped by compliance as well. Teachers are being told what to teach, how to teach it, when to teach it. I’ve heard teachers ask questions like, “Can I add things that aren’t on the curriculum map?” or “What if I get an idea of my own? Can I use that with my students?” The ultimate in teacher compliance is now at work in classrooms using “No Nonsense Nurturing,” where a pair of coaches sitting in the corner of the room on a headset coach the teacher by telling them exactly what to do and say as they teach. You don’t get curious, creative, self-motivated teachers through compliance. 

In the end, I think there is a role for compliance, but I wonder about how large a role it should have, and where it should be placed. Make compliance the main thing we focus on in schools, or society, and you wind up killing the very things we should be promoting. 

We shouldn’t start with compliance. We should demand compliance as a last resort, for students (or citizens) who just don’t get it. And when we demand compliance, mere compliance shouldn’t be our end goal. 

We should start, and hopefully end, with something more elusive, a little hard to sum up in a single word like compliance. We should emphasize the idea that education is good, that we are all here to learn, that we all collaborate to create a good class, a good school, a good society. We should emphasize enthusiasm and engagement. A room full of students who understands those ideas will be a joy to teach, and the learning that takes place will be different in every way. 

If you look at my status update, and read the discussion below it, it raises some questions. If my status had been a discussion question for a class, and people were required to comment as part of the class, would the discussion have been the same? What if they knew I had a certain point of view, didn’t like being disagreed with, and was in charge of the participants’ grades? Does compliance get the same result as engagement? Notice also, that it’s the ambiguity that starts the discussion, gets people thinking. Do I have all the answers about compliance? No. Is there room to argue that compliance deserves more credit than I am giving it? Sure. And there is room to debate testing and school uniforms too. The point is, these are all issues we should be dragging into the classroom and debating to get students to think. Discussing compliance and the issues around it is much better teaching practice than simply demanding compliance. 

Has anything really great ever come into the world because someone was merely being… compliant? Discuss.