School Leaders: Educators Need Intellectual Engagement, Too.

November 30, 2021

An Interview with Framework Specialist, Cheryl Swift

Last month, the Danielson Group (DG) released a new resource, The Framework for Teaching: Intellectual Engagement, along with two companion tools for educators and school leaders. The guide focuses on the importance of intellectually engaging students as part of promoting their wellbeing, learning, and success. We explored the guide further in a blog post last month, unpacking why students become disengaged and outlining the basic steps educators can take to solve for that challenge.

But, so far, we haven’t talked about one critical component of intellectually engaging students – and that’s intellectually engaging educators. This month, we interviewed Cheryl Lundy Swift, a DG Framework Specialist, who has served as a classroom teacher, administrator, executive and consultant. Cheryl leverages her expertise to improve instructional practices, transform culture and climate, and strengthen school-to-home connections – and she was excited to dig in with us around the connection between intellectual engagement for educators and students.

How do you define intellectual engagement?

Intellectual engagement is what allows for students – and educators – to be mentally active. When someone is physically engaged, you can look at them and see the activity happening. If you are learning to swim, someone watching you sees your legs kicking, your arms moving, and your pattern of breathing. Someone who is intellectually engaged may or may not show signs of physical engagement. But, their mind is engaged. So intellectual engagement can be silent, it can be a conversation, it can be a disagreement, or an experiment. The marker of intellectual engagement is an active mind and that can manifest in many, many ways.

What does intellectual engagement mean in the context of educators?

When we talk about intellectual engagement for students, we tell teachers to ask, “Who’s doing the work? Who’s doing the thinking?” Those same questions apply to adults. Just as with students, school leaders need to create environments where educators are doing the intellectual work of reflecting, thinking, and improving their practice. When we simply tell a teacher, “Do these things because I think they’ll work for you,” we aren’t helping them build their ability to internalize learning or apply knowledge to other situations. Rather, intellectual engagement for educators means allowing them to engage in productive struggle, providing resources to help them learn, and pushing them to talk about their practice.

How can school leaders support intellectual engagement for educators?

A school leader who wants to promote intellectual engagement for educators models that engagement and then gives space for self-directed work. I’d like to offer three pieces of advice to school leaders on how to create intellectually engaged educators:

  1. Set a culture and climate that allows for people to think and to be. Focus on creating opportunities for discourse and questioning in every space – in professional development, classroom observation, and staff meetings. Allow time for thinking and reflection and get comfortable with the silence or messiness that often comes when people are deeply thinking about or grappling with a topic. If that’s the environment you set for educators, then they understand what it looks like to create it for their students.
  2. Model “minds on” engagement. Share things you are learning or that are making you think more deeply. Bring a resource to staff conversations like an article, a podcast, or even a story about your own practice and a time you struggled. Provide a topic for the team to focus on, some guiding questions, and a few resources – and then step back and let them “try it on” and apply it to their own practice and craft in whatever way works for them.
  3. Ask “So what? Now what?” Children need to develop growth mindsets, but so do educators. That means they need to be given the space to make mistakes and learn from failure. Create a learner-centric environment for educators where they can bring challenges, process them in a safe environment, and leverage multiple resources to do the work themselves of reflecting, learning, and growing. 

What happens for students when educators are intellectually engaged?

When educators are intellectually engaged, they are aware of their own thinking and able to model that engagement – out loud and with clarity – for their students. They also feel a deep sense of responsibility for their own learning and the learning of those around them, including their colleagues and of course, their students. This self-awareness and sense of responsibility equips them to facilitate amazing discussions and spark interest and curiosity with students by asking thoughtful questions. Intellectually engaged educators create an energy that feeds on itself, so students become hungry for learning because educators are modeling that hunger and expecting it from everyone around them.