Cognitive Engagement: Some Recommended Reading

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Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

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Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

What do these three books have in common other than that each has been on my nightstand at some point in the last few months?

All three books help us to understand personal characteristics which lead to success. Both Mindset and Outliers name effort as a major contributor to success. Malcolm Gladwell references the need for people to log at least 10,000 hours in an activity in order to achieve extraordinary success in it. He also notes that sustained effort over time is necessary for success of any kind. Carol Dweck describes a growth mindset as necessary for continued learning, achievement, and success. “…[G]rowth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (p. 7). Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick describe 16 habits of mind which are essential characteristics for success; they are based on the premise of effort and a growth mindset. Habits of mind, as described by Costa and Kallick, include such practices as thinking flexibly, questioning and posing problems, and applying past knowledge to new situations.

I highly recommend Mindset and Outliers, especially if you are a Check & Connect mentor or coordinator. A belief in a growth mindset and a belief that students can change and learn by putting forth effort are both highly desirable mentor characteristics. These two books seek to convince readers that effort matters more than innate skill or talent.

My Experience with Habits of Mind

While each of these books deserves their own full review, in the rest of this blog I’ll focus on the habits of mind because of my own experience with them. When I began utilizing strategies based on habits of mind, they actually changed how I thought, communicated, and engaged with others.

I learned these strategies through the Cognitive CoachingSM literature and Cognitive CoachingSM training, developed by Arthur L. Costa (yes, the same Costa who wrote the habits of mind book) and Robert J. Garmston. I used these strategies in my role as a peer leader working with educators in a large public school district. I worked individually with about 70 educators. I met with each educator several times throughout the school year for an observation cycle. During each cycle, these educators chose what they wanted me to observe and what data they wanted me to collect. The most common observation request related to student engagement: teachers asked me to specifically collect data on which students participated in class, type of participation, and how often. Following my classroom observation, I shared these data with the teacher. I then facilitated a reflective conversation with them based on the data, much like a Check & Connect mentor shares “check” data and facilitates a problem solving conversation with a student.

The strategies I used included sentence starters for paraphrasing and clarifying teachers’ reflection on their teaching:

  • “You’re suggesting that…”
  • “You’re pondering on the effects of…”

And questions which invited thinking:

  • “What alternatives are you considering?”
  • “What conclusions might you draw?”
  • “As you reflect on…”

As I developed my skills in using these strategies, I discovered the power of language. The use of “you” versus “I” when paraphrasing and clarifying kept the focus on the teacher’s thoughts. The use of plural forms (e.g., effects, alternatives) versus singular forms, or tentative forms (e.g., might) versus absolutes implied that there could be more than one correct answer. The pressure was off. Using these language strategies produced a thoughtful, relaxed conversational environment. Despite how awkward it felt at first to use these phrases, questions, and pauses, it opened up teachers’ thinking and reflection on their practice. Subtly changing my use of language and purposely pausing before and after comments and questions increased teachers’ reflection, confidence, and problem solving abilities.

Using Habits of Mind to Foster Students’ Cognitive Engagement

In 2008, Costa and Kallick published Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. In it, they promote strategies for engaging with students, opening up their thinking, and helping them develop lifelong learning skills. Costa and Kallick’s habits of mind encourage a specific type of student engagement: engagement of the mind or cognitive engagement. In Check & Connect, cognitive engagement encompasses self-regulated learning and goals, meta-cognition, and perceived relevance of schoolwork (see Check & Connect’s Emphasis on Student Engagement).

Costa and Kallick describe 16 habits of mind which they say are essential characteristics of student success and lifelong learning and provide specific strategies for developing each of them. Habits of mind most relevant for Check & Connect mentors to facilitate with mentees include:

  • persisting,
  • listening with understanding and empathy,
  • thinking flexibly,
  • questioning and posing problems, and
  • remaining open to continuous learning.

When I provide training for Check & Connect mentors, much of the focus is on mentor-mentee communication strategies for problem solving, since problem solving is part of a basic Check & Connect intervention. Part II of Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind provides a fabulous resource for mentors on using mindful language for communication and problem solving. Within this section, the chapters “Toward a mindful language of learning” and “Using questions to challenge students’ intellect” provide specific strategies for composing questions which will stimulate students’ thinking within a trusting environment. They also include some question do’s and don’ts, for example:

Question don’t:

  • “Why didn’t you do your homework?”

Possible question do’s:

  • “What are some problems you ran into with completing your homework?”
  • “As you plan for your assignment, what materials will you need?”
  • “As you plan for your assignment, what steps will you need to take to get it finished?”

Other Books to Foster Engagement?

I am thrilled to have this book to delve deeper into strategies for cognitive engagement, one of the four engagement subtypes described below:

  1. Academic (e.g., time on task, credit acrual, homework completion, engaging in class activities)
  2. Behavioral (e.g., attendance, suspensions, participating in school activities, being on time to school and class)
  3. Cognitive (e.g., perceived relevance of schoolwork, personal goals and autonomy, value of learning and success in school)
  4. Affective (e.g., identification with school, sense of belonging, school connectedness)

Can anyone recommend a book for any of the other three engagement subtypes: academic, behavioral, or affective?


Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2008). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dweck, C. D. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

About the Author: Eileen Klemm, M.A. is the project coordinator for Check & Connect presenting training nationally, facilitating the Check & Connect Coordinators’ Community of Practice, and providing leadership in the overall training and support of the Check & Connect model.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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