Ghosts in the classroom: insights into passive disengagement in the middle years

By Karlie Ross

Students who passively disengage from classroom learning usually go unnoticed by their teachers. However, they can be identified and helped. Specifically, students’ own perspectives on what is going on in their classrooms can help us understand what issues might be contributing to their disengagement.

In Australia, research efforts, policy, and school initiatives have attempted to understand and manage the issue of student disengagement, but these have been largely focused on the more visible signs of disengagement like low school attendance, poor academic grades and behavioural issues in the classroom.

Instead, I was more interested in learning about the students who sit in class pretending to look focused and engaged but are really disconnected from the teaching and learning going on around them. Unlike students who might talk and disrupt the class, these students disengage passively which makes their version of disengagement more hidden from classroom teachers, like a ghost in the classroom. Importantly, though, if these passively disengaged students do not have their disengagement identified and managed by their school, they will experience the same detrimental effects as the students who are more actively disengaged.

Some of the serious and lasting implications associated with student disengagement include early school dropout, lower levels of self-esteem and lower overall health and wealth.

Passive disengagement given lower priority

Let me frame the issue for you. It’s English class and James is sitting to the side of the classroom. Instead of completing his worksheet, James is talking to his friend about upcoming lunchtime. We describe James as being ‘actively disengaged’ signified by off-topic talking. Over the other side of the classroom is Brooke. She is also off-topic but she is more discreet, counting down the time by staring at the clock. We describe Brooke as being ‘passively disengaged’.

Typically, James’s disengagement is given higher priority because it is somewhat disruptive and more easily seen by classroom teachers. In contrast, Brooke’s passive version of disengagement is given a lower priority or might go unnoticed entirely. So her disengagement is typically left unidentified and unmanaged.

I describe passively disengaged students as marginalised in their classrooms because their version of disengagement is either not seen or not believed to be as important as the more active versions.

My research aims to understand the more passive versions of disengagement – the Brookes of the classroom.

The main barrier to my research problem was that Brooke, and students like her, are essentially ghosts in the classroom.  So I faced a significant issue in trying to identify the students who were passively disengaged in their classes. Therefore, my research was also about designing a new way to identify potential classroom ghosts, as well as to understand more about their experiences of passive disengagement.

My Research

I designed a visual method called the School Engagement Photo Technique (SEPT) to help me identify the classroom ghosts.

During 2018, I held a focus group with Year 9 students from an independent school in Queensland to help me generate initial understandings of passive disengagement and these insights informed the design of the SEPT.

The SEPT is a context-specific and educational version of a Thematic Apperception Test which is a test designed to increase insight into individuals and their behaviours. This test uses a photo-elicitation technique: put simply, the technique uses photos to uncover thoughts and experiences. In the SEPT, I used a set of nine ambiguous images which each illustrate a specific classroom scenario (these scenarios were generated from the Year 9 focus group). One image, for example, is the typical classroom scenario of a student appearing to stare at a classroom clock and the teacher is in the frame, appearing to be talking.

With these nine images, the SEPT activity invited students to rank the images according to how often they might experience the scenario and to annotate some images to show their interpretation of the scenario. Twenty-five students from Year 8 within the same school participated in this activity.

The SEPT helped me identify students who were frequently passively disengaging. For example, Brooke (pseudonym) ranked the image that had a student staring at a clock with the teacher also in the frame, as ‘most often’ experienced, describing the scenario as

“I always look at the time to know when I can have a break…especially when I’m bored…Some teachers talk way too long and I just get overwhelmed with information” (SEPT Excerpt, 2018).

Brooke’s ranking and annotation were analysed by examining word patterns and themes such as her use of ‘bored’. I invited students like Brooke into individual interviews to learn more about her classroom experiences of passive disengagement and what might be contributing to it.

This process meant that the study had three phases to help me confirm the important ideas put forward by students about their classroom experiences. These phases were:

  • focus group,
  • SEPT activity, and
  • individual interviews .

My research helped me develop a visual method (SEPT) to understand and help identify passive disengagement. I believe this is a contribution to methodology in educational research. Particularly, it can be a way forward for investigating passive disengagement – with students and with teachers.

My findings

Disengagement is complex. I found that a student’s entire ecology, that is everything that is happening in their lives at that time, contributes to their experiences of classroom passive disengagement. I also and found that their disengagement is fluid, meaning student disengagement changes, depending on classroom issues such as teacher-student relationships and teaching methods, as well as personal issues like mood and physical development (tiredness, hunger and so on). Outside factors such family and peers will also affect a student’s engagement at school.

I believe this ecological perspective of the issue shows that disengagement is not just something that students alone are responsible for. Teachers and schools – a student’s educational environment – have important responsibilities for addressing and managing the issue.

Student insights from my study indicated that students’ relationship with their teachers is vitally important. This is consistent with previous research such as the study by psychologist and Director of the Center for Reality Therapy, Bob Wubbolding, who found that, “the higher the quality of student-teacher relationship, the higher the level of students’ interest in learning”. A student’s perception of that relationship is fundamental because, as this study found, students view their teacher as either policing or supporting their learning.

Insights from the students in my study also suggested that pedagogy was a key issue in (dis)engaging students. So, teachers who practice pedagogies that I call Connective, Participatory, and Differentiated that are founded on connections with students will have fewer disengaged students.

Pedagogies that engage students

Connective pedagogies are those that emotionally (and therefore affectively) connect students with their learning: it is characterised by teachers showing relevance of topics and creating meaningful learning experiences.

Participatory pedagogies are those that invite interaction (and therefore behaviourally engage) in the classroom and ensure that teachers share their active role with students. Key to this category is that teachers avoid large segments of ‘teacher talk’ as this is contributing to language overload and manifests as students zoning out and shutting down.

Differentiated pedagogies are those which individualise learning for each student and encourages teachers to know when to scaffold for some students and when to extend other, thereby supporting cognitive engagement.

Relationships are key to these pedagogies. It is important for teachers to know and connect with their students, to show they care.

The issue of Teacher talk

I think the most interesting finding from my study was the issue of ‘teacher talk’. This concept was the most frequently used and stressed above any other by the students. Analysis of student insights on this issue suggests that large segments of teacher talk contribute to language overload and therefore comprehension issues. 

Teacher talk forces students to assume passive classroom roles in which they must ‘sit and listen’. Students expressed that ‘teacher talk’ was a justice issue, describing that it is not “fair” that they must listen (and process) so much information, sometimes for an entire lesson. One student described the issue this way: “…trying to find all of that information…yeah, I just go ‘this is too much for me’ and get rid of it.” This insight shows that, amid lengthy teacher lectures, this student knows that there is correct information to locate (“find”) but the responsibility is “too much for me” and dumps the information, reverting to passive disengagement. Clearly, ‘teacher talk’ is an important issue for teachers to consider.

I developed this infographic to show my findings and believe it might be useful to teachers and schools involved with teaching the middle years.

I hope my study will help middle years educators connect, invite participation, and differentiate for their students.

Karlie Ross is, first and foremost, a middle years classroom teacher. Karlie started her Master of Philosophy study in 2017 after recognising that some students in her own classrooms were trying to hide their disengagement. The findings from this study have motivated Karlie to undertake PhD research in this area as she is passionate about helping teachers understand more about student disengagement, particularly the more ghostly versions. Karlie is a member of the School Engagement, Behaviour and Learning group at QUT and can be followed on Twitter @karlielross

Karlie Ross will be presenting on Ghost Learners: using student voice to gain insider perspectives on passive disengagement at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5Th Dec. Check out the full program here #AARE2019

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2 thoughts on “Ghosts in the classroom: insights into passive disengagement in the middle years

  1. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    This is a very worthwhile quick read for every teacher! So many ghosts in our classrooms! What brilliant research!

  2. Ruth Smith says:

    This is really informative and useful – I’ve shared it with the teachers at my school. Thanks for this research – really necessary!

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