Compliance ≠ Motivation.

One of my favorite students of all time was a boy named Thomas*.  

What I dug the most about him was his curiosity.  It didn’t matter what topics we were talking about in class, Thomas was always wondering and always asking questions and always doing independent investigation on related ideas that left him intrigued.  He was one of the most passionate learners and thinkers that I’ve ever had the chance to work with — and I’m certain that he is going to be more than a little successful in life.

But Thomas was rarely “successful” in school.

He wasn’t an “Honor Roll” student, pasting fancy certificates on his wall and bumper stickers on his parents’ cars quarter after quarter and year after year.  Instead, he was constantly racking up Cs and Ds in his classes.  Missing tasks were the norm rather than the exception to the rule — and the work that he DID turn in was never an accurate reflection of what he was capable of.  His apathy towards assignments was a source of constant frustration for his parents and his teachers, who tried every trick in the book — groundings, loss of privileges, after school detentions, low marks, even LOWER marks — to “motivate” him to give his best effort on every assignment.

If you went back and looked at Thomas’s academic record, you’d probably make a ton of assumptions about him.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing inspiring about the grades that he’s earned during his school career — and outsiders who have to make decisions based on little more than transcripts would probably turn away from Thomas in a minute.  He’d be filtered out before anyone would give him an interview simply because Cs and Ds are quick indicators of struggles that most employers don’t want to bother with.

And all of those assumptions would be wrong.

Here’s why: Thomas’s academic record is nothing more than a reflection of what he was WILLING to do — not what he was ABLE to do.  He’d made a decision early on that he wasn’t going to play the “compliance game,” dutifully completing every task and meeting every deadline without question.  Instead, he judged each assignment individually — and if he found it challenging or interesting or relevant, he’d invest in it completely.  If he found it pointless or repetitive or disconnected from important questions worth considering, he’d skip it no matter what punishments you promised.

So what lesson can we learn from kids like Thomas?

Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that sometimes the lack of motivation that we see in our students is a function of the work that we are asking them to do.  Thomas didn’t skip assignments or turn in tasks that were partially complete because he COULDN’T do the work.  He skipped assignments and turned in partially completed tasks because he’d decided that he WOULDN’T do work just to please a teacher or to avoid a punishment.  If he couldn’t see value in a task, he wasn’t going to value it.

Stew in that for a minute, would you.  In its simplest form, Thomas’s refusal to invest in work that he didn’t believe in was a form of protest — his way of saying to his teachers, “If you want my best effort, I expect more effort out of you, too.”  Sure — it would have been easier to just do the work he was being asked to do.  And yes — there are plenty of kids who will follow directions and meet deadlines because they fear the consequences that both parents and teachers stand ready to dish out.

But please don’t mistake that compliance for motivation — and please don’t suggest that kids like Thomas who refuse to comply are automatically lazy or disobedient.

In fact, if you regularly have to use consequences — think zeros or low grades or signatures on work tracking tools or phone calls home to parents — as threats to encourage kids to complete your assignments, it might be time to look carefully at your instructional choices.


*Name changed to protect the identity of this student!


Related Radical Reads:

Grades AREN’T Motivating

Learning > Schooling

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?



12 thoughts on “Compliance ≠ Motivation.

  1. ctuttell

    Hey Bill,

    This post is SPOT ON! A few things I am thinking about – Do you think administrators know the difference between compliance and empowered/engaged students? Do they spend enough time in classrooms and getting to know the kids to know the difference? Also wondering – which do they value more? A compliant kid doesn’t really require an administrator to do much.

    These lines – got me thinking…

    Finally, too many of our peers see schools as compliance factories and school work as a power struggle. “You need to do it because I said so” is seen as “teaching kids to persist” or “working hard even when the work isn’t fun.”

    Do teachers want kids to be compliant because that is how they were taught or we haven’t given them opportunities/permission to do school differently?

    Finally – How does compliance compare to creativity and critical thinking? To innovation?

    Thanks for pushing our thinking!

  2. Robert Schuetz

    As is typically the case, I am swimming in agreement with you Bill.
    Adults are faced with thousands of decisions each day, many happen subconsciously. What helps us become better decision makers? Most likely, it’s repetitive practice; falling, getting back up, falling, getting back up. At what age should we begin our practice of making decisions? If we make all of the decisions for our students, are we also sprinkling kryptonite on their future decision making powers?
    I was full of enthusiasm at the onset of our 1:1 iPad implementation thinking this would open world-wide possibilities for inquiry and connecting. Four years in, the iPads have been reduced, for many students, to glorified notebooks with onboard cameras. This is why I admire your classroom blogging project. You are giving students opportunities to share to an authentic audience, to share and reflect upon their learning, and to make decisions about being digitally responsible. Compliance is an ugly word to many of us. Unfortunately, compliance is seen as effective teaching by many others.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Bob wrote:

      Four years in, the iPads have been reduced, for many students, to glorified notebooks with onboard cameras.


      Oh Bob. I’m totally making a slide out of this! It’s SUCH a great picture of what we DON’T want technology to be, right?

      And I’ve seen those same patterns over and over again as schools have invested in more and more technology for their classrooms. The pressure to comply is so strong at all levels that we’ve done nothing to “reimagine learning spaces.”

      That’s heartbreaking — but I can hardly blame classroom teachers. Despite investing tons in different tools, teachers are still held accountable for the exact same outcomes. That’s hardly creating an environment ripe for encouraging change.

      Anyway — dig thinking with you. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Ihor Charischak

    The drudgery work we do as adults is our choice to do. It hasn’t been inflicted upon us as if we were children. Schools can be very terrible places for students like Thomas. I hope it hasn’t caused him so much harm that he won’t be able to function as an adult.

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  6. Craig

    Totally agree that we as educators need to evaluate what we ask students to do. But also know from 39 years on earth that much of life and work is stuff that one just isn’t going to be excited about, but duty requires it, or it’s a boring part of something bigger. We need to both help kids see the bigger picture and also teach them that they sometimes (often) need to push through and do stuff they’re not excited about, and do it well. Adults who only do stuff they’re interested in aren’t going to succeed in much in work or life.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      I’m with you, Craig — I grind through tons of things that I don’t really care much about, too.

      But here’s the thing: I think that the VAST majority of stuff that we ask kids to do in school is seen as pointless and unmotivating. Worse yet, we don’t give kids a heck of a lot of choice over anything in schools. Everything is decided for them. Finally, too many of our peers see schools as compliance factories and school work as a power struggle. “You need to do it because I said so” is seen as “teaching kids to persist” or “working hard even when the work isn’t fun.”

      There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere here — and I don’t think most teachers/schools/districts are trying to look for it. That’s what bugs me!

      Good thinking with you today…

      1. Craig

        Just read your follow-up post. Good stuff. I think I might just be lucky to be in a school that’s closer to a good balance. I think I might agree with you if I was still in some of the other schools where I’ve worked. That said, I work in a largely IB school, and one of the things I love about the DP is that it forces students to be well-rounded (somewhat, no art required, sadly), even if they’re not good at or interested in, say, science or math at all.

    2. Dienne

      In other words, BGUTI – Better Get Used To It (with proper credit to Alfie Kohn). Let;s just assume that a large portion of everyone’s lives is going to be filled with pointless things we’d rather not do, so the task is to acclimate students to a life of drudgery as quickly and, hopefully, painlessly as possible.

      Or, we could stop and wonder if maybe life could be more than that. I mean, sure, we all need to do dishes and laundry and certain other unpleasant tasks. But do we really need to spend our lives filling out forms and writing useless reports that no one will ever read and creating charts that few people even can read? What would happen if we all spent more of our lives pursuing more of what excites us and less doing the routine drudgery that “has” to be done? Does that drudgery really all “have” to be done? And as far as the drudgery that really does need to get done, maybe we could find better ways of divvying that up so that Maria doesn’t have to spend 100 hours a week working three different grueling menial jobs just to afford a basic existence while Melania gets to spend 100 hours every week jetting around, playing and being pampered.

      And honestly, as far as the routine stuff that does have to be done, I think we all do see the point and we all do chip in when it comes down to it, albeit sometimes grudgingly. I think even a kid like Thomas probably likes to wear clean clothes and eat off clean dishes, so he can probably be talked into helping out with those things. Similarly with school work, I think if you can convince Thomas why he needs to know/be able to do something, he’d probably be willing to work hard enough to show you that he knows/can do it. But repeating the same inane task (such as, for instance, reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering trick questions just to try to figure out what the test creator is thinking) probably isn’t going to happen. And that’s where we need to ask ourselves, why should it happen?

      1. Bill Ferriter Post author

        Holy Smokes, Dienne: This is pure brilliance!

        I’m blogging about your response. Thanks for being able to articulate so clearly the problems that I have with Thomas’s life in school.

        You win the Internet.


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