Education in a World of Compliance

“Modern learning is grounded in one important word that represents the present foundational shift: freedom.” – Will Richardson.

If one accepts that learning is most effective when it is rooted in freedom, personal commitment and intrinsic motivation, then compliance is surely the adversary of learning. In Different Schools For a Different World, McLeod and Shareski discuss the need for a shift in school cultures, one in which school leaders relinquish some of their authority and develop greater trust in teachers. This shift is slow to happen they conclude because of, “how deeply embedded the culture of compliance is within our schools.” As much as educators state that they want to provide students with increased agency over their learning, the reality can be, as Scheninger and Murray have observed, that, “compliance-driven, traditional school structures do anything but facilitate the development of agency.”

In many areas of school administration, compliance is common and normal. The need to be compliant with regulations about safety, child protection, data privacy, and certain quality standards, for instance, are actually essential. In the educational context, however, in which agency is vital for learners to flourish, compliance can restrict choice and the possibilities of creativity. In a world in which, it is often suggested, we need our young people to challenge everything, how many of our schools are prepared for, and ready to encourage this?

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.”

Schools are understandably not so keen to indulge troublemakers, but the famous Apple advert was essentially speaking to the need to celebrate the different ways of thinking and being that are the hallmarks of individuality. Still, too often schools remain interested in the right answer and those who are not compliant – those who question why – are frequently regarded as difficult. The opposite of individuality is conformity and schools are inclined to not just encourage, but mandate systemic conformity as an organizing feature of formal education. For Alfie Kohn, conformity is a byproduct of the competitive nature of schools: “To conform is to go along, to accept a situation as it is. Its opposite is not only individuality but the acts of questioning and rebelling. Competition seems to promote conformity. If winning is the goal, one naturally tries to avoid doing anything that could jeopardize it…. Competition acts to extinguish the Promethean fire of rebellion.”

For Kohn and others, conformity and compliance are the twin offspring of the need to compare and rank students, of the inclination to sustain a trusted and tried gate-keeping, status quo. Competition makes learning a race, an accumulation of points, a set of benchmarked data points that pigeon hole the learner, and the sooner the better, it seems. While it is relatively easy to measure a school’s compliance with regard to facilities and regulations, the apparently growing obsession with standardized testing in many parts of the world requires teachers to prepare learners for compliance in very narrow areas of prescribed curriculum, while the more nebulous areas of critical thinking, artistic ability, ethical decision-making, collaboration, happiness – things that cannot be measured by tests – are sometimes undervalued or even sidelined. Tracking student growth is important. Evaluating program quality is vital. Approaches to these things that reduce students or teachers to isolated data points for decision-making are acts of contrived compliance.

Contemporary research and literature are very clear: compliance is at variance with the values and principles of a modern education. As Richardson sees it: “Modern learning is about understanding that schools no longer control access to information and teachers; that learners have a growing freedom to learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn, and with whom they want to learn; and, importantly, that a school should no longer control the process of what is to be learned as much as it should make sure that every student can take full advantage of his or her own freedom to learn in profound, powerful, safe, and meaningful ways given the access available.”

Many schools commit to ideals like developing individuals who are critical thinkers, learners as active contributors to the local and global community, collaborators who strive to understand and respect the perspectives of others. Increasingly, students are afforded a significant degree of choice with opportunities to personalize their learning, but schools still have a long way to go before arriving at the scenario depicted by Richardson. If compliance is the adversary of learning – and good schools will rightly frown at the notion that compliance is part of their culture – then there are several critical shifts around organizational agility and learning access that can help transform that culture. But where should that transformation begin? In the end, if learner agency is what we want, then the answer is startlingly simple.

If one accepts that learning is most effective when it is rooted in freedom, personal commitment and intrinsic motivation, then compliance is surely also the adversary of the facilitation of learning. If we want to provide students with greater agency over their learning, we need to start by providing teachers with greater agency over their professional practice, too.

Apple Inc. Think Different. TV advert, 1997.
McLeod, Scott & Shareski, Dean. Different Schools For a Different World. Solution Tree Press, 2017.
Sheninger, Eric C. & Murray, Thomas C. Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today. ASCD, 207.
Kohn, Alfie. No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Richardson, Will. From Master Teacher to Master Learner. Solution Tree, 2015.

Photo by Veronica Benavides on Unsplash