The "Good Kid": Compliant or Engaged?

It's interesting when I hear teachers describe a student as "a good kid". I was that good kid in school. And, unfortunately, I definitely described some of my former students that way earlier in my career.

But what do we mean when we say "good kid"?

A good kid completes school work without many complaints. A good kid never breaks school rules. A good kid studies hard and carries out assignments to the best of her/his ability. A good kid is quiet when appropriate and participates when appropriate in class.

So, when we say that a student is a "good kid" we are actually describing someone who is compliant. A teacher with compliant students is able to get through each school day rather smoothly. But, from the student perspective, is using the path of least resistance actually the best way to learn?

Instead, we should encourage our children to be engaged at school. The Glossary of Education Reform explains student engagement in this way:

Inquisitive, Interested, Inspired.

These three descriptors – inquisitive, interested, inspired – are the defining elements of student engagement. In order for student to be engaged, they must be curious about their topic and task (INQUISITIVE). They must be wondering what the answers are and where they can find them (INTERESTED). They must believe that finding those answers and sharing them with others will make an impact (INSPIRED).

A student who is quietly completing instructions provided by a teacher and contributing to a peaceful silent classroom might be engaged. But she also might be merely complying.

A student who participates in class activities and games, often filled with music and fast-paced rewards, might enjoy playing the game. But it is not guaranteed that he is invested and engaged in his learning.

A student who turns in a high quality final project might have been engaged throughout the process. But she might have been merely complying through each step.

How can we tell the difference?

Students who are compliant:

  • are quiet or are vocal and obedient.
  • never (ever) question the lesson or asks questions the teacher doesn't anticipate.
  • when faced with a mistake, the student worries about the impact on his/her grade.

Students who are engaged:

  • are eager. Sometimes this manifests as quiet and busy. Other times it manifests with vocal and even disruptive questions.
  • wonder out loud about the facts and ideas they are being asked to learn. They are inherently curious.
  • when faced with a mistake, the student redoubles effort toward the goal or adjusts – not dilutes – the goal accordingly.

How can we make the difference?

The answer is student choice and voice. These terms have become buzzwords and, for many, have lost their meaning. Still we should ask our learners questions like:

  • What do YOU want to research?
  • What do YOU need to be successful?
  • What story do YOU want to tell?
  • What do YOU want to make?
  • How do YOU want to show what you've learned?

When teachers ask their students these questions, students are often ready to share their ideas. Some students have been ready their whole lives and the ideas will explode. Others will be hesitant because they've become accustomed to a compliant school culture. These learners will want to know the formula or recipe for success. Resist. Respond to their questions with the questions above. Stir the curiosity and engagement inside of them.

As parents, teachers, coaches, and administrators we can rise to this occasion. We can show the learners we care for – whether they are our students or our own children – that we want them to be curious and engaged, not obedient and compliant. Engagement is the key to deep learning and active citizenship.

I don't want anyone to describe my daughters or my students as "compliant." What is easier is not always better. When it comes to the children I care for, whether they are family or students, I'd much prefer adjectives like "engaged" and "curious."


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