Background: Student engagement is a cognitively complex domain that is often oversimplified in theory and practice. Reliance on a single model overlooks the sophisticated nature of student engagement and can lead to misconceptions and limited understandings that hinder teachers’ ability to engage all of their students. Assessing varied models simultaneously frames student engagement as a dynamic process contingent upon interactions among many contextual variables.
Purpose: We explore the relationship between how high school teachers understand student engagement and their ability to consistently engage students in their classes. We present cognitive flexibility theory and its seven reductive biases to illustrate the complexity of engaging students across contexts and subjects. This theory makes a compelling a priori case that teachers who more consistently and effectively engage students in their classes are likely to be those who possess higher levels of cognitive flexibility in the domain of student engagement. To test this hypothesis empirically, we asked: Do teachers who are more effective at engaging students reveal more cognitive flexibility when discussing student engagement, as compared with teachers who are less effective at engaging students?
Research Design: We present a mixed-methods case study conducted over three years at one high school. We utilize annual student survey data to identify teachers with whom students reported relatively more and less classroom engagement. Then, we examine the comments of 18 teachers who participated in annual focus groups about student engagement across those three years to identify differences in how more and less engaging teachers express cognitive flexibility in their understanding of student engagement.
Findings: We find that teachers whom students found more engaging tended to illustrate more cognitive flexibility in how they thought and spoke about engagement. By contrast, teachers whom students rated as less engaging tended to see engagement in more simplistic and compartmentalized ways. Within these trends, the data provide evidence that individual teachers fall along the seven theorized continuums regarding the extent to which they demonstrated cognitive flexibility on engagement.
Conclusions: By bringing cognitive flexibility theory to the domain of student engagement, we call for a new research agenda focused on understanding the development of teachers’ knowledge of student engagement and, in turn, engaging instruction. In place of receiving a new model, tool, or checklist, teachers need opportunities to grapple with the complexity of engagement, to see and analyze various cases, and to build schema in relation to their classroom practice.