This week’s blog post examines a paper I wrote called Lost Boys: Re-engaging male students in education using a creative arts intervention. In this post, I provide the main points of the essay as well as introducing the concept of engagement and my own adaptation of the concept, which may be of good use to your own planning and pedagogy.
The title The Lost Boys is derived from the classic book, Peter Pan, in which a tribe of ever youthful boys has been sent to Neverland as a result of ‘falling out’ of their pram when their nurse was not looking. In British education, there is increasingly reported concern, that in the context of disruptive behaviour and a perceived decline in academic standards, a growing number of young people, and in particular, boys, are being ‘lost’ by an education system that struggles to engage these students.
In 1997, Keele University’s research indicated that 40% of year 10 and 11 students belonged to three groups – the ‘disappointed’, the ‘disaffected’ and the ‘disappeared’ (Barber, 1997) and that by the age of 16 up to 40 per cent of boys are ‘lost’ to education (Evans, 1996). In the 1980’s film of the same name, the ‘lost boys’, who are vampires, render anyone who lets them into their homes powerless. Similarly, teachers have reported feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in their attempts to tackle the problem of the ‘lost’ boys of education, resorting to excluding these students from the classroom or school.
Let’s take a closer look at the slippery term ‘engagement’. Although an educational buzzword for some time now, in academia and education research especially, it has some quite specific components that not only detail what is meant by engagement but also what can be done to increase engagement.
In a review of forty four studies on student engagement, Fredricks et al (2004) employed a three dimensional model to classify understandings of engagement as emotional, behavioural and cognitive. The authors argue that engagement can be thought of as a ‘meta’ construct in which multiple components are present. Emotion, behaviour and cognition are presented as three core components and Fredericks et al argue that these factors are dynamically interrelated within each individual child.
Breaking the definition down further, Fredericks et al describe emotional engagement as students’ personal attitudes to learning and relationships with peers, teachers and other staff. Behavioural engagement is seen as the extent to which a student willingly participates in academic, social and extracurricular activities (such as attendance in lessons and after school clubs). The notion of behaviour is therefore extended beyond student behaviour in lessons to their overall level of participation in school life. Reschly and Christenson’s (2006b) model of engagement also identifies a behavioural dimension and suggests that attendance, voluntary participation and suspension could be seen as indicators of behavioural engagement.
Lastly, cognitive engagement is defined by Fredericks et al as the extent to which students personally invest in self regulated, focused learning (such as time taken over homework).
In my masters dissertation also entitled Lost Boys, a twelve week intervention programme in a mainstream context was trialled with boys at risk of exclusion. The project utilised creative arts as a way to increase the students ability to express and challenge their perceptions and experiences of school, with the aim of re-engaging in learning. I was also interested in redefining the construct of engagement so that dynamic flow between aspects of engagement were clear.
Through digital photography (where the boys ‘remastered’ their own portrait, adapting the image to express something of their own personality / experiences), graffiti art, lyric writing, film making and theatre, the students gradually formed a strong working group with good attendance and positive contributions during sessions. The projected attracted positive media attention in the form of a promotion from Sir Ken Robinson, an article from the Guardian and a feature on BBC South today. Students celebrated their work via an exhibition in which they dressed in suits and ties and proudly displayed their art work to the very teachers and parents they had complained misunderstood them or did not expect them to achieve anything. The most obvious successes were not possible to collect as hard data, anecdotally, the glow on the students faces and the pride in being successful in school (in many cases or the first time) in the presence of those adults was priceless.
The project was highly successful both in terms of student self report, teacher perception and actual attendance rates, academic results and behavioural data.
After the intervention, student surveys indicated a change in attitudes and self perception. In comparison to the survey carried out prior to the intervention, it can be seen in the chart below that, in each of the five aspects, students’ average self rating score (out of ten) was higher at the end of the project and, in particular, participants thought they had most improved their behaviour and ability to focus in lessons.
The central tension to the project was how to embed this positive impact in normal timetabled lessons, in spite of bigger class sizes, restricted time and resources.
The students’ needs of competence and relatedness were more adequately fulfilled within the intervention project, whereas (due in part to the restrictions of class sizes, time and resources. Students had identified feeling much more successful and interested in the work during the project and these needs were less likely to be met in normal lessons resulting in a decrease in intrinsic motivation and effort. A mentoring programme was set up where older students who had participate din the project mentored younger students. I also regularly met with students as they gradually integrated back into a normal timetable.
As a current check up, seven of 8 boys are known to have completed college level education and are now either in full-time education or employment. One boy moved house and it is not possible to track his progress. This suggests that the project did have a lasting impact in terms of reframing students own self expectation and commitment to school.
With regards to whether the study can be replicated or repeated I would say that it has greater value when considering the long term benefit of forming secure and healthy attachment relationships with teachers who can inspire a positive perception of school and foster experiences of success, mastery and competence.
Working with adolescents, who are in the process of forming their own personal identity and their first meaningful relationships outside of their immediate family, the emotional / psychological dimension of engagement is fundamental in order for students to engage on a behavioural and cognitive / academic level. Whilst it was also crucial that the content of the intervention was engaging as well as allowing students to explore issues of self identity and expression (this will be explored in further depth in the discussion of data linked specifically to cognitive / academic engagement), the impact that my positive expectations and willingness to engage with students in a relationship had on their performance in school is undeniably important. As Ryan et al noted in 1994:
In virtually every domain of human endeavour there is mounting evidence that a network of supportive relationships facilitates an individual’s motivation, self-reliance and relative achievement (p.226).
As a result of personalising rather than standardising education, engagement can be seen as the result of healthy teacher student relationships and appropriately challenging and relevant content of lessons.
As Robinson (2009, p.248) concludes, ‘learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the
databases of multiple-choice tests.’
To read the study in full, visit: https://www.dropbox.com/
Please comment on this blog post to share your own experiences of drivers of student engagement and tips for others in how to use the concept of engagement in your planning and practice.