Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cognitive Engagement: The Missing Piece In Professional Development-Part 2

Cognitive Engagement-The Missing Piece In Professional Development

Latoya N. Dixon, Ph.D.

Professional Development can be a critical exercise in developing leadership capacity and improving teacher effectiveness. While administrators may be aware of the importance of this, how often do teachers find themselves cognitively engaged in the professional development they experience? What factors contribute to educators being cognitively engaged at a high level and what are the benefits to designing a professional development experience that leads to increased capacity and effectiveness? While engagement is discussed as a concept in terms of student learning, it may also be critically important in the development of educators and their capacity to increase their own efficacy. After all, engagement is about the behavior of the learner that leads to a deeper level of thinking and understanding or an increased ability to apply what one has learned to daily practice.

What’s Missing?
Cognitive engagement has been defined in a variety of ways, yet much of the literature addresses the need for psychological investment and a high level of commitment to the learning and work. Marks (2000) defines cognitive engagement as, “A psychological process involving the attention, interest, investment, and effort students expend in the work of learning” (p.154-155). Lamborn, et al. (1992) defines cognitive engagement in academic work as “psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote” (p.12). Schunk (1991) contends that possessing cognitive strategies have proved effective in the enhancement of the learner’s perception of ability. While an extensive body of literature supports the need to cognitively engage leaners to enhance their abilities, much of the traditional professional development experience lacks such. Often educators find themselves at the mercy of PowerPoint presentations, sticky notes, and turn and talk exercises that may lead to a high level of participation, but surface level cognition. Himmele & Himmele (2011) have developed a framework to evaluate levels of cognitive engagement using the Total Participation Technique Model. While their work centers on student learners, much of it may also be applicable to adult learners as well. The Total Participation Cognitive Engagement Model focuses on analyzing the levels of cognitive engagement experienced by learner participants. The model has four quadrants of which engagement can be categorized: 1) Low Cognition/Low Participation, 2) Low Cognition/High Participation, 3) High Cognition/Low Participation, and 4) High Cognition/High Participation. Himmele & Himmele (2011) suggests that the higher the cognition experienced by the learner, the more likely learners are to utilize higher order thinking strategies. While high participation may suggest that learners are somewhat engaged in the work, it is the level of cognition that produces improved outcomes. Like student learning experiences, professional development experiences have the potential to produce improved outcomes (increased teacher efficacy, improved leadership capacity) if educators experience high cognition during professional development.

Fig. 1 Total Participation Techniques Cognitive Engagement Model

Rethinking Professional Development
What if we approached professional development with intention to create an experience that would increase the level of cognition among participants? What if we abandoned traditional approaches to professional development by being deliberate in our design of such experiences, moving away from the traditional singular lecture and listen approach, and moving toward embedding more choice, differentiation, and an opportunity for reflection on daily practice? Would changes in the way we deliver professional development lead to more effective and innovative teachers? What if we were more deliberate in aligning our professional development experiences to common goals of the organization? Would we improve the leadership capacity in teacher leaders and improve the leadership efficacy of administrators? What if we applied the same methodologies for engaging students in the classroom to adult learning in professional development? The literature provides a strong support for an adjustment to our professional development practices. According to Blumenfeld, et al. (2006), “Superficial cognitive engagement involves the use of memory and elaboration strategies. Deep level engagement involves the use of elaboration and organization strategies as students try to connect new ideas to old” (p.475). To improve the level of cognition educators experience in professional development, it may be helpful to focus on four key concepts: Value, Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy. Blumenfeld, et al. (2006) defines instrumental value as perceptions of how tasks relate to future goals and daily practices. When leaners are able to find value in their instructional experience, their ability to apply what they have learned to daily practices may lead to increased effectiveness. Competence is described as one’s perception of their ability to be effective and successful. Relatedness as defined by Blumenfeld, et al. (2006), is the cycle of positive interactions between learners and facilitators of learning and may increase when opportunities for collaboration are present. The fourth factor in cognitive engagement is autonomy, which is the learner’s ability to direct his or her own learning. These factors are critical pieces to be assessed in the design of professional development experiences for a variety of reasons. According to Blumenfeld, et al. (2006), when learners feel competent their persistence, effort, and use of higher order thinking strategies may increase. Ryan and Grolnick (1986) also suggest that autonomy may increase a learner’s willingness to accept challenging tasks. Knowing that these concepts, value, competence, relatedness, and autonomy are critical to the level of cognition experienced by learners, how might we improve the professional development experiences of educators? How do we ensure that teachers and administrators can articulate the value of their professional development experiences, relate them to daily practices, and yet feel competent and autonomous enough to improve their craft? Assessing our ability to provide professional development that aligns with these factors may prove important in our efforts to help teachers improve their instructional abilities and administrators improve their capacity for instructional leadership.

What’s Next?
As we plan and design professional development experiences for teachers, we have the potential to build an experience that aims to increase participant levels of cognition. Utilizing a self-reflection tool to assess our professional development activities for the level of cognition may prove useful to improve our professional development practices. During the planning phase, it may be helpful for the designer of the professional development to address the following questions:

1. Value: How will the activity relate to future goals or daily practices?

2. Competence: In what ways will the activity impact learner perceptions of success?

3. Relatedness: How will the activity create a cycle of interaction between learners and facilitators? Are opportunities for collaboration present?

4. Autonomy: How will the activity enhance the learner’s ability to direct his or her own learning?

In addition, these questions may be used to assess participant perception of the level of cognition experienced during a professional development experience. Asking participants to reflect on their experiences may provide insight as to which professional development activities led them to higher cognitive engagement.

Increasing cognitive engagement of educators during professional development experiences may improve teacher practice, administrator practice, and eventually student outcomes. That is, teachers and administrators may be more likely to utilize what they have learned in their every day practices if they have experienced high cognition during professional development. This carry over from training/development session to daily practice can often be a difficult task to accomplish. However, with intentional planning of professional development for high cognition, the impact on daily practice may be greater, which in turn, may increase academic outcomes for students, while also increasing the innovation, instructional, and effectiveness capacity of teachers and administrators.


Blumenfeld, P.C., Kempler, T. M., & Krajcik, J.S. (2006). Motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments. na.

Himmele, P. & Himmele, W. (2011). Total Participation Techniques: Making every student an active learner. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Lamborn, S., Newmann, F., & Wehlage, G. (1992). The significance and sources of student engagement. Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools, 11-39.

Marks, H. M. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in the elementary, middle, and high school years. American educational research journal, 37(1), 153-184.

Ryan, R. M., & Grolnick, W. S. (1986). Origins and pawns in the classroom: Self-report and projective assessments of individual differences in children's perceptions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(3), 550.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Self-efficacy and academic motivation. Educational psychologist, 26(3-4), 207-231.

Smiley, W., & Anderson, R. (2011). Measuring Students' Cognitive Engagement on Assessment Tests: A Confirmatory Factor Analysis of the Short Form of the Cognitive Engagement Scale. Research & Practice in Assessment, 6.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

In Pursuit of Passion

It's not uncommon to hear educators talk about what they are passionate about. A word with such strong emotion attached to it should not be used ever so freely. Passion is what we can't die without, not what we can't live without. Passion is soul necessary. Passion is a spiritual experience, one in which we work to get our heart and mind to operate in tandem with each other. But above all, passion must be tended to, it must be protected, and preserved.

For educators, summer can be a time we use to rest and recharge. It's a time to relax, to turn off so to speak from the daily hustle and bustle of school. However, during a recent #leadupchat I began thinking about how important it is to feed our passion on a regular basis so that we keep our energy we bring to our work in the right realm, one that's positive and productive. Over the years I've heard keynote after keynote speaker talk about how important it is for educators to be passionate about their work. In some instances, they make it seem as if it is a characteristic or trait that is easily obtained, can be turned on at moment's notice, and created by sheer wish. But I believe differently. Passion is a function of the spirit and soul. You can't make it up and you can't learn it. Either you feel it or you don't. It is often born out of pain. Passion is the sum of our experiences-pain and progress-that has inspired us to use our work as a platform to spread hope! Passion comes from a place of authenticity. It is not trendy. It is not a buzz word. It is real and you feel it.  Passionate leaders are as passionate about people as they are about their work. People drive their passion for the work!

My challenge to all of us and question is this: How are your pursuing and protecting your passion? How do you ensure that you don't allow the other factors of our work dampen or even exhaust your passion? What are your strategies for reviving your passion when it appears weak? Do you recognize when your passion is at risk of dying?

Our work is too important to not care for the inner narrative that drives us. My wish for educators everywhere, myself included, is that we are more passionate in our latter days than our beginning ones!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cognitive Engagement-The Missing Part of Professional Development

A week ago, during my participation in #leadupchat, I tweeted:

76 likes and 57 retweets later I recognized this resonated with my PLN and I began to wonder why it had such an amazing response from so many people. In addition my tweet was acknowledged by @BAMRadioNetwork as the top quoted tweet in education for the week. See more here:

This tweet is a reflection about my own cognitive engagement in my leadership and work. I've become a dedicated participant in #leadupchat because it cognitively engages me. Regardless of the topic, I find myself being able to deeply think about my work and my leadership when I participate in this chat every Saturday morning at 9:30 EST. However, I realize this kind of critical thinking doesn't always happen for me during what I'll call traditional style professional development. In fact, in most face to face PD that I've experienced I feel like an audience member being trained on what to do or focusing on making sure I am exhibiting good listening behavior. I'm ashamed to admit that sometimes I spend more time and effort in ensuring I am giving the impression that I am paying attention, rather than engaging in what's being presented.

So after so many acknowledgments of this tweet, I began to think about how professional development has changed since the start of my career as an educator in 1999. I was stunned when I realized that other than the edcamp model, PD hasn't really changed. It still follows the model of a presentation and listening style. We sit as audience members while someone trains us, shares with us, or shows us how to do something. We occasionally get a turn and talk opportunity with a partner or participate in a gallery walk to review the ideas or answers to questions posed to us written on large sticky note paper. These things are great ways to document conversation, but does it push us to think insightfully and critically about our work?

What's Missing?
What happens when we disengage from years of the same "I do-you watch" style of professional development? Do we lose our empowerment to act and to enter into the cognitive space that leads us to believe that our actions impact our work?  When we fail to empower others, do we create doers or thinkers?  You know, those who say, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it'?  Is this the prevailing feeling after a professional development session in education? Are we training or developing capacity in others to lead, think, and problem solve? Are we presenting a narrative of problems and directives? Or are we inviting others to think through and problem solve with us? Are we silencing the voice and thoughts of others because our focus is training and not development? Somehow, I think we've missed the mark on this. Isn't it odd that we push the methodology of the mini-lesson, guided practice, independent practice model in the classroom with students, but in our teaching of teachers, we abandon this approach all together? If being a reflective practitioner is an empowering way to improve our skills as leaders and learners, why do we leave this exercise as an independent act to be done after work? Is there a way for us to create an opportunity for teachers to do this as an embedded practice of professional development? I find this especially needed for administrators. Leading is thinking and doing, yet an incredible amount of time is spent simply on doing. Have we emphasized the cognitive side of school leadership enough in school administration? Or have we created a situation that has pulled us away from being able to differentiate between the ability to get things done and the ability to do things right? Is there a better way to cognitively engage teachers and leaders so that it allows them to innovate and improve their efficacy? Are we really training instead of developing others? Training focuses on telling individuals what to do, while development gives individuals the opportunity to think about what to do, how to do it, and connect it to why it needs to be done. How often do we get the opportunity to work on our thinking? How does traditional PD perpetuate the doer vs. thinker model? Is it our allegiance to the presentation PD model in education that keeps us from breaking free from this? And if so, why? The process matters as much, if not more than the product.

What If...?
What if we approached professional development with a problem based or project based approach the way we approach student learning? Would teacher engagement increase? Would teacher innovation and efficacy increase? Would we develop more teacher leaders and improve the leadership efficacy of administrators? What if we applied the same methodologies for engaging students in the classroom to adult learning in professional development? What if we added more choice, differentiation, and more opportunity to actively learn and reflect on our individual preformance? What if we abandoned any professional development that followed the presentation style model of presenter speaks and audience listens? Last, but not least what if I'm wrong about this whole thing? I highly doubt that, but you never know.

As evidenced, this has led me to more questions than answers. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @latoyadixon5 or leave your comments on my blog! Perhaps you'll join me for the first cognitive engagment chat #CEEchat  (Cognitive Engagement Educators Chat) for educators to help develop some possible answers to these questions. I'll be moderating it with my dear friend and colleague, Mike Waiksnis (@mwaiksnis-Follow him on Twitter) every third Wednesday of the month, beginning June 15 at 8:00 p.m. I'm on a never ending quest to improve my ability to think critically, insightfully, and reflect appropriately. Perhaps together we can create an opportunity for cognitive engagement for educators everywhere!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!