Are You a Part of an Educational Culture of Compliance or Empowerment?


A friend recently lamented what is happening in her district.  Despite some exciting work I had done with them during the summer, almost all of the enthusiasm had faded as teachers were once again caught up in what she called a “culture of compliance.”

Most of our work with schools is focused on encouraging teachers to think deeply and intentionally about their decisions and actions.  This inevitably means that they have to work together in what we call “Process Learning Circles,” an approach we describe fully in Chapter 3 of Strengthening and Enriching Your Professional Learning Community: The Art of Learning Together. 

Briefly, Process Learning Circles invite teachers and administrators to carefully consider the multiple ways students learn and to reflect on their own beliefs as they engage in discussions focused on cutting-edge research.  They are asked to evaluate how well their current teaching practices align with the research and their own beliefs and what they plan to do differently in their classes. We request that they commit to doing something different, document their actions, track student progress, and share their findings with colleagues when they meet again in two weeks.

The whole idea is to create a culture where every individual – including students – is empowered to think and act in ways that enhance their own learning.

How is this different from the “culture of compliance” my friend mentioned?

Let me begin by asking you how much of what you teach comes from a source other than your own investigation. How much “top down” supervision is controlling what you do? Do you need a teacher’s guide to feel prepared? Are most of your attempts at more student-centered teaching, for example, mandated rather than collectively explored?  If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are likely stuck in the self-limiting culture of compliance.

Over the past eleven years we have supported a program in South Australia that began with a modest grant.  Schools were invited to participate, provided they were willing to follow our single governing principle: work together and learn. Many schools joined  “Learning to Learn” and demonstrated an enthusiasm to work together in order to empower themselves and their students. More than 200 schools participated in this wonderfully successful program that positively impacted the curriculum guide for the State Department of Education of South Australia. There is power in numbers, especially when teachers feel as if their efforts matter.

What made things work so well? We discovered that compared to their counterparts in the USA, teachers in South Australia have considerably more freedom and responsibility for how their schools are organized and what it means to teach. They do not suffer from the culture of compliance that characterizes the majority of public schools and districts in the USA where education is typically more “top down” and controlled in an effort to raise test scores.

In Australia, we found teachers insist on  – and received – a high level of respect for their professional decision-making. Students, too, are encouraged and expected to be much more autonomous, routinely formulating their own questions and conducting their own investigations as independent learners. In the words of one of the schools we describe in Natural Learning for a Connected World: Education, Technology, and the Human Brain:

“Students are working on their Personal Learning. At the end of the term there is to be an Open Night and Exhibition. Guided by clear and negotiated criteria for success students know what they are doing, are clear about expectations, and have made clear choices around the learning that they are engaged in.”

While teachers in the USA use similar words or descriptors, such as “encourage students to be independent learners,” the reality is very different when they are observed in action. Some GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) programs may represent the exception to the rule, but for the most part, students in the USA are less self-directed.

Another cluster of schools we often cite as models is a small group of charter schools in Southern California called “High Tech High” (not to be confused with packaged programs that have copied the name). The most important thing about these schools is that “compliance” is a word they would never use.  The culture they intentionally create and nurture is one that supports creativity and empowerment.

“Compliance” or “Empowerment”? Which more accurately describes the culture of your school and district? Are you where you want to be? If not, what steps can you take –starting today – to become more like the school or district you would like to become? Can you see yourself working collaboratively in order to create a culture of empowerment?


About the author -

Renate Caine

Renate is an education researcher, learning theorist, writer and consultant. She runs professional development programs for educators, and talks to and consults with schools, universities and other organizations. Visit her website at CaineLearning.com.


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