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Classroom Management: Transitioning from Compliance to Innovation

Jordan Catapano

One of the goals of school classroom management during the 20th century was to prepare children for the type of work they’d be doing in factories. America’s largely industrialized economy relied heavily upon individuals who were compliant assembly line workers. They didn’t need to think, challenge, or adapt. This is why the traditional classroom management setup is in rows. This is why student scores are “Grades” – just like quality meat can be “Grade A.” This is why much of classroom management and instruction has focused on rewarding compliance. Good workers come from an education system that has trained them to fit into this mold.

But it’s a new century. The world has changed, and we no longer need to train students to be automatons working on the assembly line. The education we equip students with needs to likewise transition from a compliance model to an innovation model.

Classroom Management: Compliance vs. Innovation

The goal of 21st-century learning is to equip students with the skills and knowledge that will make them innovative, adaptive collaborators who are ready to contribute to the developing economy. With this end in mind, we must consider how we can help students become the innovative, adaptive collaborators who will contribute most successfully to their world.

Consider first which series of terms best matches what you ask of your students. In the compliant-model classroom, students are:

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  • Passive recipients of information.
  • Repeating preapproved answers.
  • Memorizing a set series of facts.
  • Isolated from one another.
  • Dependent on the teacher and other limited sources of authoritative knowledge.
  • Answering others’ questions.

Whereas in the innovation-model classroom, students are:

  • Actively engaged in learning.
  • Creating original products.
  • Synthesizing information from multiple sources.
  • Reflecting on their own growth and learning.
  • Collaborating with one another.
  • Empowered to experiment and explore.
  • Curious and pursuing their own line of inquiry.

Which set of descriptions characterizes students in your classroom better?

Collecting vs. Connecting

Business guru Seth Godin helps us distinguish between collecting dots and connecting them. “Connecting dots, solving the problem that hasn't been solved before, seeing the pattern before it is made obvious, is more essential than ever before.” Collecting dots, however, is simply an exercise in futility that equips us with more information but promises no improvement in action based.

This makes us wonder what experience students have in our classrooms. Are we teaching them how to collect isolated, irrelevant dots for the sake of hoarding them? Or are we asking students to connecting dots and do something with that information we pursue?

What we find is that when we ask students to “Connect the dots” in our classrooms, they become more curious and prone to find even more dots to expand their connections. Students become thinkers and creators rather than passive recipients.

Our 21st-Century Needs

As our world continues to reinvent itself, it is important for equipping students with the skills and mindsets necessary for achieving success in the modern era. If we were to look at a list of skills our students should cultivate to be successful contributors to the world, that list wouldn’t contain things like “Conformity,” “Accepting the status quo,” or “Turning brain on autopilot.” Instead, the qualities of tomorrow involve elements like these:

  • Collaboration
  • Networking
  • Critical Thinking
  • Research and Curation
  • Problem Identification and Solving
  • Adaptiveness
  • Citizenship
  • Curiosity
  • Literacy
  • Oral and written articulation skills
  • Confidence
  • Initiative

There’s no definitive list, but we easily get the sense that the days of “Sit and listen” in the classroom no longer serve our students well. The Partnership for 21st-Century Learning developed a useful framework for the skills most in demand this century. The United States used to be known for its capacity for manufacturing. Now, the new economy features the United States’ capacity for generating ideas.

So the question we ought to ask ourselves is, “How much do we ask students to comply with a preformulated set of knowledge, and how much do we ask them to innovate?”

Here are some ideas to help you transform your classroom to feature these innovation skills.

Give students interesting and authentic problems to solve. When students see the relevance of what they’re working on, they are more likely to increase engagement and curiosity. Use creative, silly, social, personal problems to help students discover what they need to know and innovate solutions.

Cultivate research skills. Being able to successfully find accurate and relevant information is perhaps the key skill students can come out of school having obtained. We have an overabundance of information, and finding useful, credible sources while weeding out the junk is essential for student learning and long-term success.

Make grading a collaborative process. How do you grade creativity and innovation? It’s difficult, even self-defeating, to slap a grade on something like that. You don’t have to forgo grades altogether, but do make it a collaborative process between you and your students. Encourage conferences, reflections, and honesty as students consider the quality of their efforts and innovations.

Incorporate flipped learning. The flipped classroom incorporates multimodal technology to supplement student learning. Students need to learn the basic essentials of their content in order to take their next steps, and the flipped model allows students to learn what they need to outside of the classroom so that they can focus on utilizing class time for their next innovative step.

Follow students’ curiosity. While we have our course standards and proscribed curriculum, we want to consider how much flexibility we can bring to those to make room for what students want to learn about. Consider how to encourage student curiosity, and how you can bridge students’ intrinsic questions to the broader goals of the course.

Imagine a school day of the future. Someone once asked me, “What do you want school to look like in 2040?” I immediately grew grim as I realized that I hoped it looked little like it did today. Imagine for yourself what the school of the future ought to look like, and consider what elements of that future school have perhaps ought to be implemented today.

The needs of our culture are shifting, which means the needs of our students are shifting too. As these needs transform, we likewise need to make sure that we are creating the type of classroom experience that encourages the best skills and qualities for success in the 21st century. Are you helping students to grow, create, and innovate?

How else do you transform a classroom from compliance to innovation? Share your experiences with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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