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

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

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, www.lyonsletters.com, 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