Engaging disengaged learners

Peter pan

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. 


Literacy rich schools


Last week marked International Literacy Day, celebrating the many organisations and individuals across the world who play a role in helping children and young people to engage in the modern world and explore our rich histories, through literacy.

Last week’s post drew heavily from a book to look at existing ideas about questions in the classroom. This week, I want to set the scene of literacy accords the curriculum, and this link will take you to a good book that goes into far greater depth than I can in this short post: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Q3jsAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=literacy+in.schools+cross+curricular&ots=1eQEa4Mvdq&sig=ofiSZOVpymvPu5LmFzccfCnxYKo#v=onepage&q=literacy%20in.schools%20cross%20curricular&f=false.

In particular the book gives a good introductory overview of how policy and practice has developed in relation to literacy in the classroom, including teacher training, national curriculum content and core literacy standards. 

This week’s post has deliberately less of an academic thrust so examine that resource to your teaching needs in addition to this blog.

For some, the love of reading and the desire to write comes easily. For others the task is harder. Learning to read and write begins a long time before formal schooling. Vocabulary development, having access to a range of texts and understanding the goals of reading are all early building blocks of literacy later in life. In terms of building resilience in children who might experience all kinds of disadvantage (learning disabilities, family instability and poverty amongst other potential factors) that impact their ability to engage in education, literacy is a golden shining key of potential life change towards fostering aspiration and positive outcomes.

It is widely accepted that children have a range of different strengths and learning styles, being able to excel in Science or Music for example, whilst struggling to write legibly. In addition, those who are keen language enthusiasts (as I was at school) enjoy listening to and forming language, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will write or read to the same level (my own handwriting was compared in one report to a spider having fallen into the ink pot and then drunkenly crawling to safety across the page).

Perhaps for some children, experiences of literacy so far in life, whether at school or at home, or both, have been more difficult, perhaps they have not installed a feeling of mastery or success, and it is this feeling of accomplishment and progress, alongside the ability to see the purpose and benefit of literacy that fuels a desire to improve one’s skills. 

I have two stand out memories of literacy in my schooling. One teacher made me read out my homework to the class because she felt it had ‘some sound merit’ in spite of the appalling handwriting. I found this embarrassing and uncomfortable. For a while, I avoided handwriting at all, and when I did I wrote in capitals so as to be clearer, until my RE teacher commented in red pen that I had ‘shouted my way through the essay’. Conversely, my English teacher at A-Level fuelled my love of both writing and reading, taking time to discuss my reflections on the novels we studied and engaging in a dialogue over the written work that went beyond handwriting to consider positioning the reader, forming an argument and poetic description. It was the first time I really considered literacy to be anything other than handwriting.

UNESCO recently released new data that shows that 115 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24, still cannot even read or write a simple sentence (http://www.uis.unesco.org/literacy/Documents/fs32-2015-literacy.pdf). This data indicates an urgent need for international communities to step up to the challenge of ensuring all children have access to education that places literacy at the heart of the curriculum. Whilst South and West Asia and Sub Saharan Africa are the geographical regions with the poorest literacy rates, in the UK, we are faced with a striking and unacceptable gap in attainment for vulnerable children (looked after children (http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0001/4326/Looked_after_children_and_literacy_LP_review_2012.pdf), children from low income families (http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/docs/closing-the-achievement-gap.pdf), children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and children with physical disabilities).

In response to national concern about literacy levels, the term ‘literacy across the curriculum’ is now a well worn phrase used in most schools to describe the joint effort of all teachers within the school to transfer and apply the generic skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening to any/all areas of the curriculum in an effort to show the importance of literacy as a life skill and not just to pass English.

It is excellent practice for schools to have shared literacy marking strategies and to decide specific targets or literacy focus for students across the curriculum. In a small school, individual literacy targets can be shared with every teacher to inform lesson planning and marking. Moderating to ensure shared values and consistent marking across the curriculum via teacher inset sessions is a useful discussion point, not only to avoid disparity of student experiences of feedback but also to ensure teachers are identifying lessons where students excel in their writing and share effective techniques to support across the curriculum. Finally, involving students in the design and review of the literacy curriculum is a a good way to ensure relevance and autonomy.

Regardless of subject, these three aspects are essential to engaging young people in reading and writing opportunities:

  • Purpose (Why is this important to read? Who am I writing it for? Do I care? Does anyone care about what I write?) 
  • Relevance (Does what I read matter to me? Why bother writing this? Will it make a difference? Is it related to my own interests / life? What can I express about myself through my words?)
  • Community (How can I impact or help others by what I write? Can I support others to read or be mentored to read by someone in my community? Can my writing be part of creative enterprise, charity or fundraising?)

The moment a student feels motivated to read and write because they believe there is a purpose beyond getting better at reading and writing itself, literacy skills will begin to develop naturally and quickly. Writing doesn’t have to be essay format of course, lyrics, business plans, CVs, poems, stories, news reports, scientific analysis and film scripts, the list is endless and a vast range of writing opportunities should be woven into all subjects that encourage expression as much as focus on technical accuracy.

Vygotsky’s belief that learning should be a social act is key. Less teacher talk and more student discussion and discovery of their own answers will aid the type of informal language exploration that leads to building confidence in literacy.

Allowing thinking time, pair discussion time and so on leads to more fruitful responses and better articulated responses to questions in oral discussion. The family and community literacy of parents, carers, teachers and other school staff is of course also crucial, creating a nurturing culture of adults who also embrace and share their literacy experiences with the children they support.

More to come on the subject of literacy in future weeks as the federation of schools work with a range of international teachers to design literacy interventions that cross borders!

If you have time, please do share some of the ways in which you or your school supports literacy development. Is there a particular scheme of work that works well? How do you collaborate as a staff team to raise literacy levels? How do you collaborate with families, young people and the wider community in terms of literacy? 

A culture of enquiry


In this first blog post I will discuss the concept of using questioning to create a ‘culture of enquiry’ in the classroom, drawing from Creating Outstanding Classrooms: A Whole school Approach by Knight and Benson (2014).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “education” is derived from the Latin roots, ‘educo‘ and ‘educare’.  Educare means “to bring up”.  Educo, meanwhile means “to lead out or march out”. Together, the dual meaning means to “pull out from within” or “to lead forth”.  In spite of what may seem like an education system that prioritises the learning of facts and acquisition of knowledge (both valuable aspects in themselves), contemporary research suggests that staff wellbeing and student progress is improved within systems that value other purposes of education at least as highly.

In addition to enabling learners to access information and supporting them to understand and remember this information, teachers are part of complex systems that share the task of producing secure, happy, socially competent young people who are capable of becoming good citizens and fulfilling their own personal talents and potential ambitions. From this point of view, the teacher is a facilitator of the child’s own inquiry and journey towards reaching their inner potential. Provided with basic instruction, a safe, positive and stimulating learning environment, children are encouraged to “think” and “draw out” information and apply it to their existing knowledge base.

In Creating Outstanding Classrooms: A Whole school Approach, Knight and Benson describe learning as a two way process, in which the teacher and the learner are both actively involved. Children are not seen as the passive recipients of knowledge, but participants and agents in their own learning.

The authors argue that ‘by creating a culture of enquiry at all levels of school life, it is possible to create independent and resilient learners, whilst allowing them to grapple with powerful knowledge’. One of the fundamental ways in which a school can foster the culture of enquiry is by skilful and considered questioning becoming the norm in pedagogical practice which Knight and Benson suggest is a ‘prerequisite of outstanding teaching’. By ‘skilful and considered questioning’, it is not suggested that merely making it harder for a student to get to the fixed or closed response the teacher is expecting can really be considered open or rich questioning, therefore differentiating by providing less or more support to reach the same conclusion does little to further a student’s desire or ability to learn more.

Geoff Petty suggests that, moving forward with this approach is more than asking ‘ higher level questions’, which don’t necessarily, he argues, lead to higher level answers. Petty identifies a key to immediate improvement in classroom practice and better engaged learners, which is that the teacher is ‘doing less of the work than the students’, or seeming to at least.

Encouraging risk taking and collaboration amongst learners will help to foster a responsibility for learning as well as a sense of ownership and mastery. Knight and Benson argue that assessment for learning strategies like ‘lollipop sticks’ or ‘no hands up’ to answer questions encourages participation and moves away from students only answering the questions they are confident they know the answer to, but take the concept further to suggest ways in which the classroom can take on a culture of questioning. A scheme of work addresses a big, fertile questions, itself full of smaller routes of enquiries, explored themselves in individual lessons. Each lesson is like a thriving city, full of different routes, whilst the city itself is part of a bigger destination, a country, a planet, a solar system. The questioning and thinking expands as the unit develops.

Questioning should, they suggest:

  1. Require students to form constructs, own meaning or interpretations of the material they are studying

2.  Enable the learner AND teacher to collaborate to detect errors or omissions in work and improve the work 

3) Form part of the planning process. Student questions should prompt differentiation and adaptation of lesson planning and be included on lesson plans.

Of course, the book itself goes into greater depth on the subject of questioning and enquiry. The authors also explore the importance of mindsets, and the concept of every teacher as a language teacher and facilitator of reading, both meaty and knotty topics for another discussion. Extracts from the book are available online as an ebook and the book itself is available from amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creating-Outstanding-Classrooms-whole-school-approach/dp/0415831172

To summarise this week’s blog:

Teachers have a responsibility to develop and maintain a safe and nurturing environment, to provide relevant and engaging topics of work, and to facilitate the learning discussion by means of provocative, open ended questions that allow space and time for exploration. These are the ingredients for developing in students a thirst for knowledge and the desire to develop their understanding. From within this culture, students can express knowledge, make informed criticism and ultimately, create knowledge or solutions beyond the teacher’s expectations.

If you have the time, add you thoughts or questions as a comment on this post. What have you done to ensure your classroom is a fertile ‘culture of enquiry’? How do your lessons and lesson planning reflect your use of questioning to expand student participation and provide opportunities for student questions to lead the learning? What outcomes of this approach can you share with others?