Tag Archives: daydreaming

Does An Engaged Brain Always Learn Best?

Teachers strive to ensure that pupils are engaged, don’t they?

I chose to look at engagement for my Masters dissertation several years ago and quickly concluded that engagement is a vey complex topic, but we can define it generally as:

The degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.

-The Glossary Of Education Reform-

It can also represent wider aspects:

Participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside the classroom, which leads to a range of measurable outcomes

– Kuh et al., 2007 –

Definitions aside, all teachers have their own ideas of what engagement actually looks like in the classroom. Teachers can also be informed that they ‘engaged the class well’ or ‘not all pupils were engaged’ or even ‘little Billy was staring into space over in the corner.’ I’ll put to one side the question surrounding the ability of observers to observe for a moment.

(I often wonder what would happen if staff meetings were observed – I must spend around 80 percent of my time staring out of the window or checking Twitter).

I’ll come back to Billy, sitting in the corner, staring into space and obviously not engaged.

The common sense assumption is this: When we are doing nothing, the brain is in some kind of stand-by mode waiting for stimuli and that when we have something to do the brain works harder. This makes complete sense and suggests that a hard working, engaged classroom is a learning classroom.

The thing is, the resting brain is far from inactive. In fact, it’s remarkably active. Brain imaging studies have found consistent levels of activation in certain regions of the brain collectively known as the default mode network. The default mode network has been linked to instances of daydreaming and mindwandering, suggesting that daydreaming could be our default mode of thought.

Experience sampling studies suggest that people might even spend as much time daydreaming as they do sleeping.

So perhaps Billy is daydreaming? Even if he is, he’s still wasting valuable learning time.

Perhaps not.

If we spend around about the same time daydreaming as we do sleeping, then daydreaming (like sleep) must serve some purpose; it must not only be normal but also essential and have some kind of evolutionary value.

During periods of distraction, we loosen our thought processes in order to find solutions to problems using previously unexplored options. Daydreaming can allow us to reach more creative conclusions by facilitating a period of incubation.

Daydreaming also enhances our sense of identity, often through what cognitive scientists call ‘Future Orientated Cognition’ – we recall our past and envisage what our futures might be like or imagine alternative scenarios dependent upon the choices we make. Interestingly (and incredibly sad at the same time) people with dementia are unable to daydream and to forecast the future due to damage to the default mode network.

Back to Billy…

So is Billy disengaged or has he defaulted to daydreaming mode? If he is daydreaming then is his brain busy processing the information from the lesson or planning his weekend on the Xbox?

We don’t always know what engagement looks like and we can’t make judgements based on information hidden from us. Engagement takes many forms and doesn’t always look the same. Mental ‘down-time’ certainly isn’t popular in teaching – imagine an Ofsted inspector entering a classroom during a daydreaming activity! Nevertheless, disengagement might actually make the brain work harder.


Kuh, G.D. (2007) How to Help Students Achieve. Chronicle of Higher Education. 53 (41), B12–13.