Forty per cent of students in Australian schools are disengaged from learning and falling one to two years behind their peers as a result, a report has found.
The report, published by the Grattan Institute, also found that some teachers lack the skills to get disengaged students back on track.
Report author Peter Goss said the reasons for student disengagement were complex.
“It can come because they’ve got problems at home that they’re bringing to school, because the teaching is not interesting, or it’s too hard or too easy,” Dr Goss said.
“Teachers need to have high expectations, build a good relationship, give clarity and structure.
“But also to make sure that all students are actively learning, because if a young brain is not actively involved in thinking about what the teacher wants, then they’ll probably be thinking about something else.”
More teacher training needed
Disengagement is measured by the presence of certain behaviours like being late for class, disrupting other students, and speaking out in an aggressive way.
Dr Goss said the ideal conditions for student engagement do not necessarily have to conform to rigid and old-fashioned ideas about education.
“A good learning environment can be quiet or noisy, but it’s one where all of the students are actually thinking about the problems and wrestling with it,” he said.
“It doesn’t have to be lined up in neat rows, in fact that’s probably not the best learning.”
According to Dr Goss, one of the problems is with teacher training, which does not always give new teachers evidence-based strategies.
“Typically one kid would stick her hand up – I’ll call her Sally – but as soon as Sally stuck her hand up, all the other kids would say, ‘I don’t need to think about this’,” he said.
“A way to get around that is an approach called ‘no hands up’ where the teacher says ‘No Sally, others, you can’t put your hands up. I’m going to call on students randomly’.”
He also argued for more supervised on-the-job training for new teachers.
“What happens behind the classroom door has a huge influence on students, and over time schools have been trying to open that up, Dr Goss said.
“The skills that we’re talking about for setting up a good learning environment, they’re not skills you can learn out of a book.”
NSW Opposition education spokesman Jihad Dib is worried about the findings, but argued there is more to the problem than simply teacher training.
“Not only teacher training and the quality of the curriculum, but we also need to look at the physical conditions in which we’re asking a student to learn.
“We’ve got schools that are overcrowded or falling apart, and that makes it really difficult.
“Consider also the access to technology and the latest that’s available there, there are a lot of schools that just don’t have access to that.”