The Hidden Curriculum of Compliance
by Ryan Burke
This month’s Unspeakable is that if you look closely at behaviors, systems, and patterns in schools, often the adults are seeking, creating, and reinforcing compliance for students, rather than learning. One way to understand this Unspeakable is to first go back to the messaging and metaphor that exists in how we parent newborns. If you are a parent of young children, you know all too well the questions that you get asked when you venture into the world with your new baby. The direct version: “Is he/she sleeping through the night?” or the more passive version: “How is he/she sleeping?”   

My wife and I learned quickly to take this as our cue to hit the restroom or whatever else we could do to avoid the inevitable conversation that ensued about what strategies we might consider to help our baby comply with this strange, implicit rule that says, “thou shalt sleep through the night as soon as possible.” As a new parent, we found ourselves lying about how well our baby was sleeping, because lying seemed easier to justify than the pain of having to endure what felt like the original failure we had as parents, and on top of that, we were so tired from being up all night with this new creature that seemed to be nocturnal.   

Why do we think newborn babies should sleep through the night? This is the question we should be asking. Have you ever wondered why it is commonplace for animal shelter workers to get up and nurse baby animals every two hours, but we won’t do this for our own newborns. We are trained, from early on, not to question the rules. Newborns, if left to their own devices, simply sleep in what seems like an infinite set of variations because, like adults, they are all different. But, this wide variation of “normal” is inconvenient for adults.  

The problem doesn’t stop there. We should be more curious why we begin hardcore independence training for our newborns and then as soon as children become old enough to be independent, we begin to manage their lives for them. We go through teenagers’ backpacks, have them show us their planners, and do all sorts of things they are old enough to do on their own. As a Dean of Students, I once oversaw a disciplinary situation in which a mother had re-written her child’s senior essay, and in doing so, inadvertently plagiarized. I recognized the look on this senior’s face as genuine “I have no idea who wrote that, but it wasn’t me.” Why? Why do we leave our newborns to fend for themselves, and then over-help and enable pre-teens and teens?  

Newborns, if left to sleep whenever they want, will eventually find a pattern and rhythm right for them, but as many sleep weary parents can attest, this process can take a while. Teens, if loved while held capable of experiencing high school for themselves, will eventually figure out how to master the independence we claim to want them to learn. This is learning, as opposed to compliance. Compliance comes with arbitrary, irrational, and developmentally inappropriate time restrictions which wreak havoc on everyone involved.     

I started with these examples for two reasons. One, educators who are responsible for schools are just babies that have grown up, and we don’t spend much time thinking about why we unconsciously seek compliance with students, teachers, or parents. Often when you unpack with teachers or parents the reasons behind their decision making, one will find an emotional tie to what happened to them.  

When we were young, we had to ___________ (fill in something that is irrelevant now), and this taught us to be __________ (fill in a positive trait).” 

Much of parenting, much of schooling is about control over ______, and this is a direct barrier to learning. Two, learning is so personal, and we must realize that control and compliance as an adult way of mitigating complexity or our own anxiety is a systemic and cultural issue that goes far beyond an individual's thoughts or opinions on rules.  

When we seek compliance from others, it almost always speaks to the unmet need to control in ourselves, and it is with this core understanding that I am inviting you to take a hard look at your school environment, your school culture, and whether your choices are creating the conditions for learning or for compliance.   

In many top schools, we observe teachers and administrators fearful of trying new things, fearful of taking on content without expertise, fearful of feeling what it feels like to be learning something. The most experienced teachers are sometimes the least interested in learning themselves, and these are the mentors that younger faculty look to for cues.  

Students learn by watching us, and they learn early that mistakes are bad, and compliance is good. By 3rd or 4th grade, students often share that fear of messing up, question themselves, and seek performance (of compliance tasks) over the discomfort of trying something new. Those that buck this trend are often labeled as behavior problems, or they are prescribed medication to focus and comply. Those that comply easily, happily, and crave direction and knowledge from adults are rewarded.

We also see this reflected in our greater society as sports and extracurriculars become more specialized, and students decide earlier and earlier that they shouldn’t do something because they are not “good enough” at it. Renowned researcher Carol Dweck has written extensively about students that grow to understand their own intelligence with what she calls a “Fixed Mindset.” This “Fixed Mindset” is partially a result of compliance-based pedagogy present in many schools claiming to be organized around student learning.     

Is a newborn not good at soothing themselves or are we simply uncomfortable with the process that people go through to learn things in different ways or on different time schedules? Much like babies crying, watching someone learn something can be hard on us because we have a baseline resistance to the feeling that this process elicits in us. Watching others fail as they learn evokes our own sense of failure, and because we have been systematically taught to minimize or hide our mistakes, we can’t help but pass this bad habit on to young people.   

Let’s look at some examples of compliance-based systems: 

  • Punishment and reward systems:  These range from jellybean bowls in elementary school classrooms that fill up with good behavior to head-down detention sessions where we shame students for doing what comes naturally and is woven into the fabric of learning: talking, socializing, connecting, laughing, joking. We punish students for showing joy in learning because we think that we should determine how, when and in what manner a student learns.  
  • Grades and Comments:  Our traditional system of measuring performance directly refutes what we know about learning. It turns “being a learner” into a game where students trade work for grades and then trade grades for rewards. By 8th grade, many students feel disengaged, and a large portion of those that are still engaged are just playing a zero-sum game of collecting points, accolades, trophies and other external reminders propping up or maintaining their fixed mindset. “Why do you want an A in math?” “Because an A means I am smart, and I need to maintain my smart status.” If you don’t think this is a problem, I invite you to sit down with any 14-18-year-old student and suggest to them that it would be a good idea to embrace mistakes and failure to ensure they are being challenged and learning in school. Take note of the side-eye they give you and ask yourself whether you are willing to lead by example with that suggestion. We can’t ask students to challenge themselves in this way in a system we built that rewards them for the opposite.  
  • Respect for Teachers:  This is one of the worst areas of compliance. We teach students, “you must respect your teachers” all the while, we systematically ignore what they need to ensure comfort, preserve efficiency and maintain order. While this is happening, we tell them how much we personally care. We force students to apologize, we force them to play the piano or we lie to them about the generalized importance of polynomials to ensure the house of cards doesn’t crumble. We lie to them while demanding respect. We justify this to ourselves by focusing on the students that drink up our compliance or happen to enjoy what we think is best for them, and we further alienate students that are trying to send us a signal that the system is boring, needs to change, is rigged for a small set of privileged students or at best, just not relevant for what matters to them. At worst, these systems are deeply disrespectful to everyone involved.  

What Can We Do?   

I know it sounds bad, and that is because it is. Compliance in school has tendrils connected to white supremacy, sexism, patriarchy, and other interconnected systems designed to oppress. Conversely, environments centered on learning foster the unique and special qualities present in each member and the systems are built to maximize diversity and allow for the widest possible expression of joy. In order to create this type of culture and environment, we must act differently. Here are a few suggestions to spur a bias towards action:

  • Create a Compliance Audit: Look in every area of your community for programs, policies, systems, or structures that are motivated by forcing, convincing or manipulating students, teachers, administrators and parents to act in certain ways that are not in service of your mission. Include students in this work.  
  • Look to your experts on learning:  Middle school band teachers, this is your time to shine. Imagine 25 students learning to play the trumpet, clarinet, trombone, and yes, drums. Classes and teachers where performance-based events occur on a regular basis are often the best learning environments. It is no coincidence that sports, theatre and other activities students choose produce powerful memories, learning, and relationships. You cannot tell someone how to play an instrument, you can only sit with them as they “learn by doing.” We seem to understand that, in band, today’s clarinet squeaks become tomorrow’s senior showcase concert solo. Every school has subjects and teachers where it is more natural to learn than to comply. Find them in your school.
  • Design a disciplinary system with learning, not a punishment as the outcome:  Restorative Justice is the most popular packaged way of doing this, but this work can start individually by asking each teacher to eliminate practices that ostracize, shame, or humiliate children when they make a choice. The first step that is often skipped in disciplinary situations is learning what happened, helping students feel what the impact was, and allowing children to then use that information and those feelings to decide how they want to proceed. We don’t trust children to learn which then leads to systems of punishment that don’t help them learn, and then their behavior fulfills our initial fear. In an absence of trust, we build systems of control and schools can begin to feel much like minimum security prisons. Order cannot be more important than learning. Learning is messy.      
  • Re-Imagine Awards Ceremonies:  How might we design events where the process that people use to learn, the relationships that are fostered, and the appreciation for other people and their impact can be highlighted in our school traditions, rituals, and ceremonies? When we answer this question, we can replace ceremonies where we hand out certificates for the students who win the zero-sum game. Learning is an infinite game, not a finite game.

The definition of a finite game = there are clear rules, a winner and loser, and a clear end when the winner is crowned. Infinite games = there is no winner or loser, and the rules morph and change as needed to keep the game going. The goal of an infinite game is to play and keep playing, and learning is an infinite game. 

  • Invest in Programmatic Opportunities that Prioritize Choice, Creativity and Real-World Deliverables:  The only way to learn anything is to do it, usually poorly at first, usually many times in order to slowly get better at it, and the only way to create the type of space where students choose to do this type of work is to allow them to have a voice in what those things are. You must give up your institutional position stating that you know what that is for students. You don’t know better than young people, or better than anyone what they should learn. We have been trained to know, not to learn, and this deficit is pervasive in organized education today. 

Why Care?

What makes this Unspeakable so powerful and important is that as the future unfolds, it is clear that cultures and schools that create the conditions for maximum diversity, equity, creativity, art, divergent thinking, and produce expert learners are going to be the bitcoin of human capital. There is no more powerful commodity than a disposition of learning and curiosity. We must intentionally design our way out of an industrialized model and re-awaken our natural curiosity and propensity for learning. If we can do this, then we have a chance to create learning environments that students would choose to attend if they were not forced by state law, parental pressure, guilt, shame, or obligation.     
If you are interested in reading more, you might check out two of our recent articles:

Programs Designed for Learning, not Compliance
A Conversation about Compliance vs. Learning this month
Monthly Webinar: Unbuilding Compliance-based Disciplinary Systems
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