The Research Files Episode 27: Improve learning and behaviour by engaging students

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Thanks for downloading this episode of the Research Files, brought to you by Teacher magazine. I'm Rebecca Vukovic. The Grattan Institute released a report this month – titled Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning – that says as many as 40 per cent of school students are unproductive in a given year. What's more, those unproductive students are, on average, one to two years behind their peers, and their disengagement also damages their classmates and teachers.

When the authors refer to disengagement, they're not necessarily talking about aggressive or even violent behaviour. Instead, they are referring to minor disruptions such as students simply switching off or avoiding work – which they found is in fact more stressful for teachers.

I sat down with co-author Julie Sonnemann to discuss the report's four school level recommendations. The first says ‘A school-wide behaviour management plan is essential, but not enough'. So, I started by asking what else schools should be doing to help teachers to create effective and engaging classroom environments.

Julie Sonnemann: Yeah that's a really good question. What our report really highlights is that whilst most schools in Australia have a school behaviour management plan in place, which is really essential for laying out some of the common language and values that the school has, there are some really deep problems with student engagement in class that teachers are really struggling with.

So for example we know that around 40 per cent of students are disengaged in any class in a given year, and a lot of this is around passive disengagement – that's actually the largest group within that – and teachers really don't feel equipped to handle this well and its really stressful on a day-to-day basis. What that tells us is that schools need to be doing much more to actually equip teachers with the skills to a) manage this well, and b) to really engage students in learning, which is the ultimate goal.

In terms of what school leaders can do, they need to do much more than just a plan, they need to be giving teachers opportunities for collaboration – to work with colleagues, to really have deeper conversations around student behaviour and engagement – opportunities for mentoring, opportunities for coaching and feedback from experts, as well as access to tools that actually can help monitor and assess student behaviour and engagement over time.

Rebecca Vukovic: The second recommendation calls for stronger induction programs for beginning teachers and ensuring they are led by expert mentors. Could you explain to me why you think it's essential and where schools should begin with this?

JS: Mentoring is really important for all teachers and particularly beginning teachers. We know that beginning teachers are the most stressed when they first transition into the classroom, which makes sense, there's so much going on it can be quite overwhelming.

With classroom behaviour and engagement it's a very practical and nuanced skill, so therefore mentoring is a really important vehicle for new teachers to learn how to do this well. For example, we know that high performing systems really emphasise this; so, Shanghai have two mentors for a beginning teacher, one for pedagogy and one for classroom management. So it's something that a lot of systems emphasise and we know that, while a lot of schools have induction programs … up to half of Australian teachers say they have only participated in an induction program and we also know that only a third of early career teachers have actually ever had a mentor. So it's something that's a huge gap and that we need to fill.

RV: The report also recommends all teachers are provided regular opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues and to give and receive feedback on how to improve in the classroom. Why is collaboration between teachers so important when it comes to behaviour management and engaging students?

It's a good question. The literature tells us that getting feedback and observing and collaborating is a really important way for teachers to learn on any aspect of teaching. But, what's interesting, in terms of the literature on classroom engagement and management, it's especially important for this particular skillset, and that's because it's such a highly nuanced and practical skillset. So, knowing what to do is not the hard part, it's how to do it and how to execute it well.

Building the confidence of a student over time, for example, who is not very enthusiastic about learning is something that is difficult and nuanced; and that seeing a good teacher do this well, is vital. In Australia we know that around 40 per cent of teachers have never given feedback or observed their colleagues in practice, and this is well below the international average – so there's a real culture change in schools that needs to happen.

And what's interesting is that in data coming back from teacher surveys, collaboration is the number one thing that they'd like to have the chance to do more on for classroom environments. So it's not about learning more theory or attending a seminar or a one-off course, they really just like opportunities to get feedback from colleagues who might also know the students that they're dealing with and have previously also dealt with them in class before.

RV: The report also mentions several strategies that could help to engage students in lessons and I thought this was a really interesting part of the report because you used student response cards as just one example. So I was hoping you could briefly explain to me what response cards actually are and why they're so effective.

JS: It's interesting, the literature is quite strong in this particular area and often in a class we know there are certain students who always put their hand up and what happens then is the rest of the students in the class will think ‘oh that's fine, I don't really need to think about what the answer might be to this particular question because Sally will answer it'. Response cards are a really practical way to get around this. It basically involves when a teacher asks a question, each student writes the answer on a card and shows it to the teacher. And this has two benefits: one, it means that students are actively thinking and engaged in class; and two, the teacher can monitor who is actually engaging and who might need more help.

RV: Yeah great. The final recommendation says that teachers should be provided with tools to help them to identify triggers for student disengagement, so they can adapt and improve their approaches. So I was wondering what kind of triggers did you have in mind when you wrote this and also how do teachers go about adapting and improving their approaches?

JS: The types of triggers for student engagement and behaviour can be really simple. So it could be a particular subject is when you notice a student becomes a lot more quiet because they might be anxious about the subject content matter. It could be that there's a particular time of day, it could be when the student is in a particular class with another student. So, there are some really basic triggers that can actually be tracked over time. And it could actually also be something that the teacher is also doing. So it could be the way a teacher is handling a particular student, possibly with a bit of sarcasm, or if its confrontational responses from a teacher that actually then drives a particular reaction from a student.

So behaviour, there are a bunch of tools that teachers can now use. There is growing interest in behaviour assessment tools, which are some pretty simple tools which just really involve tracking students over time in a really systematic way, looking at what behaviour seems to be happening close to other events and identifying patterns. And the good thing about reporting it is that it also means that information can be shared with experts.

I think there's a lot of talk in education about teachers assessing their teaching approaches and adapting it for different students in relation to maths or English or a variety of other subjects. But when it comes to engagement, it's not thought about in the same way whereas actually adaptive teaching needs to happen for this field as well. So it's really thinking about – student behaviour is not the problem of the student, it's actually a challenge for the teacher to say ‘what can I do to get the best out of the student in this particular class?'.

RV: And Julie as I was actually reading the report, I was thinking that perhaps there were some educators who would read the report and think the recommendations sound wonderful and think that they would also make a significant difference. But I was wondering who is responsible for actually initiating the action. Is it something that individual teachers should be doing or is it something that should come from school leadership?

JS: I think it's a mix of both. So I think there is a lot that individual teachers can do in their own class, which is great – that means there's a lot that is within the teacher's control. So there is a lot now that's really clear in terms of the evidence on what works. I'd encourage teachers to be reading up on it and also instigating their own opportunities for observation and feedback and opportunities to receive coaching in their professional development time.

But ultimately, for this to happen on a broader scale, the responsibility rests with the school principal. The school principal really is the one person who has the … responsibility to actually set up the processes and structures within the school to actually ensure that teachers have the time during their day, and the headspace, to actually focus on these skills and adapt and improve them.

I'd encourage all teachers, if these things aren't happening in your schools, to open up the conversation with the school leader because ultimately the buck rests with them.

RV: Fantastic. Well Julie Sonnemann, thank you for sharing your work with the Research Files.

JS: Great, thank you so much for the opportunity.

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Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., and Griffiths, K. (2017). Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning. Grattan Institute.

The report recommends all teachers are provided regular opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues and to give and receive feedback. How often does this happen in your school? How could you arrange to do this on a more regular basis?

In this podcast episode, Julie Sonnemman talks about possible triggers for student disengagement. How could you monitor what’s happening in your own class (including your own reactions and responses to students) to identify patterns and triggers?