When students are engaged in class, they learn more. It is vital that teachers create the right classroom climate for learning: raising student expectations; developing a rapport with students; establishing routines; challenging students to participate and take risks. These all affect how much their students engage and learn.
In Australia, many students are consistently disengaged in class: as many as 40 per cent are unproductive in a given year. The main problem is not aggressive and anti-social behaviour. More prevalent and stressful for teachers are minor disruptions, such as students talking back. Nor is it just about noise: nearly one in four students are compliant but quietly disengaged.
We do not know exactly what causes students in Australia to disengage – it could be problems at home, or subject matter that is too hard or too easy, or poor-quality teaching. But we do know disengagement matters. Disengaged students are one to two years behind their peers. Students who are quietly disengaged do just as badly as those acting out, and disruptive behaviour also reduces how much other students learn.
Teachers are calling for more support on classroom strategies. New teachers rate handling difficult student behaviours as their top professional challenge – and most feel under-prepared by their training. Even teachers with years of experience struggle. Nearly one third of all teachers are highly stressed by the challenges of engaging and re-engaging students in class. This can become a downward spiral, where poor teacher responses disrupt the class and lead to more students disengaging.
Overcoming student disengagement is complicated. What is taught and the way it is taught are crucial. But creating a good learning environment in the classroom is necessary too.
This report calls for policy reforms to build teacher capabilities to improve classrooms. It avoids simplistic calls for ‘old-fashioned discipline’, but it also acknowledges that compelling content is not enough on its own. Teachers must first know what strategies and approaches work best in the classroom. This means Australia’s initial teacher education courses need to focus more on evidence-based techniques.
Teachers then need to learn how to create the right learning climate, and how to respond well in the heat of the moment.
School leaders must go beyond creating a school-wide behaviour plan. They must also provide practical support for teachers, with opportunities for collaboration, observation and feedback, which are especially important for developing these nuanced classroom skills. And governments should direct more support to disadvantaged schools where student engagement is weakest.
Implementing these recommendations will help create a better learning environment in every Australian classroom, so that every child can reach their learning potential.