Insights from dis/engaged students in junior high school

Year: 2018

Author: Graham, Linda, Gillett-Swan, Jenna

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Survey methodology is commonly used to investigate associations between school climate and student dis/engagement. Such approaches can provide important insights into the relative salience and impact of both school and student-related factors. Surveys, however, are vulnerable to self-selection bias and this is particularly relevant to research investigating student dis/engagement. Disengaged students can be hard to reach and often form a small sub-set of a much larger population. Their survey responses may lower mean scores but their voices are often drowned out by the majority, if captured at all. The result is research that makes recommendations for education policy and school practice based on the perspectives of students for whom school already works. Generally, these are not the students who need to be engaged and from whom we can learn about how to create more inclusive schools.
This research aimed to inform education policy and school practice during a period in which schools are under pressure to perform in national standardised assessments and where there are perverse incentives for principals to exclude disengaged and disruptive students (Harris, Carrington & Ainscow, 2017). A mixed-methods sequential phase design was used to investigate student dis/engagement in two government secondary schools serving disadvantaged communities in Queensland, Australia. Phase one surveyed 804 students in Grades 7-10 across the two schools. The survey included questions on school liking, behaviour, suspensions, exclusions and teacher-student relationships, in addition to the Connectedness to Teachers Measure (Waters & Cross, 2010) and the School Connection Measure (Brown, 1999). Phase two involved in-depth semi-structured interviews with a “brains trust” comprising 38 students with a history of severely disruptive behaviour.
No differences were found between schools in terms of student characteristics but significant differences were found between grades and between students who said they did/did not like school. In this presentation, we unpack the reasons students gave for disliking school to identify which structural and cultural aspects of schooling they find alienating and which are amenable to change. Our findings have implications for the ways disengagement is understood. Rather than boredom, participants spoke of barriers to engagement created by teacher assumptions, inconsistency between classrooms, and the inadequacy of learning support. Most importantly, we asked students about the classes and subjects in which they do engage and why. We will discuss the implications their insights have for education policy, teaching practice and for the practice of researching dis/engagement.