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.
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.
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.