Research
5 May 2017

Engaging students: A challenge for all teachers

Recent research points to a widespread issue of low-level passive disengagement and disruption.

“Let’s talk real. This class hasn’t been great and I take some of the responsibility for that. Year 8s please! So tomorrow I’m going to do things differently because obviously today hasn’t worked and I should have had some other plans. I apologise, that’s partially my fault, but there’s also some people in this classroom that will need to pick up their game.” – Associate Sasha

“Sasha’s experiencing what all first year teachers struggle with, behaviour management and having a presence and persona in the room and for her to know that she needs to be the leader in those situations. At the moment, they just need to focus on going in each day and finding those small wins and celebrating those. And then really taking time to critically reflect with a support mentor on what went wrong in that class and where we could fix it.” – Senior Teaching and Leadership Adviser Felicity Stark

In Testing Teachers, we see teachers dealing with a range of student behaviours in their classes.

It is undoubtedly important and often challenging for teachers to effectively manage classroom behaviour, build relationships with students and use a range of strategies to engage students.

The Grattan Institute recently reviewed the research on the extent of student engagement and disengagement in Australia as well as the evidence on what works best in creating positive learning environments.

It points to a widespread issue of low-level passive disengagement and disruption, experienced most severely in schools serving low socioeconomic students.

  • A 2009 study in Western Australia of 1,300 students found that about 40 per cent of students regularly displayed unproductive behaviours in a given year, with over half of these students passively disengaged (inattentive or unmotivated). This impacts on their academic achievement – the unproductive students were on average one to two years behind their peers in literacy and numeracy.

  • A 2014 study in South Australia found that more than 60 per cent of teachers in low socioeconomic schools report disruption in class several times daily, compared to only 10 per cent of teachers in high socioeconomic schools.

  • In the same South Australian study, nearly one-in-three teachers reported being ‘extremely stressed’ or ‘very stressed’ by the challenges of engaging and re-engaging students in class. Teachers found disengagement and low-level disruptive behaviour such as avoiding school work or disrupting the lesson as the most challenging to manage, rather than aggressive or violent behaviour.

These studies are complemented by recent additional analysis of results from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

  • PISA showed that Australia continues to sit below the OECD average for classroom discipline. About one-third of the students in affluent schools and about half of those in disadvantaged schools reported that in most or every class there was noise and disorder, students didn’t listen to what the teacher said and that students found it difficult to learn.
  • TIMMS showed a clear relationship between the achievement of Australian students and principals’ reports of school discipline problems, with fewer discipline problems associated with higher achievement.

Unfortunately, data on what drives passive disengagement and low-level disruption in Australian classrooms is limited. International studies on student reasons for misbehaving and disengaging found boredom, attention-seeking, negative attitudes towards school or their own abilities and teacher-student misunderstandings were the key factors.

For students at schools serving disadvantaged communities, they could also be disengaged due to a range of issues happening outside the classroom.

So, how do teachers engage students? According to the research base reviewed by Grattan Institute, it is not just about managing undesirable behaviour, but engaging students in learning through preventative approaches that focus students’ attention on learning, such as high expectations for student success, strong teacher-student relationships, clarity and structure in instruction and strategies to encourage student participation.

Positive reinforcements include praise, encouragement and rewards work best when combined with consistent corrections and consequences.

Making learning relevant is also important. Analysis by the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation of the 2015 NSW ‘Tell Them From Me’ primary school student survey showed that students who agreed that they were receiving quality instruction in class achieved higher reading and numeracy NAPLAN scores.

At Teach For Australia, new Associates spend a significant part of their Initial Intensive (around nine 90 minute training sessions and a key focus of their 10 day classroom practicum) on building student engagement.

This includes sessions on:

  • building relationships with students;
  • identifying problematic student behaviour before it escalates (“with-it-ness”);
  • positive narration of student behavior;
  • how to plan and teach routines such as entry and exit;
  • tiered responses to student behaviour such as circulation, proximity to the student and private or public requests to desist;
  • developing a teacher persona; and
  • strategies to support growth mindset and demonstrate unconditional positive regard.

Other strands of the Leadership Development Program also support student engagement, including planning learning intentions to meet students’ current development level, designing assessment tasks to be able to differentiate teaching and developing a vision-driven approach to teaching.

With Testing Teachers, Teach For Australia hopes to raise awareness of the challenges teachers face in engaging students in learning and share an insight into how these new Associates build their skills through coaching and reflection to give all students a great education.