On Compliance [Part 1: Wait for Directions]

I’ve heard many conversations lately surrounding the new generation of students that are just now entering college or the workforce. They are venturing out on their own for the first time and attempting to find their way. It’s exciting for them to enter into this newfound independence, and many of them are bright-eyed and enthusiastic about what lies ahead. What’s so disheartening to me is the conversation surrounding these young adults, and moreover, the truth that lies behind it.

Much of what I’ve heard about these young people is that they are unsure, unmotivated, and unwilling to make things happen for themselves. Many of them do not take the initiative and are left not making the progress they could to realize their full potential. They have a sense of insecurity about what to do next and always seem to be waiting for someone to give them direction. While this is hard to hear, I can’t say I haven’t experienced or witnessed some of it myself.

So I did what I usually do. I thought about it. I reflected on it. I considered reasons why it could be occurring. I tried to reconcile my own hyper-motivation with what seemed to be apathy. Frankly, I was totally overthinking it. But for all that overthinking, I feel like I reached a pretty important conclusion.

Education, traditionally, has been on reinforcing compliance. It’s been on having our students do what we expect them to do, when we expect them to do it, without asking any questions. We’ve directed our students on where to sit, who to work with, and what to produce. We’ve told them what’s important and why it should matter to them. For the most part, many of these young adults experienced an educational system that discouraged their individual decision-making and consistently reinforced that they must wait for someone else to tell them what to do.

Is it really surprising then that these students, who are now young people, have no idea what to do when left to make their own decisions?

Honestly, it makes perfect sense to me. These kids never had a chance to truly think for themselves and experience the difficulty (and reward) that comes with charting their own course. The opportunity for them to use their critical problem-solving skills did not exist. And now, the situation they’ve entered has much higher stakes. Every choice they make directly influences their future success. It’s no wonder they’re skittish to start figuring it out for themselves–they haven’t had any adequate, low-stakes circumstances to try their hand.

School should be the opportunity for our kids to practice the use of these life skills. To start making decisions regarding their own learning (and their futures) with a safety net and a solid support system set in place. To truly figure out what works for them and how they can persevere through difficult situations. To start developing the necessary tools that they will need to be successful in the future.

In past years, I’ve typically had a morning message written on my whiteboard waiting for students when they enter the classroom. It directed them to turn in papers, get out necessary supplies, or what have you. And it always ended with the same final two statements…

  • Have a seat
  • Wait for directions

Now, this seemed pretty harmless to me. Seemed like procedural, necessary element to ensure a smoothly run class. But looking back on it, I feel like it’s been contributing to the problem. I have thought of myself as a teacher who encourages her students to take an active role in their learning, but in those two statements that started my class nearly every day, I wasn’t doing that at all. In fact, I was simply reinforcing the compliance that has traditionally taken place in our classrooms. Sit down in your assigned seat and wait for me to tell you what to do.

I’ve been starting to consider compliance more and more as it relates to my own practices. Looking back on the way I’ve done things, that morning message included, I’m realizing that the constructs that were in place in the classroom consistently told my students that the focus was on doing what I wanted them to do rather than learning. The central goal of the class and how it was run was to earn a good grade, and to do that, students had to listen and follow my directions to the letter. There wasn’t a lot of room for questioning, problem-solving, or mistakes. In other words, there was no place for noncompliance. And that, in my mind, is at the heart of this problem.

Our students should be able to learn in an environment that encourages them to explore, try new things, think for themselves, ask questions, and mess up. The focus should be on learning, not just our content areas, but also how to think and decide for themselves. Students should be experiencing what it is to direct their own learning and how to take initiative. They should be able to inquire about what they are being asked to do. The young adults entering the world have not had such a background. They haven’t been afforded this incredibly important aspect of their education.

It’s no wonder they’re sitting back and waiting for directions. That’s what they’ve been told to do.

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