An exploration of pre-service and experienced teachers' explanations of the causes of disengaged student behaviour

Year: 2012

Author: Johnson, Brice, Sullivan, Anna, Owens, Larry, Conway, Bob

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



Historically, pre-service teacher education programs have been based on progressive education principles that acknowledge the important roles teachers have in challenging and engaging students intellectually, involving them in meaningful learning activities, and in stimulating their creativity. It is not surprising, then, that final year pre-service and very early career teachers generally espouse positive, hopeful, and optimistic beliefs about their capacity and willingness 'to make a difference' to the lives of the children they teach (Ewing & Smith, 2003; Abbott-Chapman, 2005). Their humaneness, idealism, energy and commitment set them aside from many of their more experienced, more pragmatic, and 'battle-hardened' teaching colleagues. This paper will explore the 'idealism-pragmatism clash' between experienced and pre-service teachers' explanations of students' disengaged and anti-social behaviour.


The paper will provide the context for a large scale web based survey of the views of teachers (n=1,600) and Year 3-4 pre-service teachers (n=410) about student behaviour in South Australian schools. Rather than report on all aspects of the study, the paper will focus on the important issue of teacher attributions about the reasons students disengage from academic tasks and classroom activities, display anti-social behaviours, and, on rare occasions, become aggressive and destructive.


Data will be presented which show that pre-service teachers' explanations tend to focus on curriculum and teacher factors while experienced teachers' explanations more frequently cite student-level and family factors.


It will be concluded that teacher attributions matter as they influence the extent to which teachers accept responsibility for key curriculum, pedagogical, and classroom management issues in schools. The implications for early career teachers and school leaders, in particular, will be discussed.


Abbott-Chapman, J. (2005). Let's keep our beginning teachers! Principal Matters, (Summer), 2-4.

Ewing, R. A. & Smith, D. L. (2003). Retaining quality beginning teachers in the profession.  English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 2 (1), 15-32.