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Thought for the week: Compliance vs Engagement

In the classroom and in the school of life the difference between compliance and engagement matters; to me anyways. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with some amazing educators who make me think, and one topic that keeps coming up over and over again is the impact of student engagement on learning. This is not something new and fancy in education, and it should come as no surprise-but engaged learners learn more and carry that learning with them through life. Engaged learners are curious, passionate and persistent. Engaged learners often have a growth mindset: they are persistent, resilient, empathetic, optimistic and flexible (Mindset for Learning, Heinemann, 2015.) Engaged learners often experience a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi)That wonderful place where time and effort seem to fade away.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 3)

So what does an engaged learner look like? That is not so simple. How do you recognize the difference between compliance and engagement?

Think back to your own learning experiences and think about your favorite teachers and favorite classes. We can all remember those times when we were so intrigued and curious that no matter how difficult the concept or task, we were “all in.”  In most cases it was not simply the instructor, or the material, but an amazing confluence of interest, passion, and personality.

Now think back to your own learning experiences to a time you simply  followed the steps to accomplish a prescribed task or to complete a project or to accomplish someone else’s goal. How often do we get caught up in simply going through the motions in order to complete something or to get to the end. The joy is not in the learning, but in “getting it done.” Following the rules and going through the motions is compliance, my friend. There are many of us who were quite good at being a student: following instructions, dotting our “i’s” and crossing our “t’s”, making lists, crossing things off, marching along, not really invested in what we were doing except to achieve more, accomplish more, and to be better than the next guy. There are times in life when it is necessary to be a rule follower, but when it comes to learning, isn’t it better to follow your passion and interests instead of rules?

So what does it mean to be an engaged learner? According to research, three levels of engagement are optimal for learning to occur: behavioral, cognitive and emotional. Behavioral engagement looks like effort, persistence, and following instructions; cognitive engagement consists of interest, ownership, and strategies for learning; and finally, emotional engagement means curiosity and investment in what is being taught, so that learning occurs even outside the context of the lesson or class. (Engaging Every Learner, Heinemann, 2015.)

How many levels of engagement are you operating on at any given time? And what are the conditions that exist for you to be behaviorally, cognitively and emotionally engaged in your learning?

This is another  “Aha” moment, because we often don’t realize how unengaged we are or have been until we are suddenly engaged in learning. A year ago I was simply going through the motions, following a workout schedule, routine and running plan, crossing things off my list in order to get to the next race or plate on the barbell. I was behaviorally engaged-but cognitively and emotionally I couldn’t have been more disengaged. A disengaged learner is bored, frustrated, and is not working at their true potential.

In contrast to simple compliance, true engagement brings us closer to a state of flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests there are three essential conditions to help learners achieve this state:

  1. The goals are clear (i.e. design an experiment which demonstrates xyz, write a persuasive essay, paint the ceiling of the chapel
  2. The goals are attainable  and within one’s skill set and ability; and the challenge level and skill level are both high
  3. You get clear and immediate feedback so you can adjust your course


So think about it. Are you engaged in your learning or are you simply being compliant? It’s okay to be crazy passionate and curious-it means you are cognitively and emotionally engaged. It also means you are more likely to be behaviorally engaged if you are cognitively and emotionally engaged. And guess what? It’s normal for your engagement levels to vary, especially when faced with difficult tasks. Environment matters and stamina matters, but both can be cultivated. Engagement begins by knowing your learners and caring about them.





One Comment:

  1. Thanks for posting: I hadn’t heard of the three levels of engagement before. I’ve been really considering the balance between compliance and engagement lately as I’ve been challenged by a non-compliant student. My goal is to give my students engaging tasks (the three conditions you shared are terrific), but this student rarely demonstrates behavioral engagement. She usually wants to work with a different grouping, or use other materials in class and doesn’t participate in the way that I think would help spark cognitive and emotional engagement. Your post has given me a lot to think about as I figure this out and try to discover the intersection between compliance and engagement.

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