What do teachers find mentally stimulating about their work? What causes teachers to invest their mental energy and time resources in a task? What aspects of a teacher’s work lead them to engage in problem-solving, critical thinking, and reflection?

A teacher’s cognitive engagement is the degree of attention to and investment in their work (Klassen, Yerdelen & Durksen, 2013). Understanding what teachers find cognitively engaging in their work can help them 1) evaluate where they are investing their time and energy resources, 2) reflect on whether those tasks are energizing or draining, and 3) make adjustments in their approach to workflows that they find mentally draining.

Teachers Find their Role as Designer of Learning Experiences Cognitively Engaging

In my research on teacher engagement in blended learning environments, the most significant factor impacting cognitive engagement was a teacher’s work as a designer of learning experiences. When this surfaced in my research, I was not surprised. I have always found my work designing lessons–first for high school students and now my graduate students–to be mentally stimulating and cognitively challenging.

Teachers as Architects of Learning Experiences

I often compare a teacher’s design work for a blended learning environment to the work of an architect. There are so many aspects of an architect’s job that serve as important reminders for us as educators about how to approach our design work.

Step #1 Get To Know The People You’re Designing For

An architect has to know the person or people for whom they are designing. What are their needs and preferences? How do they plan to utilize the space? What accessibility features might make this space more user-friendly?

Similarly, a teacher must know the students for whom they are designing lessons. What skills, abilities, language proficiencies, interests, and/or learning preferences are present in a class? The work teachers do to understand their students’ needs is critical to designing learning experiences that will be inclusive, accessible, and equitable.

Step #2: Define the Desired Results or Intended Outcomes

An architect sketches a blueprint, which clearly defines what the builders are working toward. Likewise, a teacher must identify the target learning outcomes or goals for a particular learning experience if they are going to design with purpose and intentionality.

Step #3: Position the Learner to Do the Work

The architect does not pick up a hammer and build the structure they’ve designed. It is the contractors and subcontractors who do the physical work of building. Similarly, the teacher should not design lessons that position themselves to do the “work” or the heavy cognitive lift. Instead, teachers must strive to design student-centered learning experiences that challenge the students to think, discuss, problem-solve, collaborate, question, create, and reflect.

Ultimately, the person doing the work in the classroom is the person learning, so we must design learning experiences that position the student at the center of learning. Positioning the students to do the work in a lesson has the added benefit of freeing the teacher from the front of the room and allowing them to spend more time in their role as facilitators. That way, they can sit alongside individuals and small groups of learners supporting them.

Even though a teacher’s design work is cognitively engaging and critical to creating student-centered learning environments, it takes time and energy. When I facilitate blended learning workshops, teachers will make comments like, “This is great, but it seems like a lot of work.” The truth is…yes, designing dynamic, differentiated, student-centered blended learning experiences requires a higher level of intentionality.

A lecture or mini-lesson followed by a worksheet or pencil and paper practice does not require much design work. However, a lesson that challenges the learner to wrestle with ideas, explore and discover, and create artifacts of their choice to demonstrate their learning, takes time, creativity, and mental energy to construct. However, the payoff for this investment of time is that students are more likely to engage in the learning experiences. The teacher also has time to work alongside individuals or small groups of students who need additional support.

What makes it challenging to invest time and energy into design work?

A teacher’s time and energy are finite resources. We only have so much of either to give. So, suppose we want to invest more time in our design work because it is cognitively engaging. In that case, we have to identify the tasks and responsibilities that consume our time and drain us of energy.

During a keynote on teacher engagement, I asked my audience to think about tasks that consume a teacher’s time and energy and rank them from #1 (most time-consuming) to #4 (least time-consuming). I wanted to identify the biggest drains on a teacher’s time and energy outside of class. The answer did not surprise me.

Grading is the most time-consuming task teachers are responsible for beyond the classroom. Most of the teachers I know spend hours of their evenings and weekends grading student work. It’s exhausting and robs them of the time they need to rest, recharge, and prioritize self-care.

I have yet to meet a teacher who enjoys grading. Yet, teachers invest a significant amount of their energy resources into grading because they fear that if they don’t grade the work, students won’t do it. The issue of grading and motivating students to see value in work that is not graded is complex and multifaceted. I tackle traditional grading practices and ways to reimagine our approach in my book Balance with Blended Learning for anyone who wants to explore that further. Without going into the weeds debating the value of grades in general, I want to propose a flowchart that I use when coaching teachers to help them evaluate where to invest their time and energy resources.

Too often, teachers take practice and review home to grade for accuracy. Instead, I’d like teachers to rethink that time-consuming workflow and position the students to think critically about their work. Instead of dragging stacks of literal or digital practice and review home to grade, teachers can give students an answer key or a strong exemplar with a simple rubric. Then they can provide students with time in class to work on their own, with a partner, or as part of a group to engage in this self-assessment.

  • What did they do well?
  • What questions did they answer incorrectly?
  • What aspects of the assignment would benefit from further development?
  • Can they work with their peers to understand why an answer was incorrect and correct it?
  • Where are they seeing growth in their skills and/or content knowledge?

This workflow positions the learner as the active agent in the experience. It encourages them to think critically, creatively problem-solve, reflect, and lean on their peers for support. Not only does this lighten the load for teachers, freeing them to spend more time on their design work, but students will learn more about themselves in this workflow.

Every role in our lives (teacher, parent, friend) demands time and energy resources. Some of the responsibilities associated with a given role are more energizing, while others are more draining. It is essential to understand what lights us up and energizes us, then proactively work to create more time and space for those activities in our lives. That may require that we rethink our current approach to our work to reimagine draining workflows that lead to feelings of exhaustion or burnout.

If you’re interested in learning more about blended learning, check out my self-paced online courses–Getting Started with Blended and Online Learning and Advancing with Blended and Online Learning! School leaders can request a quote for bulk licenses by filling out this form!

4 Responses

  1. Thank you for the resource. It is this cognitive challenge that has kept me in teaching for 36 years. I currently am being challenged to teach French to students who are already multilingual. I’m at SO challenged with their cognitive processes…and delighted. Teaching is never dull!

  2. Thank you! A good reminder that “relationships” and “a student intake process” can give so much information as how we can support students.
    Angharad Musladin

  3. I find my content mentally stimulating because I love reading/literature as well as writing, especially creatively, and I love the discussions I have with my students over various topics in the content. This keeps me cognitively engaged and on my toes for whatever my scholars throw at me.

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