Assessment, Engagement

Intellectual Engagement: A Search for Practical Meaning

An essay based on “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning by Eleanor Duckworth (Third Edition, Teachers College Press, 2006); An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger (Heinemann, 2003); and A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011).

We offer a thematic discussion of three books whose authors wrote from different perspectives in different time periods yet share the view that students’ sense of personal agency is fundamental to their intellectual engagement and deep understanding. The learner’s imagination leads to powerful questions that grow when exposed to processes of productive inquiry and social interaction. These inquiries and social interactions are guided in a learning environment by images of high quality performance and the constraints of the classroom. Our interest lies in understanding how these factors can stimulate intellectual engagement and support the intellectual development of all students in school. 

Imagine a school…, a dramatic anthology developed and performed by students under the auspices of the Canadian Education Association (CEA), generated useful questions for educators concerned about the school experience of adolescent learners.[1] Are the stories told by 27 teenagers from three provinces common among students across the country? And what would we do if we knew?

A careful consideration of the research literature on student engagement led to the development of survey measures of intellectual engagement, a key concept that quickly became a powerful generator of a new dialogue among educators.[2] Intellectual engagement is defined as “personal psychological and cognitive investment in learning.” In reviewing the survey’s results with teachers and principals, we discovered – perhaps not surprisingly – that the significance of a relationship between intellectual engagement and learning lies deep within their tacit knowledge. 

What did surprise many educators were the survey findings that intellectual engagement in core areas of language, mathematics, and science is experienced by too few students overall and that its level drops precipitously from 82 percent in Grade 5 to 42 percent in Grade 10, where it levels off until students complete their schooling.[3] What is less clear to many is what we can do about the findings.

In discussing these books, we assume that the importance of intellectual engagement is found in its relationship to intellectual development. Intellectual development results in the capacity to figure things out, a capacity that is essential to a life of meaningful learning or – as Thomas and Brown describe it – “‘arc of life’ learning” (p. 18).

We share with Duckworth, her views on desirable outcomes of education: “We want students’ understanding to be deep, confident, and complex, and their means of expression to be varied and nuanced…[and we want them to] develop a sense of community responsibility, democratic commitment, social justice” (p. xi). Her book explores the variety of ways in which students come to understand important concepts and the significance of their own ideas to development of deep understanding. She writes with engaging clarity. “Knowing the right answer is overrated. It is a virtue – there is no debate about that – but in conventional views of intelligence it tends to be given far to much weight.” Thomas and Brown go further in suggesting the need to reverse our focus from right answers to the quality of questions that arise from students’ inquiries. 

Ron Berger (a veteran elementary teacher who worked with Harvard’s Project Zero) also challenges conventional views of intelligence by describing the learning contexts in which students exceed their own expectations for performance. He calls for classrooms and schools committed to building cultures on an “ethic of excellence”. Educational reformers have long espoused the significance of adults’ high expectations for student achievement. Berger argues powerfully that students’ own expectations of capability are raised (or presumably lowered) by the quality of work that they do. He illustrates his ideas with descriptions of outstanding student work that one might be tempted to dismiss as that of the “gifted” rather than the “average” student, save for the sheer volume of such occurrences. Berger draws on his carpentry interests for his analogy of student craftsmanship as “work that is strong and accurate and beautiful.” As one of his students describing her classroom experience said, “This school has ruined me for life…I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s nearly perfect. I have to be proud of it” (p. 8).

Thomas and Brown identify a new culture of learning as the phenomenon of learning taking place everywhere except in the majority of schools where the “stable infrastructure of the twentieth century” has not given way to the “fluid infrastructure” of the twenty-first century. These authors avoid the irritating cliché of 21st century skills, and they do not extol the virtues of technology as an enabler of learning. Rather they describe as indispensible to learning two elements that comprise a new culture of learning: the massive information network and a “bounded and structured environment” defined by purpose or task at hand. Together these two elements provide an environment that allows for “unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries” (p. 19).

Thomas and Brown draw on cultivation as their metaphor for learning; the resources of environment and biology are consolidated, bounded, and structured within a field or garden. They describe exploration and imagination as primary means through which human beings come to make sense of their world. Imagination, curiosity, and play are the roots of intellectual development and the dispositions that enable students to navigate today’s ever-changing, complex world.

Just like the students who created Imagine a school…, the authors of these three books tell compelling stories to clarify and generalize their educational ideas – ideas that are not necessarily new but that do reframe questions about the role of schooling in the development of students’ minds. Their questions are topical and urgent for any of us seeking to deal with measurements that indicate, once again, that adolescent learners are far too often bored, although skilled at doing only what needs to be done to “get the marks.” These books are refreshing in their expansive and optimistic assumptions about students and teachers, their know-how about unleashing human potential in schools, and their experience that excellent work is the essential goal for all students.

Some of the schools participating in CEA’s initiative, What did you do in school today?, acted on similar assumptions by engaging students in co-designing their learning and assessment experiences, and exploring and shifting teachers’ own practices – often with the assistance of Sharon Friesen’s Teaching Effectiveness: A Framework and Rubric.[4] “We saw students shine,” was among the observations of teachers whose year-long investigation into raising intellectual engagement culminated in a thematic inquiry titled, The Power of Food, in which students examined the role and relationship of food to health, culture, and social justice. A parent wrote, “Typically I have to pry to find out how his day was, but since The Power of Food he is the one initiating the discussion. I have heard ‘Did you know…’ so many times over the last week.”

Imagine not needing to ask our kids, “What did you do in school today?”

EN BREF – Trois auteurs, selon des perspectives et dans des périodes différentes, partagent le même avis : l’appropriation du pouvoir d’action personnelle des élèves est essentielle à leur engagement intellectuel et à une compréhension en profondeur. L’imagination des jeunes suscite de puissantes questions, dont la portée s’élargit grâce à des processus de questionnement productif et d’interaction sociale et à l’encadrement donné par des images de performance de qualité. Ces livres se distinguent par leurs propos enthousiastes et optimistes sur les élèves et le personnel enseignant, par leur savoir-faire en matière de déclenchement du potentiel humain dans les écoles et par leur témoignage qu’un excellent travail constitue le but essentiel de tous les élèves.

[1] Imagine a school… Canadian Education Association, available on DVD, info@cea-ace.ca

[2] J. D. Willms, S. Friesen and P. Milton, What did you do in school today? Transforming Classrooms through Social, Academic, and Intellectual Engagement (First National Report) (Toronto: Canadian Education Association, 2009). Available at www.cea-ace.ca/programs-initiatives/wdydist

[3] What did you do in school today? Infographic (Canadian Education Association, 2011). www.cea-ace.ca/publication/what-did-you-do-school-today-infographic

[4] S. Friesen, Teaching Effectiveness, A Framework and Rubric (Canadian Education Association) at www.cea-ace.ca/publication/what-did-you-do-school-today-teaching-effectiveness-framework-and-rubric

Meet the Expert(s)

Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy, Ph.D., is an education consultant and a former Director of Education in Ontario.

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Penny Milton

Penny Milton

Penny Milton is former CEO of the Canadian Education Association and the initiator of What did you do in school today?

Penny Milton a été chef de la direction de l’Association canadienne d’éducation et a lancé l’initiative Qu’as-tu fait à l’école aujourd’hui?

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