Australia’s education system needs comprehensive reform to tackle widespread student disengagement in the classroom. As many as 40 per cent of school students are unproductive in a given year. Unproductive students are on average one to two years behind their peers, and their disengagement also damages their classmates and teachers.
The main problem is not the sort of aggressive or even violent behaviour that attracts media headlines. More prevalent, and more stressful for teachers, are minor disruptions such as students talking back or simply switching off and avoiding work.
What is taught and the way it is taught are crucial in engaging students. But creating a good learning environment in the classroom will also help.
An integrated strategy to address this problem will require new approaches by governments, universities, school principals and teachers.
The government and non-government systems should target more support to schools in poorer parts of Australia, where the problem is most severe.
Universities need to change their courses to give trainee teachers more supervised time in classrooms, so they are better prepared for the challenge of engaging students.
Teachers must be given better information about what strategies work best in the classroom, and they need more time to learn how to use those techniques in the heat of the moment.
Teachers are crying out for more guidance on classroom strategies. As many as 40 per cent of teachers say they have never had the chance to watch colleagues and learn from how they engage students in class. And only about one-third of the practices promoted in textbooks and training courses for new teachers have been shown to work well.
Australian classrooms are not ‘out of control’, but student disengagement is a hidden problem in schools.
When a student switches off, there is the risk of a downward spiral. If the teacher responds badly, more students can become distracted and the momentum of the class can be lost.
Successful reform offers the prospect of a virtuous circle in which students are more engaged, teachers are less stressed, classes become more compelling and students learn more.
Pete Goss and Julie Sonnemann are from the Grattan Institute.