A teacher’s hunt for evidence on... Engaging pupils who are turned off by school

In the latest of his series, Alex Quigley explores the best ways to reach those who feel they don’t belong in the classroom – and uncovers some surprising results
24th November 2017, 12:00am
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A teacher’s hunt for evidence on... Engaging pupils who are turned off by school


Every teacher knows a student like Aaron. At times funny and caring, at others careless and destructive, he would prove maddeningly unreliable inside and outside of my classroom. The only predictable thing about Aaron was that he would leave school prematurely, labelled a failure.

How do we stop students like Aaron from falling through the cracks? How do we engage students turned off by school?

If you mention the word “engagement”, you may get caught up in an ill-informed argument that caricatures it as little more than filling the classroom with fun. It has for some become a proxy for dumbing down.

It isn’t. Helpfully, Ellen A Skinner and Michael J Belmont defined the crucial concept of engagement: “Children who are engaged show sustained behavioural involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone. They select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks” (“Motivation in the Classroom: Reciprocal Effects of Teacher Behaviour and Student Engagement Across the School Year”, Journal of Educational Publishing, bit.ly/MotivationITC).

Engagement is more than mere fun. It is more than just being well behaved. It proves instead to be a vital precondition for all successful learning.

Indeed, it could mean the difference between students like Aaron being turned off by school, branded a premature failure, and instead see such students stick at school and even flourish.

Like most matters in education, engagement is much more complex than people may first consider. Researcher James Appleton and his colleagues from the US defined student engagement (“Measuring cognitive and psychological engagement: Validation of the Student Engagement Instrument”, Journal of School Psychology, bit.ly/CogEngage), and their four-part model helps make sense of the complexity:

* Academic engagement - reflected by indicators like homework completion and time on task.

* Cognitive engagement - reflected in subtle factors, like students feeling school is part of their goals, or how well students can plan, check and evaluate their learning in class and beyond.

* Behavioural engagement - reflected in factors like attendance and participation in class or extracurricular activities.

* Psychological engagement - as indicated in relationships with peers and teachers, or feeling a sense of belonging in school.

The better we understand engagement, the more able we are as teachers to help identify it, or its absence, in our students.

Let’s return to Aaron. I knew that he clearly felt psychologically out of place at school. Apparently, his behaviour for his rugby team proved markedly different. His sense of belonging in the scrum clearly wasn’t matched in his science classroom.

What we should not and cannot do is shelve the academic challenges faced by students to instead play endless rugby games or similar, but we should seek out the motivational factors rooted in our students’ behaviour.

Perhaps Aaron could find an academic mentor from the PE department? Could his rugby coach be commandeered to help Aaron make meaningful academic goals?

At a time when the rich breadth of school life may appear to be shrinking, with the arts and sports being cut back from school budgets, how we engage our students in school life will need some hard thinking.

Developing engagement

If we use the four-part model of engagement as a starting point, we can look at how we develop engagement in the wider life of school, the classroom, then right down to individual tasks we plan for our students, such as how we wrangle the perennial homework problem.

There are, of course, no simple solutions to complex matters such as students who are disengaged from school.

We can start with the role of the teacher. Ironically, our perception of an “engaging teacher” simply doesn’t match up with the research evidence that is available. Edward L Deci and colleagues found that it was not teachers who were “fun”, or those who made busy activities, but the ones who provided safe, purposeful classroom environments:

“Teachers who provide clear expectations and instructions, strong guidance during lessons, and constructive feedback have students who are more behaviourally and cognitively engaged.” (“Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure”, Journal of Educational Psychology, bit.ly/EngageSILA)

Being cognitively engaged comes down to teachers giving great feedback. For students such as Aaron, this means giving precise, knowledgeable feedback on how he can get better with writing or quadratic equations - it comes with showing we care about them in our every word and action.

The evidence that the teacher-student relationship is integral to engagement is plain good sense. We know that for many students turned off by school, it is the lack of stable, positive role models that can inhibit their engagement in school life.

Our role “in loco parentis”, as caring adults, becomes essential for so many of our students and helps build the trust our students need to persist through their failures and struggles.

The research on our students staying engaged shows that if we neglect the wider social activities that attend school life - such as extracurricular music, clubs or sports teams - we miss opportunities to help students like Aaron feel a sense of belonging in school.

It can be in the nooks and crannies of the school year - such as assemblies, school trips and sports day - that relationships are best developed and engagement is fostered.

As school budget cuts become deeper, with students such as Aaron feeling that an academic curriculum is not for them, we need to think hard about how we can cultivate engagement for every child.

Alex Quigley is an English teacher and director of the research school at Huntington School in York. He is the author of The Confident Teacher and tweets @HuntingEnglish

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