NQT Special: Avoiding pupil disengagement

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What does pupil ‘disengagement’ really mean? And what teaching behaviours do we need to avoid to prevent this in our classrooms? As part of SecEd's autumn 2019 NQT special edition, Joel Wirth offers some teaching ideas

To the gathered 13-year-olds, the PowerPoint slide was baffling. There were two pictures, a set of instructions, a text box containing key terminology, another with four suggested sentence starters and, naturally, success criteria – the old All, Most, Some – in three different colours.

The task? A piece of empathic writing based on the experiences of slum children, written from the point of view of a child born and raised on a Brazilian rubbish dump.

Up to this point, the lesson had rollicked along at a reasonable lick. Students had watched a moving video made by a charity which worked with such youngsters, showing the children leaving the dump to experience a day in school and, more affecting still, visiting the beach and stepping into the ocean for the first time.

While some of the class had essayed the kind of studied, nonchalant disregard which some year 9s see as the staple currency of cool, many had been genuinely touched: one asked whether they could do a bake sale to raise funds and there were assenting murmurings around the room. A state of almost zen-like empathy had been achieved...

Only to be undone by the insane contortions which that writing task demanded of them.

Ten minutes later, I walked the room. Some had made a game stab at doing something with the sentence starters (the use of which only the bravest ever eschew). Most had written a concerningly small amount. All had seen whatever fellow-feeling they had previously held mangled in passage through the Heath-Robinson-esque “empathy” machine which the task represented. In short, the members of the class had become disengaged.

“Disengaged” is a term we have bandied about for years without ever really deciding what it means. We know it when we see it and we spend hours discussing what we might do about it. Leaders of teaching and learning the country over run training days and a panoply of expensive external speakers descend upon the hall to explain to the staff exactly what ought to be happening.

But it seems that we never really get anywhere near the truth about disengagement and what behaviours teachers need to change in order to bring about its demise. Culled from a quarter century of teaching and lesson observation, here are a few ideas.

Put the ‘up’ in ‘pupil’

If you want to see disengagement, choose a middle-ability, disadvantaged boy from your key stage 3 cohort and track him for the day. Look at his teachers, his lessons, in his books. Count the number of occasions on which he is compelled to engage in public address (answering a question, etc). Count the number of questions he is asked. Count how many are closed. Spot when he drifts off (if you have not yourself already). Identify the number of times he is asked to think hard.

Put yourself in his shoes and develop your own informal scoring system for lessons (Challenging, Interesting, Alright, Boring): I can almost guarantee you will score most at the bottom end. Now, imagine you are that pupil arriving home at the end of the day: how would you respond if your parent asked you, “how was school today?”

Thirteen-year-olds are our customers. We should be experts in “13” (we see at least 30 of them every year and were even one ourselves, once). But we manage to serve them the thinnest of gruel as if we have forgotten what sustenance we required when we were that age.

I will contend that learning needs to be engaging before it is anything. That is very different from “fun”, although there is a place for that too.

It is not good enough to be going-through-the-next-eight-slides-on-the-scheme-of-work. It is not enough to be doing something because we are under the impression that SLT-expect-us-to-have-something-written-every-lesson. It is a dereliction of our professional duty if we clobber the love of learning – the natural inquisitiveness of every learner – out of our classes because we-have-got-to-cover-the-syllabus.

You are an expert. You know why it is worth loving history, why RE is crucial, why you have given your professional life to teaching science. Whatever state that passion is in, dust it down and try to make the pupils catch it like a cold. It does not mean extra planning or death by hands-on-learning (please). It is in the words you use and the things you ask students to do in pursuit of learning.

Enthuse about things. Never give them anything you are not prepared to do yourself. Never make them do anything unless you have got a response ready to the smart Alecs who would ask: “What we doing this for?” (and your response cannot be “it is in the syllabus” or “you need it for your assessment”).

If you cannot answer for the point of your lesson, do not expect pupils to engage with it.

In terms of the lesson above, had the teacher confronted the “what’s the point?” question, they could not have answered “to develop empathy” – that had already been done effectively when watching the video. “Practise your creative writing” is a panacea no pupil will swallow. “Show you’ve understood today’s lesson” is similarly meagre. I suspect the honest answer would have been some less-than-ideal combination of “scheme of work says so”, “SLT work scrutiny”, “show (apparent) progress”.

Go high, not low

We excuse some disengagement because “they find this topic really hard”. That is a lie. I have never seen students disengage because something is too hard. I have never seen a lesson fall apart because we asked pupils to think hard. We all know this.

How many times have you told year 7 that you are going to be doing GCSE-level work with them and watched them sit up that bit straighter and rise to the challenge?

You can present year 7 RE students with “Is there such a thing as evil?” and watch them explore that through debate for a good 45 minutes even though the entire history of human thought has no answer to the question. There is no unteachable content, there is only content that has been haphazardly taught.

Back in our lesson, the kids have been forced to go “low”. As is the case in too many lessons, the teacher has misinterpreted “support” as “do the students’ thinking for them”. Sentence starters tell students what to think. Success criteria do the same. Encouraging the use of key words (there is merit in this if judicially used) then tells them in what language to couch the thought you have told them to think. Are we surprised when they switch off?

Righting writing

Writing is the biggest cause of disengagement. Students will switch off if what they have been asked to write is any one of inauthentic, purposeless, unfocused or over-bearing – and I assure you that that encompasses at least 80 per cent of what we ask them to write.

Asking them to write down anything which might be (more) successfully accomplished through focused talk (paired, group or whole class) or private thought is toxic because students know that it is a means of control and not of learning.

They will do these tasks but rarely well. As a good measure, ask yourself whether the written task you have set will give them the opportunity to do the best piece of writing they have ever done. If it does not, why bother?

The writing task from the lesson above crossed all the boxes. In its totality, it was over-bearing; what was meant to guide and support actually presented students with multiple opportunities to “get it wrong” (wrong if you were thinking of starting your sentence any other way, wrong choice of vocabulary, wrong if you do not meet these criteria).

In addition, by enforcing a first-person narrative and compelling the use of some quite advanced key terminology, the teacher ensured the inauthenticity of the piece. Naturally, teenagers raised in first-world comfort wrote about how “sad” the child on the rubbish dump was; how “horrible” their life was; how “miserable” they were. This despite having watched the smiling faces and simple joys that very young will discover even in such surroundings.

The task promoted an easy and patronising sympathy where empathy had been within their grasp. And watching the students trying to crowbar in those key words – “poverty”, “settlement”, “overcrowded” – while maintaining the narrative voice of an unschooled six-year-old...

It was unfocused because there was no end to it – in time or intent. The teacher actually said “Right, we will do this for the last 20 minutes and carry on next lesson...” At the foot of such a sheer rock face of endless, inauthentic scribing, how could a student do anything other than throw down their mental crampons?

In my own classroom, students do not even take out a pen until we are ready to write. I know they are ready to write because they will be chomping at the bit to get on with it. They will have discussed and explored, considered alternatives and as writers made decisions that only writers – not teachers – can make.

As a school/department, we will have identified what effective writing looks like in history/design technology/drama. We will have discussed how they might achieve that brilliant writing through this task and they will have come up with some options (the advantages of a first/third person narrator, etc).

What they produce will be their own. Not their response to tasks which have been micro-managed and from which they have been excluded as agents.


Engage them: What makes this task worthwhile? How might a 13-year-old see this? How might it fit into (or challenge) their emerging world-view? What big question does this learning answer (or ask), even if they have not thought about that question yet? Root the learning in them and not vice-versa. Speak passionately about what you do and of the power of what you are learning. Let them ask questions before you start. If you are just a talking textbook, expect to gather dust.

Never patronise them: Do not steal their struggle. Make it challenging. Celebrate the challenge. Allow them to make suggestions, take decisions and weigh options. They will get some wrong: brilliant – there is real learning in those wrong choices.

Sort out your writing: Make it authentic. Make it vibrant and real. Make it challenging. Detoxify your classroom by taking the pledge never again to do writing that does not need to be done. 

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2FERRgR

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was featured as part of SecEd’s 10-page NQT Special Edition, published as part of our June edition. To download a free pdf of all 10 pages, which offer advice for new teachers across a range of topics including behaviour, classroom practice, wellbeing and more, go to the SecEd Knowledge Bank: www.sec-ed.co.uk/knowledge-bank/nqt-and-trainee-teachers-advice-and-best-practice/


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