More on Compliance and Motivation in Schools.

Not sure if you’ve had the chance to read it, but I was thinking a lot about compliance and motivation last week.  

It’s a topic that drives my thinking all the time simply because I’ve got a second grade daughter who isn’t terribly good at “being compliant” and I LOVE that about her.  I want her to push the envelope and challenge authority and walk her own path — but I’m not sure that those kinds of behaviors are encouraged or celebrated in traditional schools.

So my fear is that school will crush her independence — and that I will start to push for her to be more compliant regardless of the circumstance simply because I don’t want her to be labeled a “behavior problem.”

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the comment section of that post, you SHOULD.  There have been some TERRIFIC thoughts and reflections shared that are continuing to challenge me.

One of the general themes in many comments is the notion that having kids who are intrinsically motivated is great — but the fact of the matter is that life is full of situations where drudgery is the reality.  In schools, that might look like introducing students to basic skills that are best learned through repetition or pushing kids to complete tasks because learning about meeting deadlines really is an essential skill for becoming a productive contributor.

Stated more simply, you can’t really be “college and career ready” if you think it is OK to pick and choose the work that you are going to complete and the work that you are going to ignore.

There’s truth in that thinking, right?

The fact of the matter is that we ALL complete tasks — both in our personal and our professional lives — that we aren’t inspired by.  We don’t do it because those tasks are intrinsically motivating.  We do it because we want to keep our jobs or to please our spouses or to avoid the consequences that come from ignoring expectations set by other people.

But as Dienne so eloquently describes, schoolkids are BURIED in mindless tasks that do little more than demand compliance.

She writes:

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?

And THAT’s the key:  Inane tasks are the norm rather than the exception to the rule in the lives of students.

It’s reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering multiple choice question after multiple choice question.  It’s solving questions 14-33 on page 86 of the textbook and showing your work.  It’s making YET another PowerPoint for YET another class — and then delivering YET another five minute presentation to your peers on some topic that you are going to forget before the end of the month.

Worse yet, inspiring tasks are like white rhinoceroses:  Oddities that are rarely seen, long remembered, and hunted by darn near everyone.

Need proof?  Then try this:  Create a list of every experience from YOUR school career that you were genuinely inspired by.  What are the individual projects or tasks or classes or field trips or learning experiences that you KNOW changed who you are or how you feel or what you know.

Or if you are REALLY brave, get up from your desk RIGHT NOW.  Walk into five classrooms.  Observe the lesson that is being taught and ask yourself, “How many of those lessons will be remembered two weeks (or two days) from now?”

Short lists, right?

That’s heartbreaking, y’all.  Kids spend YEARS and YEARS in classrooms.  Shouldn’t the number of inspiring learning experiences outnumber the number of innane learning experiences by AT LEAST a factor of a thousand?

And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we be questioning the role that schools are playing in the lives of our kids?  



Related Radical Reads:

Compliance ≠ Motivation

Are We Too Busy Schooling?

Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored.

4 thoughts on “More on Compliance and Motivation in Schools.

  1. ctuttell


    I am with you on this. I visit K – 5 classrooms everyday – the joy, curiosity and wonderment of learning is less apparent in classrooms the higher you go. Here is the thing though – I see it in the kids AND the teachers – so why is that? Testing, failed initiative after failed initiative, 3 months from retirement?

    Why are the teachers that think more like you and me outliers instead of the norm? Currently have the Pink Floyd lyric running through my head, “Welcome to the machine…”

    Let’s be honest, when I address these thoughts in meetings I get a lot of eye rolls and people disengage.

    As always…thanks for pushing my thinking.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Easy answer, Chris: Compliance is the best strategy for producing results on end of grade exams — and most school leaders place such a priority on end of grade exams that teachers do little to drift from focusing on those results.

      It’s sad — and sometimes I think people beyond the classroom miss out on that truth because they aren’t held accountable for those same kinds of results — but it is the truth.

      Nothing complicated about it — except for finding a solution!



  2. Craig

    Have you read JT Gatto’s “Weapons of Mass Instruction”? (arguing that what you’re describing is not a bug, but a feature of the system).

    And I don’t have kids, but I can totally see how the question is more than merely academic to you when it’s a matter of how the school system is shaping your young child.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking posts and genuine engagement.


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Craig,

      First, sorry for the slow reply! Been a busy few days around my house. I’m struggling to keep up with life right now.

      Second, thanks for the kind words! Glad that you find my blog provocative, that’s for sure. That’s always been my goal.

      Finally, the tension that comes from being a parent AND being a teacher in the system where your kid goes to school is all too real. It’s making me question everything about my own practice. It’s also making me question whether or not I can stand idly by when I see the impact that “schooling” is having on my child — knowing full well that it is having the same impact on every other kid, too.

      Anyway — hope you are well,

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