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Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal)

If I were to tell you that someone was disengaged and being non-compliant, what types of behaviors come to mind? My guess is that you probably think of someone who is acting rebelliously with some level of malice or intent. This non-compliant rebel is insubordinate--deliberately behaving in a manner that contradicts the expectation. I want to push your thinking. Is rebellion the only manifestation of non-compliance? I’m just planting this seed now because there will be more on this in a couple of paragraphs. Before I get too ahead of myself though, let me explain why I’m asking this question.

In my upcoming book Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal): Mind-Changing Theory and Strategies that will Create Real Engagement (due out Fall 2020), I explain what engagement is so that we can finally have a common foundation on which to frame our conversations and actions related to engagement. On my website,, I have a blog post called, “The Narwhal of Education,” which explains a little bit about the title of the book and why I wrote it, but suffice it to say, the reality is that we use the term “engagement” all the time in education, but we do so without taking the time to understand what we’re talking about. Doing so not only creates confusion but also resentment. After all, how would you feel if you thought your students were engaged but an observer said they weren’t. You both experienced the same lesson but came to different conclusions.

So what is engagement? I like to think of it as a continuum. In a nutshell, on the far left, you have non-compliance which is the highest level of disengagement; on the far right, is absorption, the highest level of engagement. Compliance is still disengagement and interested is the lowest level of engagement.

In short:

  • Non-Compliant: Actively or passively refusing to do what was expected; insubordinate.

  • Compliant: Doing the minimum of what was expected but only because there is a consequence (positive or negative) if it wasn’t completed.

  • Interested: Going beyond the minimum expectations because the task is stimulating and has momentary value. Generally speaking, the task is enjoyable but not something that would be done unless it was required and there was a consequence for (not) doing it.

  • Absorbed: Getting so involved in a challenging task that the person doing it intrinsically wants to continue even s/he doesn’t have to.

In my book, I describe each level on the Engagement Continuum in great detail, give examples of what each looks like in action, and provide strategies to help move from the left- to the right side of the Continuum.

For now, I want to go back to non-compliance and rebels. As I said, this is just one form of disengagement. Here are two more. The first I call “normalizers.” These are people who are non-compliant but, to them, so is everyone else. The best example I have is speeding. The last time you drove, did you go no faster than the posted speed limit? That’s what you were supposed to do according to the law. After all, the speed limit is the limit of what your speed was supposed to be--not a recommendation or a minimum. However, everyone speeds. In this way, we are non-compliant with the rule, but so is everyone else. That doesn’t make us a rebel, it makes us a normalizer. Normalization of non-compliance is actually the most common form of non-compliance. However, we are blind to normalized non-compliance because we either (a) don’t see the rule as being a rule and, therefore, we’re not breaking it or (b) because we know it’s a rule on paper but in practice, no one really cares if the rule is followed.

The third type of non-compliance is activism. Activists are people who believe so fully in their cause that they see the rule(s) as a violation of their rights and break the rule(s) as a result. Their actions are intentional. Depending on your viewpoint, you may see an activist as someone who is non-compliant, but you may also see an activist as someone who is actually absorbed (the other end of the Engagement Continuum). For this example, you can think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was willing to be seen as non-compliant with the laws of the time because those laws were in opposition to his beliefs and morals. Though he was not looking to be non-compliant, he accepted that perception if it meant that he was standing up for what he believed in.

I can’t share information about non-compliance without taking a brief moment to also share that we are living in a time when there is a great deal happening related to people standing up as activists in our communities in response to injustice. There is nothing I can say about the loss of life at the hands of authorities that has not already been said. I can say though that this is a real-world example of how non-compliance can be personified as rebellious, normalized, and as activism and the events that we’re living through are worthy of a great deal of attention and reflection.

Given these three examples of non-compliance, I encourage you to think about the students or adults that you work with who are non-compliant. While the rebels and activists often stand out and get our attention, I’d be willing to bet you interact with many more normalizers. The most ordinary form of normalization in classrooms is from students who have learned that as long as they are compliant with the behavioral expectations in the classroom (e.g. sitting in their seats, being quiet, raising their hands, etc.), they can be non-compliant with the learning. The truth is, in far too many classrooms, if students leave the teachers alone, the teachers leave the students alone. As a result, students’ learning suffers and they slip quietly into that good night. The easiest way to counteract this behavior is to stop students from volunteering. Yup. You read that correctly. Tell students, “Put your hands down. That’s now how learning works in my classroom.” Instead, write students’ names on popsicle sticks and pull the sticks AFTER you ask the question thereby giving all the students the chance to think about the question and be ready to answer. Make your classroom a safe place to fail and you will make it a safe place to learn.

I hope this brief synopsis on engagement gets you intrigued to learn once the book is out! In the meantime, if you have a great strategy you use to engage students, I have started working on my next book which is just engagement strategies and I’d love to include you and your idea. Please complete this form found on my website. I also hope that this explanation pushes your thinking so that when you think about non-compliant behavior you both see yourself (we are all normalizers) and that you ask yourself when others are being non-compliant what is really going on.

About the Author: Heather Lyon’s book Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal): Mind-Changing Theory and Strategies that will Create Real Engagement is due out Fall 2020. Heather has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and an Ed.M. in Reading from the University at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology for Lewiston-Porter Central School District in Western New York. Heather has been a staff developer and held various administrative titles, but the professional title she likes best is learner. She is also a proud wife and mother who values the importance of work/life balance—which is so critical in a profession like ours. Heather lives with her husband and three children, who make her smile and teach her the importance of patience and humor!

Please follow Heather on Twitter @LyonsLetters and visit her website

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