Modeling Engagement and Cognitive Functioning by Charles Debelak

Modeling Engagement and Congnitive Function blog picture

Birchwood students and parents at the 2017 National Chemistry Week awards ceremony


Recently a parent asked me what she could do to help her children become engaged in their learning. She asked, “How can I help them care about school, and about learning and studying or even growing?” “H-m-m-m,” I thought, “you’re not going to like my answer, because the process of teaching engagement really means to model engagement.” Intellectual engagement is complex and in order for children to learn the lessons of engagement, children need models that they can mimic.

To that end, I would suggest that if we are interested in teaching your children how to live an intellectually engaged life, then we first need to take time to reflect upon our own life. I say this because we cannot expect children to embrace intellectual engagement if we, the adults who affect their lives, do not lead an intellectually engaged life. The more we live engaged lives, the more likely it will be that we teach children how to be engaged. So, what does it mean to live a life of intellectual engagement? In “Landscapes of Learning,” Maxine Greene, a preeminent 20th century educational philosopher, wrote, “… learning must be a process of discovery and recovery in response to worthwhile questions arising out of conscious life in concrete situations.” If we parse her claim, we will see our experience as adults confirms her assertions.

Each of us has concrete situations facing us in the course of our adult lives. Usually, however, we react to these situations from a predetermined posture. We respond according to our belief systems or our accumulated knowledge and experience or our family and cultural biases. Our minds are not engaged. We don’t ask questions; we don’t reflect, we don’t wonder how this “concrete situation” is new, different or might affect how we act, think or even change our perspective on life.

Adults, like children, often react to “concrete situations” instinctively, without thought, without reflection, without an engagement that might lead to listening, interpreting, learning, gaining new perspectives, and perhaps even come to live more richly and fully. I know this is my own experience. When “concrete situations” arise in my life, I just want to get them out of my way, to be done with them. Too often, I forgo meaningful engagement for the sake of expediency. As a result, I do not formulate worthwhile questions that lead to engagement and deeper understanding.
When we respond to circumstances superficially, we are not engaged and we don’t learn. The “concrete situations” that could have been the source of growth simply pass through our consciousness having no progressive effect on us. It is not until we greet “concrete situations” with worthwhile questions arising from a conscious life (our own) that we engage ourselves to learn. We enter a process of discovery, recovery and genuine learning: learning which makes us a better person, a more knowledgeable person, a wiser person.

At the core of growing and thriving is learning through engagement. But if in new “concrete situations” we allow our citadels of previous knowledge, social prejudices, uninformed opinions, or cultural biases dictate our decisions and behaviors rather than “worthwhile questions” of inquiry and reflection, then certainly we will not be engaged in “concrete situations,” we will not learn in these situations, and worst of all, we will be ill-equipped to teach our children how to be engaged in their learning.

In order to teach our children how to be engaged in their learning, we should attend to this process ourselves, deepening the process of engagement and making it a part of who we are. As we learn anew to ask worthwhile questions arising from a conscious life that engages in our concrete situations, we will become better mentors to our children in this process.

The Need for Engagement
William James on Habit and Character
Harnessing the Incredible Learning Potential of the Adolescent Brain
Pinnacle of Human Evolution: The Goal-Directed Brain

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