T1.4 Assess expectations and demonstrations of cognitive lift, particularly for students whose communities have been marginalized by systemic inequity

Highlander Institute Spotlight Series


Cognitive lift — or cognitive demand —  refers to the amount of mental effort, focus, engagement, and higher-order thinking required by a certain task. A daily commute to a familiar place, for example, does not require much mental energy and can typically be accomplished successfully with a driver’s brain on “autopilot”. However, traveling to an unfamiliar destination requiring multiple travel modalities requires a much greater level of cognitive lift; the journey demands organization, foresight, problem-solving, and nimble responses at different moments in time. 

In the classroom, the level of cognitive lift can be determined by what teachers and students are doing during a lesson. When students are discussing, synthesizing, evaluating, and engaging in productive struggle they are assuming more cognitive demands. When teachers are doing most of the talking, monitoring seat work, or expecting stillness and silence, the cognitive demands of students are usually low. This type of compliance-based teaching has been coined the “pedagogy of poverty” by Martin Haberman, who found this teaching style to be a mainstay of urban education throughout his classroom observations from 1958 through the 1990s and beyond (Haberman, 1991). 

In assessing expectations of cognitive lift, teachers become aware of the role that compliance-oriented instruction plays in their classrooms and intentionally increase opportunities for students to engage with big ideas; make connections to their values, beliefs, interests, and lived experiences; and productively struggle through challenging work. In the process, teachers raise their own expectations for what their students can accomplish — building student confidence and improving their academic mindsets and outcomes.


  • While compliance-oriented teaching happens everywhere, it is most pervasive in classrooms within urban school districts, demonstrating another example of structural inequity in education. “The pedagogy of poverty is sufficiently powerful to undermine the implementation of any reform effort because it determines the way pupils spend their time, the nature of the behaviors they practice, and the bases of their self-concepts as learners” (Haberman, 1991). 
  • Active learning methods used in a variety of STEM courses reduced achievement gaps in exam scores by 33% and narrowed gaps in passing rates by 45%, benefitting all students but offering disproportionate benefits for “individuals from underrepresented groups” (Theobald et al., 2020).
  • Lessons with high cognitive demands are associated with teachers who have high expectations of their students, a factor strongly linked to improvements in student outcomes and academic achievement (Ford et al., 2002; Trumbull & Pacheco, 2005; Gregory & Huang, 2013; Bonefeld & Dickhäuser, 2018; Boser et al., 2014).
  • “Student engagement is a prerequisite of student learning, and for learning to be truly meaningful students have to be cognitively engaged” (Solís, 2008). Relatedly, see T1.2 on the importance of teachers’ affirming views about diverse learners as an important way of challenging deficit mindsets that lead to low expectations; and see T1.3 on building engagement by ensuring students see themselves reflected in their learning.



Bonefeld, M. & Dickhäuser, O. (2018). (Biased) grading of students’ performance: Students’ names, performance level, and implicit attitudes. Frontiers in Psychology, 9:481. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00481

Boser, U., Wilhelm, M., & Hanna, R. (2014, October 6). The power of the Pygmalion effect: Teachers expectations strongly predict college completion. The Center for American Progress. https://americanprogress.org/article/the-power-of-the-pygmalion-effect/

Ford, D.Y., Harris III, J.J.H., Tyson, C.A., & Trotman, M.F. (2002). Beyond deficit thinking: Providing access for gifted African American students. Roeper Review, 24(2), 52-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02783190209554129

Gregory, A., & Huang, F. (2013). It takes a village: The effects of 10th grade college-going expectations of students, parents, and teachers four years later. Am J Community Psychology, 52(1-2), 41-55. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-013-9575-5

Haberman, M. (1991). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan. 73(4): 290-294. https://kappanonline.org/the-pedagogy-of-poverty-versus-good-teaching/

Solís, A. (2008). Teaching for cognitive engagement – Materializing the promise of sheltered instruction. IDRA. https://www.idra.org/resource-center/teaching-for-cognitive-engagement/

Theobald, E.J., Hill, M.J, Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E.N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D.L., Cooper, J.D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J.A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones II, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M.E., Littlefield, C.E., Lowe, A., Newman, S., Okolo, V., Olroyd, S., Peecook, B.R., Pickett, S.B., Slager, D.L., Caviedes-Solis, I.W., Stanchak, K.E., Sundaravardan, V., Valdebenito, C., Williams, C.R., Zinsli, K., & Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 117(12), 6476-6483. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117

Trumbull, E., & Pacheco. M. (2005). Leading with diversity: Cultural competencies for teacher preparation and professional development. The Education Alliance at Brown University. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED494221.pdf