How to Turn Compliant Learners into Engaged Learners

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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As an administrator contemplating personalized learning, you may be wondering how to make that shift in culture. How do you transition from a compliant, dutiful group to an engaged group of teachers?

An upcoming series of blog posts on Learning Personalized is going to explore that process. First, we will explore the two groups and where yours might fall on the spectrum of compliant to engaged.

Look at the table below and see how the two groups contrast. The compliant, dutiful learner is relatively easy to manage and follows a predictable timeline. The engaged learner, however, is more likely to stray from the predetermined path.

Compliant vs. Engaged Learners

From Real Engagement by Allison Zmuda and Robyn Jackson
Follows oral and/or written directions with minimal prompting Follows oral and/or written directions with minimal prompting but may pursue an alternative approach to personalize the experience
Completes explicit procedures and requirements in a timely manner Pursues own train of thought regardless of task at hand or feedback from staff which may make it difficult to finish in a timely manner
Intently focuses on task completion to finish the assignment Focuses on the learning and wants to talk without prompting or consideration for those around them
Participates in group activities and discussion when prompted Reticent to participate in group activities and discussion because still mulling over ideas, information OR actively immersed in the previous task
Responds to straightforward questions but needs scaffolding to pursue a more complex question May be bored or unmotivated to respond to straightforward questions but are fascinated by questions that require teasing out ambiguity and complexity or questions that are personally interesting and relevant
Seeks approval, credit, and/or high marks because of effort, quantity, or adherence to directions Seeks recognition for the thoughtfulness of the work or originality of the work even if it isn’t complete or adheres to the directions
Plays it safe by electing to follow known procedures, explore familiar topics, utilize tools that they already have fluency with, and dismisses alternative points of view or approaches Chooses to take risks by exploring something new, attempts to solve a problem in a novel way, and considers an alternative point of view
Completes work with no expectation for personal relevance, connection, or interest Seeks to make the work interesting or disengage
Accepts the credibility or validity of what an authority says at face value (i.e. teacher, online source, expert) Constantly questions both text and people to better understand an issue, topic, or problem
Waits patiently for assistance or decides it’s not worth the effort to ask for help in the first place because it goes beyond the scope of the directions Demands immediate assistance or attention based on their deep connection to the topic, question, or task at hand

I was facilitating a workshop on the topic of shifting to a culture of innovation  for building and division administrators and shared this chart with them. The participants engaged in a conversation as to why teachers are in the compliant category. The comment that struck me the most — teachers have become conditioned to follow the rules, follow the test, follow what the boss wants. If we want them to become immersed in ideas and challenges that necessitate engagement, we have to rethink about how we design and support staff development.

Real-Life Examples

engaged learners
Meghan Ofer began her journey as a principal in June of 2015.

Now that we’ve defined the two groups, let’s explore how we can direct our teachers toward engagement.

Explore Dr. Eric Chagala and Meghan Ofer‘s practice of investing in their teachers to enhance learning throughout their schools. Chagala meets teachers where they’re at through a process he calls “The Concierge Continuum.”

“If you think about (being) in a fancy hotel and the concierge, that person’s job is to be there (for the guests),” he says. “When somebody wants show tickets, they come up and they help them find show tickets; and when somebody needs a dinner reservation, they come and help them with the dinner reservations.

“(The guest) may think that the dinner reservation that they want (is) Mexican food, but they are at a hotel in New Orleans and, really, I’m the concierge and so let’s guide you toward maybe creole food because, when you’re in New Orleans, you don’t eat Mexican food.”

Ofer is taking her teachers on a passion project adventure this summer. Instead of grouping her teachers based on grade level, she’s grouping them based on what they are interested in.

“I’m doing a teacher passion project of sorts and so teachers are going to be hooked up with each other based on what they’re passionate about,” she said. “They’re really excited about because, as you expose them to different things within the vision and the model that we are for our school, they can take it in various different directions.”

Questions to ask yourself as you embark on this process:

  1. When you’re thinking about the engaged learner, to what extent are you creating that capacity in your classroom teachers?
  2. How can you continue to open up the conversation and staff development practices for this kind of engaged learner to rise up?




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