top of page

The Value of Compliance

There is a difference between teaching what and when and teaching how and why. A student can advance through elementary, middle, and high school by being told what content to learn, and by when, without having to learn how or why the content being taught works the way it does.

Many teachers address what, when, how, and why when it comes to introducing content to students; however, there’s often a false premise applied which insists that students inherently learn the how and why of what is being taught (by when) since any content must be taught how in order for what to be learned.

For example, a student who is able to multiply two numbers to get a product has learned to multiply, which means to multiply is the what. However, while the student may have learned how to multiply by being shown specific strategies and then practicing with those strategies, the student does not necessarily know how multiplication actually works. This distinction between knowing how to do something and knowing how something works is where we find ourselves exploring the difference between compliance and mastery specific to the context of teaching and learning.


I was taught to multiply and divide in the late 1980s when the primary teaching strategy involved “drill and kill” – memorize math facts, follow steps for long division, repeat to practice. From an observer’s perspective, it looked like I was learning how to multiply and divide. Yet, if I were asked then what I knew about multiplication and division, my response would be limited to those math facts and that series of steps for long division. In reality, I was learning to multiply and divide – not how multiplication and division actually work.

The question then becomes whether I needed to know how everything works - especially at those early grade levels with such straight forward processes involved. If I was able to multiply two numbers and get the correct product, why wouldn’t that be enough for me to figure out later math in later grade levels? Isn’t it more important that I learned how to multiply as minimum of learning at that point in my schooling journey?

What was overlooked in my experience was how, over the years, the concepts behind multiplication and division were necessary for understanding the concepts behind more complex ideas like exponents and logarithms. Instead of developing that conceptual understanding, I ended up having to memorize new steps for new procedures for those increasingly complex concepts. When I would be asked how I knew how to do something correctly, my response would often be “because the teacher told me to do it this way”.

The takeaway for me, in reflecting on these past schooling experiences, is how the indicator for academic success seemed to rely on how well and how often I was able to motivate myself to do what tasks when they were assigned, and less about my capacity for communicating how and why those concepts connected as progressions across grade levels. In fact, there was a phrase I came to hear often from tutors, siblings, teachers, peers - anyone who cared enough to sit with me and try to help me learn new steps for new equations, a phrase which they likely had been told themselves by their teachers, friends, and family: "just do it this way because it works."


Occasionally, people simply have to do things they don't necessarily want to do. This is true in childhood as it is in adulthood. Many of the things needing to be done in a given day are not terribly complex and don't necessarily require a deep understanding of how or why those things are done.

We’ve all seen or heard about parents of infants and young children trying to get a child to eat or get dressed and out of the house when it's time to go somewhere. We’ve also seen or heard about school teachers trying to repeatedly remind their students to line up for a head count, keep quiet/focused during a lesson being taught, or practice school safety procedures. These kinds of scenes are not typically alarming as they involve adults trying to get children to do things which are generally in their best interest, though not always what the child wants to be doing. This leads us to consider how, sometimes, children just need to do what the adults are telling them to do; and this belief is not incorrect when it comes to things like the eating habits of infants or school safety procedures.

Adults in these situations are acting in the children’s best interest when they insist the children do what they say, when they say to do it, whether or not they understand the how or why behind what simply must be done. Of course, we want children to understand why safety procedures are important! However, if a child is struggling to grasp the weight of the safety procedure being taught, that doesn’t mean the child does not have to do that task – it is for the health and safety of all involved that children follow certain rules and procedures, especially in a shared learning environment such as a school.

However, what tends to happen is that adults begin to conflate managing health and safety with managing academic learning largely because both are seen as equally important and deserve the same level of attention. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that teachers are then assigned the authority and responsibility for the academic learning of their students. It is this assignment that becomes the lens by which we can begin to distinguish learning from compliance in the context of teaching and learning.


[Note: some ideas in this section are talked about in the next section - feel free to scroll down and review as needed.]

When children first enroll in Pre-School or Kindergarten, the day is generally a series of routines designed to develop the kind of behaviors and habits that are appropriate in a conventional school setting. These kinds of behaviors and habits are typically meant to be in the best interest of the children’s health and safety - for example, lining up before walking in or out of the classroom, raising a hand before speaking in a group setting, or not leaving the classroom without the class, another teacher, or a buddy with permission. This is all part of introducing young children to their first time as part of a larger community (such as a school), which requires that the classroom teacher insist on a certain amount of compliance to maintain a safe and healthy learning environment for all students.

Classroom teachers at the younger elementary grade levels tend to agree that, in order for academic learning to be successful, learning to comply is necessary for students to effectively learn certain social and emotional skills that create an effective learning environment. Being able to listen, and respond, and practice reciprocal mindfulness with others in the same space, all require a certain level of compliance to social expectations that some students don’t necessarily learn independently simply through modeling and exposure.

In fact, a study published in 2015 surveyed 5-year-olds using a Social Competence Scale and then followed up with them 13-19 years later. They found "statistically significant associations between measured social-emotional skills in kindergarten and key young adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health." The study affirmed what many other studies have concluded: social and emotional competency is not an inherent development for all children and has been associated with a variety of challenges experienced in adulthood.

This idea that social and emotional competency can be related to compliance in a classroom can be a difficult comparison to make because, particularly in this country, we want to celebrate individualism in our students, and yet, for any individual to be celebrated, those doing the celebrating must comply with when, how, and why that celebration will happen. The value of compliance, as it pertains to developing social and emotional competency in a learning environment, is intended to benefit individuals sharing that environment – not only as individuals seeking excellence and academic mastery, but as a collective with a shared vision and goal responsible for the environment which supports individual excellence and academic mastery. Compliance, therefore, is the means by which the efficiency of learning can be increased in a learning environment, which, unfortunately, leads to a similarly false premise: the more efficient the learning is, the more effective the learning will be, right?

Not necessarily.

This brings us to the law of diminishing returns, an economic theory that, when put in context of compliance and mastery in teaching and learning, student academic mastery may be increased via compliance up until a point at which mastery actually begins to decrease as a direct result of more compliance. The chart below illustrates the relatedness of compliance (as a means of increasing efficiency) and student academic mastery (as a means of increased effectiveness) in the context of teaching and learning.

The two lines charted in the graph show two hypothetical outcomes for the purpose of describing this law of diminishing returns in context of teaching and learning.

Both lines begin at a point where there is no learning environment. As students are introduced to their teacher and their shared learning environment, the teacher may decide to either explain the expectations for behaviors, or they may decide to open it up to students who are then given the opportunity to develop those expectations themselves - that is where the two lines on the chart split.

One teacher may continue to manage the expectations in the classroom such that academic learning is the result of direct instruction and assessment (increasing the effectiveness by increasing the efficiency). This teacher may find that students, through direct instruction and assessment, reach a level of mastery that is highly effective, both in classroom behaviors and in academic achievement. For example, students may learn to comply with their teacher’s directions so well that students are able to complete assigned work and learn how to correctly respond to scheduled assessments, even when they involve complex reasoning. However, at some point (and that point is not defined by any particular behavior or teaching strategy), if the efficiency (compliance) increases further, that highly effective mastery of learning (complex reasoning) can quickly devolve into basic recall and reproduction.

It’s important to note that the extended compliance causing diminishing returns is not an inevitable consequence of an efficient learning environment - it’s simply an example of what could happen if efficiency becomes entirely more important than effectiveness. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that learning to comply increases efficiency such that the effectiveness reaches a level of student mastery that involves understanding and complex reasoning. In such a case, complex reasoning can be attained - but extended thinking becomes unattainable without that degree of compliance decreasing to allow the student the authority and responsibility to extend beyond the teacher's instruction and assessment materials. Of course, to argue that compliance that produces complex reasoning can then be shifted and decreased as a means of teacher mandate is inherently a form of increased compliance, directing students to extend thinking as a result of the teacher's cue to which students must then comply in order to obtain whatever reward has been used to acquire that level of compliance in the first place.

If we consider the other line, another teacher may choose to open the initial behavior expectations up to students such that academic mastery becomes the result of student-directed cooperative learning (increasing the effectiveness by not increasing the efficiency). This teacher may find that students, through coaching of social and emotional competencies rather than direct academic instruction and assessment, reach a level of mastery that is highly effective, both in classroom behaviors and in academic achievement, but that the process is far less efficient because efficiency via compliance is not applied as a means for increasing academic mastery. This line requires the teacher accept that student learning may not be uniform in what, when, how, or why their students make decisions about their learning; but the depth by which that learning is coached, in context of the student-directed cooperative learning environment that takes shape from the teacher's coaching and mentoring of students' social and emotional self-awareness and management.

These two lines are not the only two outcomes of relating learning and compliance, but what is critical to point out is how the level of learning labeled extended thinking becomes attainable only through decreasing efficiency (compliance).


To help explain the concepts mentioned in the chart above, I'd like to mention an idea from a past blog post in April 2020 where I talk about how students who are meeting minimum academic expectations are not necessarily developing academic mastery, especially when what has been defined as the minimum academic expectation is essentially basic recall and reproduction.

Basic recall and reproduction is defined by Norman Webb in 1999 as a Level 1 Depth of Knowledge (DOK) which includes “the recall of information such as a fact, definition, term, or a simple procedure, as well as performing a simple algorithm or applying a formula”. Level 2 includes the “engagement of some mental processing beyond an habitual response”. Level 3 “requires reasoning, planning, using evidence, and a higher level of thinking than the previous two levels”. Strategies for teaching a Level 1 DOK academic idea are not the same strategies for teaching Level 2 or 3 DOK which involves higher cognitive rigor.

Cognitive Rigor is an idea coined by Karin Hess et al in 2009 that applies Bloom’s Taxonomy to Webb’s four DOK levels. This idea highlights how the verbs used to communicate academic expectations, combined with the context of the specific content being addressed, can more clearly define the rigor of an academic expectation.

The trouble is that many academic expectations, at least as they appear in most state or national standards, rely heavily on Level 1 and Level 2 Depth of Knowledge which means that the strategies that are most common in classrooms that rely on those state or national standards are those that promote proficiency at Level 1 and Level 2 DOK. So, when we then look at popular strategies such as mnemonics, highlighting, or self-explanation, we can see how those kinds of strategies can be helpful for basic recall and reproduction. More importantly, we see also how teachers may not necessarily be using higher DOK level strategies if for no other reason than they simply aren’t required to use them as often since those state or national standards incorporate fewer Level 3 DOK concepts and skills.

Perhaps more concerning is that, even if we did begin teaching the how and why of those higher-frequency Level 1 and 2 DOK learning strategies, more students might increase their capacity to independently learn at Level 1 and 2 DOK levels, but are still not experiencing with nearly enough frequently Level 3 DOK strategies. This, unfortunately, is an issue which has yet to be resolved but is something that I plan to discuss in more detail in a follow-up article.

Greg Mullen

Oct 28, 2021

1,009 views0 comments


bottom of page