Teachers are working as hard as they ever have, yet schools across Australia are struggling to engage students. This year, a Grattan Institute study revealed that 40% of Australian students are passively disengaged from school.
The study suggests this disengagement could be a result of students being uninterested in the curriculum, unhappy at home or in the schoolyard, or because of poor quality teaching. Whatever the cause, disengagement is problematic because not only can it result in work avoidance, talking out of turn, or using mobile phones, in extreme cases it results in violence in the classroom or students leaving school before graduating.
Student engagement is something that teachers often talk about as integral to learning, yet its definition is elusive. What does student engagement look like? When we know students are engaged, how do we know?
Educational psychologist Jennifer A. Fredricks and Dr. Wendy McColskey distinguish student engagement as follows: engagement is emotional, which refers to a student’s sense of belonging and their relationships with their teachers; engagement is also cognitive, which refers to a student’s psychological investment in their own learning; lastly, engagement is behavioral, which not only includes rule-following and positive behaviour, but an observable willingness to participate in learning experiences and in the school community.
Overcoming student disengagement is a complicated business. It is not about the teacher being inherently charismatic, using gimmicks, or entertaining their students with tap dancing and smoke machines. Rather, the importance of student-teacher relationships should be our focus because this will improve their emotional experience and sense of belonging. John Hattie asserts, “Strong teacher-student relationships are crucial… and teachers who actively build such relationships have a strong effect on the lives of their students.”
Additioanlly, Project Based Learning (PBL) can engage students cognitively by connecting them to the world outside the classroom, inviting them to investigate authentic problems. PBL is a type of hands-on learning that was championed by John Dewey over 100 years ago, and is becoming increasingly popular in the 21st Century. Contemporary learners need to know more than core subjects, they need to know how to think critically, analyze information, communicate effectively, collaborate and problem solve. When students have a sense of belonging, and a project they are interested in, negative behaviors are less likely as students are actively and positively engaged in their learning.
It is unrealistic to expect all students to be engaged all of the time. Engagement looks, sounds and feels different in every classroom. While one-off classroom observations can clearly reveal ‘on-task’ behavior, long-term persistence, a sense of belonging and commitment are less easily observed.
When we commit to developing quality relationships and delivering meaningful curriculum that offers thoughtful, real world content, we invite more learners back into the fold. Professor William Purkey offers a valuable reminder: “The decision to learn is in the possession of the learner not the teacher. The teacher can only invite. Success depends on the strength of the invitation.” Teachers must vary the way they invite students and keep the RSVP open always.