This year, a Grattan Institute study revealed that 40 per cent of Australian students are passively disengaged from school.  

The study suggests that disengagement could be a result of students being uninterested in the curriculum, unhappy at home or in the schoolyard, or because of poor quality teaching.

Whatever the cause, disengagement is problematic; not only can it result in work avoidance, talking out of turn, or using mobile phones, in extreme cases it results in violence in the classroom or students leaving school before graduating.

Student engagement is something that teachers often talk about as integral to learning, yet its definition is elusive.

What does student engagement look like? When we know students are engaged, how do we know?

Educational psychologist Jennifer A. Fredricks and Dr. Wendy McColskey distinguish student engagement as follows: engagement is emotional, which refers to a student’s sense of belonging and their relationships with their teachers; engagement is also cognitive, which refers to a student’s psychological investment in their own learning; lastly, engagement is behavioral, which not only includes rule-following and positive behaviour, but an observable willingness to participate in learning experiences and in the school community.

Overcoming student disengagement is a complicated business.

It is not about the teacher being inherently charismatic, using gimmicks, or entertaining their students with tap dancing and smoke machines.

Rather, the importance of student-teacher relationships should be our focus, as good quality relationships will improve students’ emotional experience and sense of belonging.

 Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne says “strong teacher-student relationships are crucial… and teachers who actively build such relationships have a strong effect on the lives of their students.”

Additionally, Project Based Learning (PBL) can engage students cognitively by connecting them to the world outside the classroom, inviting them to investigate authentic problems.

Now a well-established form of hands-on learning, PBL was championed by John Dewey over 100 years ago, and is becoming increasingly popular in the 21st Century.

Contemporary learners need to know more than core subjects, they need to know how to think critically, analyse information, communicate effectively, collaborate and problem solve.

When students have the opportunity to mobilise a project they are interested in, negative behaviors are less likely as students are actively engaged in their learning.

It is unrealistic to expect all students to be engaged all of the time.

However, while one-off classroom observations can clearly reveal either ‘good’ or ‘problematic’ behavior, engagement as process is less easily observed, for it involves sustained cognitive, emotional and behavioural indicators over time.

When contemplating how to engage students, Professor William Purkey offers invaluable insight: "The decision to learn is in the possession of the learner not the teacher. The teacher can only invite. Success depends on the strength of the invitation.”

When we commit to developing quality relationships and delivering meaningful curriculum with real world content, we invite more learners back into the fold.

By extension, the RSVP should always be open.