What to do with disengaged students

Type “student engagement” into your search engine and the results might give you the impression that it is just another buzzword to add to our teachers’ Buzzwords Bingo game.

But most teachers would agree that the more a student is engaged in their learning the deeper their learning. (And an added bonus of student engagement is improved behaviour!)

'Student engagement' doesn’t have to be swatted away like other buzzwords we encounter. As educators we value student engagement because we believe that learning improves when students are inquisitive, passionate, optimistic or inspired (and learning suffers if students are bored or disengaged).

But if deeper engagement leads to deeper learning (and better-behaved students) how exactly do we facilitate this depth of engagement?

Michael Fullan writes, “Any learning solution that could achieve deep learning would need to be irresistibly engaging for both students and teachers… and it would be steeped in real-life problem solving” (‘New Pedagogies for Learning’, 2013).

There it is. The best way to ensure deep learning is to make the learning ‘irresistibly engaging’. And the best the way to do that is to revolve the learning around a real-life problem that students are intrinsically motivated to want to solve.

Allowing students to identify a real-life problem, one that their teacher will actually let them solve themselves, gives students a greater sense of ownership of their learning. Studies have shown that when learning is linked to a real-world problem the effect on students’ engagement is profound (Delisle, 1997). Robert Marzano’s synthesis of research reveals that problem-solving has a large effect on learning (d = 0.54). Hattie found a similar effect size (d = 0.61).

However, this success is contingent on teachers and/or their students being able to write a clear Problem Statement and an inspiring Driving Question – which in turn will drive an “irresistibly engaging” experience.

Yet many a teacher has expressed that this is the most difficult part of Project Based Learning, STEM projects and Design Thinking. 

To make it easier for busy teachers to engage their students in this kind of learning I have designed strategies, tools and resources to help teachers readily apply and explicitly teach these ‘problem-finding’ and problem-solving skills. 

I'll be sharing some of these at workshops at the iOnTheFuture Conference on the Tween Coast on 25th August: mindswideopen.com.au/sds/iotf5
and at other venues around the state on other dates: dt-pl.education/workshops

But, in the meantime, if you prefer to design your own classroom learning experiences that are “steeped in real-life problem solving” and “irresistibly engaging” here is a pedagogic ‘checklist’ to help you plan for that. In the attached infographic I have identified and described the nine conditions required for deep engagement and deep learning to occur. (Notice the evidence-base but the absence of buzzwords.)

James Phelps


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