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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Achieving Cognitive Engagement

This is a bit of a boast-post.  Today, I met with Rebecca Sweeney from CORE Education.  She is working alongside Stuart McNaughton and Rebecca Jesson from Auckland University, who are currently researching the impact of the Manaiakalani project on student achievement and the how's and why's behind it.  

One of the key areas of the research is student engagement.  Which, has been broken down into 4 key areas.  This notion of identifying different types of engagement was very interesting to me because it was something I hadn't really come across before.  The four areas are:

As part of this research, I was identified as a teacher who (here comes the boasting part), achieved a high level of cognitive engagement from the learners in my class.  Cognitive engagement meaning that the tasks I asked students to do, were complex and challenging and required a certain level of thinking to complete.  For example, many students could colour in a picture and display behavioural and/or affective engagement, meaning that they were on task and they enjoyed it.  However, in colouring in a picture (and please note that I come from the perspective of a teacher in a Year 7-8 class) does not require a great deal of cognitive engagement.  If they had to colour in the picture and then justify the colours they used with links to symbolism and what colours represent, students would need to consider more deeply, the colours they choose and why, and they would need to make connections to their prior knowledge and experiences about what colours represent to them.  They would need to formulate coherent thoughts/sentences to communicate to their intended audience, the reasons behind their colour choices.  Or they might be asked to research artist models and colour their picture in the style of a pop-art artist or an impressionist artist and give information about the techniques they used and their thoughts about those techniques and their effects.

So, through classroom observations conducted by the researchers in my class, they identified that students were cognitively engaged in their tasks.  Today, Rebecca Sweeney challenged me to consider these questions:
  • How do you ensure that the right level of complexity is built into work for and with students?
    • Assessment - knowing where your students are at, where they're going and how they are going to get there.   It is crucial for teachers to be critical when analysing the assessment information gathered from their class - both formal assessment and informal assessment.  Professional conversations with colleagues are an important part of processing the information and setting targets for target students can help begin the teaching as inquiry process.
    • Making the tasks relevant - links with assessment - This drives task design because the tasks are relevant to the student learning.  They are more likely to want to complete a task centred around commas, if they know that to reach the next level, they need to be using commas consistently.  Sharing assessment data with the students and getting them to tell you what they consider important for them to learn, means that they take ownership of their learning and are more likely to participate in the tasks because they know it was them that asked you to help them with it! 
    • Making the tasks relevant - links with knowing the learner - where they're at and where they want to go and how they're going to get there - not only academically, but socially, emotionally, spiritually etc, etc.  Knowing your students and their aspirations and inspirations, their strengths and interests, who they hang out with, how many people are in their family and where they sit in that order, how they work best - in groups, independently, with boys, with girls, on paper or with a device.  This information is critical to ensuring that you can engage students in a task that is relevant to them, at their level and cognitively engaging.
    • Models of learning - such as Blooms and De Bono's are great prompts for me to ensure I ask a wide range of questions that go deeper than the surface/recall of information.  I am no expert.  I open my question starters doc every time I design a task.  I have them displayed at the back of my room, to help guide my classroom discussions.  It is so helpful to have these resources to help me!
  • How do you start to build complexity in student learning?  What were your first steps?
    • Digital devices amplify poor teacher practice.  If you do not have good organisation, classroom management, processes, routines and positive relationships in your classroom, no amount of funding for digital immersion or BYOD programmes will save you.  It is imperative that school leadership teams begin with BEST TEACHER PRACTICE.  This begins with knowing the needs of your teachers.  What are their strengths?  What are their aspirations?  Where do they need to be?  How will you help them get there?  Through this questioning, you can help to provide professional development that is timely, relevant and will have the biggest impact for student learning.  Just like you expect your teachers to provide in their own classrooms.
    • Mentoring/Peer Coaching - there are three people in particular who I owe a lot to.  They were outstanding in their fields and they took the time to observe, model and discuss teacher pedagogy in a professional way with me, that made me critically reflect on my own teacher practice.  Peer coaching still continues today - and we promote the ethos that everyone in our school is a life long learner.  This attitude means we are constantly challenging ourselves to 'think better' and 'do better' - just as we are challenging the students to do.
    • Getting to know the National Standards.  Unpopular - yes.  But, they're here, and until otherwise, we need to get to know them.  Well.  Knowing what the expectations are, mean we can better identify the needs of our students.  The professional development I participated in to unlock the Standards and see how they aligned with the formative assessment data I had collected helped me to focus my teaching - not in a 'teach to the test' way, but it meant that I was able to prioritise and focus my teaching time, which, with 'priority learners' is so important as learning is not enough.  We aim for accelerated learning.  
I hope this to promote some discussion about building cognitive engagement in your classroom/school.  I'd always like to know more - so please comment with strategies that you use!  

(Planning the creation of our research resources)
(Notes from our my time with Rebecca today)


  1. I am so looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this Kyla. It is fabulous that your practice can be shared to benefit the wider teaching community :)

    1. Thank you! It's been an honour to be a part of such an exciting, innovative change in education and be supported by so many great people :)

  2. You're such an open and reflective learner Kyla - I've really enjoyed working with you on this!

    I know I mentioned this to you - I think it is interesting that the researchers (Stuart, Rebecca) write about the affordances that the digital environment provides to teachers - enabling them to give more synchronised feedback to kids and spend more time asking deeper questions etc. However when teachers describe it, they tend to talk about how they make that happen - through planning for differentiation - so you can see that the digital environment seems to help teachers to plan and teach in more differentiated ways.