Houston, I think We have a (Disengagement) Problem
Kelly Christopherson

How people engage is a great topic to explore. I appreciate all the sources you cited as well!

I have been exploring engagement by thinking about our human brains and behaviors from the bottom-up instead of from the top down. Both methods of exploration have value, but it seems we often overlook findings from the bottom-up approach.

When we start from the top down, we often establish a goal and then we delineate the steps and methods for how to best achieve the goal. We often go so far as to identify specific mindsets and behaviors we will need to achieve the goal as well.

For the last 2 years I have been turning this approach on its head. Before I set a goal I start with how I am personally able to sense, organize, infer, assess, predict, and make decisions in relationship to different kinds of information and experiences. I consider my brain’s relationship to information to help me construct a goal I will be capable of succeeding at.

I also consider variables that inhibit my ability to optimally engage and then solve for them. For example, I consider my brain to be an organ of threat detection. One of the biological imperatives of my brain is to constantly alert me to either attack or retreat when it perceives incoming information to be different than it was expecting. So my brain is often set up to either passively disengage or aggressively engage.

Ever since figuring how reactive the human brain is to perceived anomalies, regardless of how small the anomaly based upon my observations and research, I now understand optimal engagement to be possible only when I do not feel the need to protect or defend myself in relation to my understanding of the information at hand.

Knowing how skittish and reactive my brain is when information occurs differently than I am expecting it to occur has been an enormous help for me in managing this dynamic. Knowing what causes me to engage too passively or aggressively allows me to identify the causes and manage them pretty easily. Whereas before I felt overwhelmed by the causes because I didn’t know what they were. And the causes are just about anything and everything because information constantly occurs differently than I was predicting. Now I observe myself behaving more like an animal. I perceive a difference, attend to it, and then calm down right away once I attend to the difference and assess its importance.

So after all that, for me, optimal engagement has become about removing the obstacles that inhibit my engagement more so than creating the perfect atmosphere for engagement. I applied this idea during my last two years teaching and it worked like a dream. I knew exactly how to keep my students calm and how to help them identify and manage their anxiety. I never made them feel wrong about their decisions or behaviors. Engagement just happens when students feel calm and safe and are not nervous about negative repercussions for how they think, decide, and behave.