The 7 Conditions of Learning: Engagement

This is Part III of exploring Professor Brian Cambourne’s 7 Conditions of Learning. Read the intro here and Immersion here, and Demonstration here.

“Setting up a risk-free environment so they can experiment with language and literacy.”

Brain Principle #3: Each brain is unique. Lockstep, assembly-line learning violates a critical discovery about the human brain.

When I work on lessons for my students, I often think back on my own time in school. My experience, especially in elementary school, is important for me to reflect upon—as my lack of success then has taught me what not to do with my students now.

I think a lot about my engagement as a student. I wasn’t disruptive; I did the work assigned with diligence; I did my homework. Yet, I left elementary school reading words without comprehension. I might have been “engaged” in school, but I was definitely left behind in literacy. 

What, in my view, went wrong? The work, the worksheets, the projects given to me to help me learn to read did not meet my needs to become a skilled reader. 


So what does the word “engaged” mean? I think about a gear at work. A gear train is a mechanical system formed by mounting gears on a frame so the teeth of the gears engage. Gear teeth are designed to ensure the pitch circles of engaging gears roll on each other without slipping, providing a smooth transmission of rotation from one gear to the next. 

Engagement, like the gears, involves two parties. For a gear to work, the teeth must mesh and roll together. There is a lot of science behind the “meshing” of gears—the size, the shape, the distance. Any mistake and the gear will not work. 

Maybe I have this incorrectly, but even Cambourne appears to only be looking at the student and their response. This is significant. Engagement must be a two-way process.

When I worked with my then-7-year-old-son Nicholas, he became engaged by following the changing map of the world. His engagement occurred after I wrote a simple poem about mapping, which sparked his curiosity for further exploration. Christian, my first student in Lubbock, was 13 when we met. He had spent a staggering 90 minutes per day for four years in a “phonics only” reading program. That’s more than 1,000 hours sitting in a class where he did not learn to read.

It was my job to find reading material which would engage both Christian and Nicholas. Most importantly, I had to use their reading level, interest, and the cultural appropriateness as a foundation for engagement.

We, as teachers, must find the appropriate material to teach our students that will particularly engage them. This is when the student feels personally invested in their learning, and find purpose in doing so.

Next time, we’ll discuss Expectations.