Peer Review, Winter 2005
Are We All on the Same Page?
By Stephen Bowen, senior fellow, Association
of American Colleges and Universities, and senior administrator
(on leave), Bucknell University
Engagement is increasingly cited as a
distinguishing characteristic of the best learning in American
higher education today. Vision statements, strategic plans,
learning outcomes, and agendas of national reform movements
strive to create engaged learning and engaged learners. Despite
this emerging emphasis, an explicit consensus about what we
actually mean by engagement or why it is important is lacking.
Is engagement an end in itself, or a means to other ends?
Is engagement as important as other characteristics of a good
education such as intentionality, balanced breadth and depth,
complexity, multidisciplinarity, integration, and contextual
awareness? And, while we are asking questions, perhaps we
should begin by asking--Engagement with what?
Educators think of engagement in four
related but different ways. The most fundamental is student
engagement with the learning process: just getting students
actively involved. The second is student engagement with
the object of study. Here the emphasis is on stimulation
of students' learning by direct experience of something new.
Another is student engagement with contexts of the
subject of study. This gives emphasis to the importance of
context as it may affect and be affected by the students'
primary subject. When social and civic contexts are considered,
this inevitably raises ethical issues. Finally, there is student
engagement with the human condition, especially in its
social, cultural, and civic dimensions. According to this
way of thinking, the human condition is the ultimate subject
of study to which individual subjects and disciplines should
be understood as subordinate. Each of these ways of thinking
about engagement has an interesting history, relationship
to the others, and relationship to the goals of liberal education.
Student engagement with the learning
process is a concern as old as teaching itself. The disengaged
student daydreaming in the back row has always been a challenge
for his or her teacher. To successfully compete with all the
other forces impinging on the consciousnesses of children,
adolescents, and young adults, teachers must gain a larger
measure of influence than they are normally granted by developmental
processes established through some four million years of human
evolution. Passion, sensitivity, creativity, and persistence
have long been important to teachers' success in getting students
to pay attention to the learning process and become engaged
learners. Today, teachers make extensive use of pedagogies
designed to compel students' active engagement. Grounded in
advances in our understanding of how students learn, these
pedagogies of engagement include frequent short-term feedback,
writing across the curriculum, cooperative learning, and learning
communities. The National Survey of Student Engagement, which
assesses the extent to which these pedagogies are used on
various campuses, has become one de facto operational
definition of engagement.
Although just paying attention to the
learning process may be enough engagement for students to
acquire knowledge and skills, teachers who value liberal learning*
are not likely to consider this sufficient. They will be interested
in transformative learning--learning in which students grow
in response to what they have learned. Here, engagement is
more intense and more personal. As students attempt to reconcile
what they learn with what they previously believed, they demonstrate
growth in understanding, values, and commitment typical of
mature cognitive development (Perry 1981). The idea that intense
personal engagement in the learning process is important to
the development of values has achieved cultural currency.
For example, in a recent interview in Newsweek magazine,
Wynton Marsalis emphasized the importance of intense personal
engagement for development of aesthetic values in music when
he stated, "The entire country has been in decline in terms
of the arts. . . . Short of being given rituals of initiation
into adulthood--and art courses that demand engagement and
development of your taste--there is nothing to do but descend."
In some cases, new learning challenges old values and results
in new values. In other cases, new learning deepens already-held
values. As the learner's values are examined and refined,
broader experience and growing confidence enable growing commitment.
Teachers who want their students to engage
with transformative learning processes confront an additional
challenge. Beyond the challenge of just getting students to
pay attention, teachers find that students resist transformation--it
necessarily threatens the student's current identity
and worldview. Socrates found that his students resisted conclusions
to which he led them when those conclusions differed from
their already-held beliefs. Teachers have the same experience
today. A survey of students at an elite liberal arts college
revealed that the majority did not want to engage in a discussion
unless they had firmly held views on the specific issues and
felt well prepared to defend them (Trosset 1998). Students
felt that the purpose of discussion was not so much to learn
as it was to defend one's already established views
and convince others of them.
The emphasis in engaging the object
of study is different. Here students are asked to directly
examine, characterize, analyze, and evaluate the object of
study so they may build knowledge in response to it. This
approach has always been fundamental to learning in the sciences.
Laboratory and field exercises and experiments produce direct
engagement with the object of study and, in using the methods
of empiricism, students learn just as scientists learn. For
objects of study typically not examined in the sciences, the
same concept is readily extended in close examination (close
reading) and rigorous analysis of history, literature, cultural
anthropology, etc. Engaging the object of study assumes engaging
the learning process, whether or not learning is transformational.
Learning environments typical of institutions committed to
liberal learning give priority to providing both opportunities
and motivation for students to engage the objects of their
Engagement with the contexts
in which the subject of study is situated adds two dimensions
to learning. One is breadth. Complementary disciplinary perspectives
on a single subject produce a more holistic and thus realistic
analysis. This is as true in science disciplines as it is
in any other disciplines. Let's say we were learning about
the population dynamics of fish in a lake. We would understand
this better if, in addition to the population's birth and
death rates, we knew the effects of pollution and weather
cycles on fish populations and the effect of the local human
economy and culture on fishing pressure. If eating fish is
taboo, it would have a different effect than if fish meals
are customary for all major holidays. Such an approach to
learning helps to remedy the alienation that some learners
feel in response to analytical reductionism. Although research
that concentrates on ever smaller fractions of nature intentionally
isolated from context in controlled experiments achieves levels
of precision that are truly impressive, its relevance to our
understanding of the wider world is often an unresolved question.
Alfred North Whitehead, one of the great scientific/ mathematical
analysts of the twentieth century, argued that despite their
power, abstract systems of scientific knowledge should not
be mistaken for the concrete reality of nature (Whitehead
1967). Many learners, students and their teachers alike, find
exchanging some precision for the realistic complexity that
comes with engaging context to be a gratifying trade.
When engagement with contexts includes
social and civic contexts, the subject's ethical dimension
is revealed. This was not always considered to be appropriate.
There was a moment in the history of the analytical ideal
when cold objectivity and disengagement from social context
was considered essential to the purity of science. The dysfunctional
consequences of this view were immortalized in a 1965 song
by satirist Tom Lehrer who, in a parody of rocket scientist
Werhner von Braun, wrote: "'Once zey are up, who
cares where zey come down? / Zat's not my department'
says Wernher von Braun." Of all the aspects of a subject
that may be intellectually stimulating from a detached, abstract
perspective, some will hold greater social and civic significance
than others. Thus, awareness of the subject's social
and civic situation can guide analysis and interpretation,
and can shape priorities for future learning. Understanding
context also helps to anticipate the consequences of our acting
on knowledge. Among programs that train students for the professions
of engineering, law, nursing, and medicine, among others,
the importance of engaging the social and civic contexts of
professional practice has become an article of faith.
There are some teachers for whom engagement
with the human condition, especially in its social, cultural,
and civic dimensions, is the most worthy, compelling, and
legitimate approach to learning. We are, after all, humans
ourselves, and we should be most capable of, and in need of,
learning about humanity. If engagement with the object of
study reflects the analytical ideal that dominated intellectual
developments through the 1960s, then engagement with the
human condition reflects the "cultural turn" of the 1970s
that continues to the present (Bender 1997). Beginning with
the view that all knowledge is socially constructed and highly
influenced by the social context of its construction, it would
follow that understanding necessarily depends on knowledge
of the sociocultural context. Although scientists have found
this perspective less essential than others, it unquestionably
has been the dominant view shaping intellectual developments
in the humanities and social sciences in the last thirty years.
Rightly, then, it is a powerful influence in shaping goals
for learning in these disciplines. The cultural turn is so
pervasive that it may be equally influential in institutions
dedicated to liberal education and in others, although the
priority given to student-teacher interaction in liberal education
may favor more thorough development of this perspective on
Many of these concepts of engagement
cover ground similar to that covered by initiatives in higher
education known by other names:
- Engagement with the learning process is similar to active
- Engagement with the object of study is similar to experiential
- Engagement with contexts generally is similar to multidisciplinary
- Engagement with social and civic contexts is similar to
Perhaps the most important contribution of engagement is
the focus it brings to the learner's personal relationship
to learning. This emphasis is consistent with our recent appreciation
that knowledge is more constructed than received, and that
the primary agent of learning is the student. Thus, teaching
and learning are different, and a focus on the learner is
essential to the improvement of teaching. From this perspective,
we can understand engagement as both the means to an end and
an end in itself. Teachers strive to produce engagement as
a means to learning. If a student is engaged in any of the
ways discussed above, then learning of some kind would seem
Among the essential characteristics of an undergraduate education
that prepares graduates for life in the twenty-first century,
engagement is surely as important as any other. Intentionality,
balanced breadth and depth, complexity, multidisciplinarity,
integration, contextual awareness, and engagement are at once
characteristics of the learning process and characteristics
of what is learned. Although none of these acts independently,
engagement would seem a prerequisite for the others. Considered
within the full range of meanings discussed above, engaged
learners are those who complement and interpret what they
learn from others with direct knowledge based on personal
experience, who develop appropriately complex understandings
situated in relevant contexts, and who recognize learning's
moral implications and consequences. Inasmuch as it contributes
to such signature outcomes of a contemporary liberal education,
the emphasis on engagement has served learners well and will
continue to be important for the foreseeable future in science
and many other disciplines.
* For an elaboration of the goals of a contemporary liberal
education, see Greater Expectations: A New Vision for
Learning as a Nation Goes to College (AAC&U 2002).
Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
2002. Greater expectations: A new vision for learning
as a nation goes to college. Washington, DC: AAC&U.
Bender, T. 1997. Politics, intellect and the American university,
1945-1995. In American academic culture in transformation,
ed. T. Bender and C. E. Schorske, 17-54. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Perry, W. G., Jr. 1981. Cognitive and ethical growth: The
making of meaning. In The modern American college: Responding
to the new realities of diverse students and a changing society,
ed. A. W. Chickering, 76-116. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Trosset, C. 1998. Obstacles to open discussion and critical
thinking: The Grinnell College study. Change Magazine.
September/October 1998: 44-49.
Whitehead, A. N. 1967. Science and the modern world: Lowell
lectures, 1925. New York: Free Press.