Drawing on the highly successful Teachers for a Fair Go collaborative research project, Geoff Munns discusses the types of high interest, high challenge practices that teachers can plan for to really engage their students. We at this university are convinced that such personalised approaches to learning are fundamental to the practices of successful 21st century schools.
Few would argue that teachers can make a difference for students. For those students in low SES communities, having a great teacher can be even more critical for success at school in social and academic outcomes. Teachers For a Fair Go (Fair Go Project) is a UWS School of Education research project that is co-researching with 30 “exemplary teachers of students in poverty” the personal and professional qualities that can improve the educational and life circumstances of their students and so positively contribute to their community’s well-being.
The project is funded by an ARC Linkages grant with NSW DET’s Priority Schools Programs as the industry partner. Teachers in the project come from a wide variety of Australian schools from urban and rural contexts and across all stages of schooling (pre-school to Year 12): Lakemba, Macquarie Fields, Mt Druitt, Granville, Airds, Belmore, Fairfield, Canley Vale, Cambridge Park, Blairmount, Busby, Fairfield West, Lansvale, Coffs Harbour, Mungindi, Coonamble, Bogabilla, Brewarrina, Portland, Taree, Bombala. Four of the teachers are Indigenous.
Let me introduce you to two of these teachers. Dan and Chantal teach in urban schools located in low SES communities. Dan is a new career teacher, in his third year of teaching. By contrast, Chantal is a teaching Principal who has taught for 20 years. There are marked differences in their approaches to teaching, but much in common at the heart of what engages their students.
Dan (Year 6)
Dan teaches in a large inner suburban primary school (800 students) in Sydney, Australia. The student cohort represents over 40 cultural-linguistic groups, with the majority being Muslim and Arabic-speaking Australians. Almost 100 % of the students come from multilingual backgrounds (Language Backgrounds Other Than English). The school is a very supportive learning community, with a stated purpose “to strive for excellence and equity”. Importantly for a teacher like Dan, the school’s leadership encourages him to take risks and be innovative in his pedagogy, within a context of strong support, professional dialogue and high expectations.
Dan’s classroom is characterised by active, constructivist and negotiated learning. All students, regardless of academic level are constantly involved with big ideas, important themes and high intellectual quality.
Students perceive learning as fun due to Dan’s capacity to initiate activities using surprise, unexpected props or actions. Learning experiences are authentic and regularly extended outside the classroom and connected with the local community. He sustains a sense of excitement in learning by involving students in problem-solving and guiding them with questions that develop ownership, respect and autonomy. Dan’s pedagogy has changed students’ attitudes. They now realise that they can be accountable for learning. Individual contribution, effort and risk-taking are valued. Planning, process and engaging messages are features of Dan’s teaching. Quality teaching is the focus over behaviour.
Analysis of Dan’s pedagogy after classroom observations revealed the following features that the research believes work towards high levels of student engagement:
• There is a high rotation of challenging, rich tasks. The pedagogy features hard work for both the students and their teacher. There are no back-outs or compromises and the pedagogy needs perseverance for all involved.
• Students are critical learners, continually being asked to think and solve authentic, hands-on challenges for themselves with the teacher as co-learner.
• The classroom is a multi-modal environment: students are skilled users of technology and expected to be able to use it autonomously.
• Students make decisions. Dan sees them “as guardians of knowledge”. All learners are included in the design of the task.
• Minor discipline issues are handled dispassionately and explicitly. Discipline issues are regarded as “works in progress … these kids are a great project”.
• Strong teaching and learning attention are provided for lower level students. In other situations, such students might have received a nagging, behaviour focus rather than a teacher who shares their thinking, assists them as a co-learner and expects success with differentiated tasks and assessment.
• Very few students get punished during any day and no-one influences the planned pedagogy. Dan believes he can “control” the students but chooses rather to share the pedagogical spaces.
• The pedagogy works towards high ideals of learning and this is maintained without worrying about what others might think. Dan is true to his own pedagogical beliefs and tries not to falter in these.
Intensive and sustained classroom observations in this classroom revealed that a potentially challenging group of students showed strong involvement with and acceptance of their learning experiences. As the students put it:
We do learning and it’s fun at the same time … exciting … experiments and projects … Fun, exciting…the teacher helps us with the hard work. In other classes we just wrote stuff from the board and learnt nothing … In this class you can imagine.
Chantal (Teaching Principal)
Chantal is Principal of a small primary school (180 students) in an inner suburban community in Sydney. Not dissimilar to Dan’s school, it has a large population of students living in multilingual families (80%), and Arabic is the largest language group. When Chantal was appointed to the school as Principal (2006) it had fewer students and she was both a teacher and a Principal. This was a deliberate choice, as she wanted to be both a teacher and a leader. The school has since grown to the point where she no longer needs to teach, but maintains active teaching roles in the school. As a teaching Principal Chantal continued her recognition of the importance of high expectations and the need to increase student participation in learning rather than accepting student passivity.
For our research we observed Chantal teaching a number of different primary-aged groups (approximately 9 to 12 year old students). As mentioned above, Chantal has a different approach to teaching than Dan. She has an explicit approach and is more strongly foregrounded in classrooms, while still allowing students’ choices in the design of activities. Her teaching encourages students to be active and reflective in their learning. Continual reflections refocus tasks, processes and learning quality. Cooperative learning is frequently employed to cater for the needs and abilities of multi-staged, academically mixed and culturally diverse groups of students. Students perceive learning as fun and exciting due to Chantal’s capacity for humour and her ability to focus on conversations about learning, higher order thinking and challenging work. Learning experiences are invariably authentic and problem-based, promoting responsibility and shared decision making about the school. Empathy, respect and ownership are encouraged.
As with Dan, Chantal values quality pedagogy over behaviour, though does keep a tighter “Principal’s rein” over her students. Chantal’s commitment is obvious and infectious. “My whole belief, my philosophy, my passion is out there – it’s on my sleeve.”
Following is an analysis of the key elements of Chantal’s engaging pedagogies:
• There is an overarching focus on meta-cognition and the use of technical language.
• All classroom work is challenging with continual reflections about learning refocusing the task, processes and learning.
• Risk-taking and self-regulation are encouraged throughout. Feedback targets risk-taking and autonomy. There are frequent opportunities for students to be decision-makers.
• A consistent use of narrative links learning activities and builds relationships.
• Discourse is consistently conversational, often personalised and related to Chantal’s and the students’ worlds.
• Students remain very industrious and receptive for the most part of each lesson – there are strong signs of engagement throughout all lessons. Students are expected to “get into it” and do so.
• Lessons move on and students are expected students to be “on the game” – to remain focused and follow the learning processes.
• There is a calm but firm focus characterised by humour and positivity, but always on learning. Distracted students are quickly brought back to task without emotion. Students not on task are not appreciated and they know it. This brings an unhurried, learning focused environment with time to think.
The Teachers For a Fair Go Project realizes there are many different ways towards student engagement, and these are invariably linked with contextual issues, student responses and teacher-preferred style. So while Chantal’s classrooms look, feel and sound different to Dan’s, her pedagogy resonates strongly with the FGP student engagement framework. There are high cognitive, high affective and high operative learning experiences for all learners and her students are actively involved in reflective and supportive learning communities. As with Dan, her students understand and appreciate what she is doing for them:
She helps us imagine, use stories, ask questions, mix up words, read between the lines to get meaning … When explaining and we work, she asks us to wait, absorb, wait so that we understand … She makes us feel confident and happy by walking around, smiling when we are doing something hard … She is always positive … She talks about learning a lot, tells us some of her tricks, tells funny stories, uses humour … She gives reasons for changing behaviour, uses a polite, calm voice, then they understand … She talks about learning and being a safe, respectful learner.
These two snapshots of classrooms are offered as exemplars for engaging teaching within the framing of the Fair Go Project (Fair Go Team, 2006; Munns, 2007). Of course this is not to suggest that these are the only pedagogical ways that students can become engaged. However, they do offer a picture of classrooms where there is a strong suggestion that the teachers’ approaches to learning have encouraged student engagement.
References: Fair Go Team (2006) School Is For Me: Pathways to Student Engagement. Sydney, Priority Schools Funding Program, NSW Department of Education and Training. Munns, G. (2007). “A sense of wonder: Student engagement in low SES school communities”. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 11: 301-15.
[Note this has post been taken from a longer article Munns, G. (2010, in press) Thinking the unthinkable: Teachers who engage students in poverty, in Portelli, J. & McMahon, B. (Eds), Student Engagement in Urban Schools: Beyond Neoliberal Discourses. North Carolina: Information Age Publishers.]
Geoff Munns is a research leader in the Teachers for a Fair Go project at the University of Western Sydney Australia. He is highly experienced in, and committed to, devepoping pedagogies that produce equitable outcomes for young people from indigenous and low socio-economic status backgrounds. He is also very affirming of the concept of teachers-as-researchers.