Produced by the Grattan Institute and co-authored by Peter Goss, Kate Griffiths and Julie Sonnemann, Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning suggests widespread disengagement is plaguing Australian schools and details worrying cases of ‘ghost’ students slipping through the cracks.

It argues that 40 per cent of Australian students are disengaged in class and are lagging up to two years behind their peers as a consequence.

But leading academics and policy makers aren’t sold on the report's findings.

Dr David Zyngier from Monash University, whose own studies have been “seminal” in shaping the research on student engagement, has criticised many of its claims, raising questions about its validity.



“…the Grattan Institute have ignored some of the most important research in this area, and I have actually pointed this out to Peter Goss,” Zyngier tells EducationHQ.

The senior lecturer says the document is “very selective in its summaries” and makes sweeping statements based on a small sample of students.

“It reports on other people’s research, it’s not research itself … it makes what I think are unreliable and unviable extensions from previous research, from a 2009 study that looks at 1300 students and says ‘well, 40 per cent of those said they were unproductive so that means that applies to all of Australia’.

“We just cannot do that as clinical researchers. We know there are always limitations of our research and we tend to under-report and underestimate [rather] than overclaim.”

AITSL’s Professor John Hattie says the report totally misses the mark.

“The Grattan report is focussed on the wrong issues. Rather than make claims about non-engaged students we should be asking why so many teachers and schools are so successful in engaging students in learning.”

Pointing the finger at teachers is the wrong way to go about addressing the issue of student disengagement, Hattie notes.

“I challenge any non-teacher to take 25-30 students and engage them in learning for up to five hours a day. Teachers are very good at this – yes, there are some difficult students, some non-engaged, but we need to admire the skills in our schools.”

Hattie adds that ‘engagement' in learning does not equate to simply quiet attentiveness in the classroom, as the research implies.

“There is an implicit claim that all we need is compliance and order when much learning is abuzz, [this] requires debate and discussion...”

“The days of silent, compliant, teacher-controlled classes [are] going – hence much of what is in the Grattan report was written for a previous era.”

Edmond Misson, Deputy CEO at AITSL, suggests the report does little to address the reasons why students might be disengaging from learning.

“These figures are good for promoting a discussion, but there’s probably a more complex discussion that we need to have about engagement in our classrooms,” he says.

Echoing Hattie’s opinion, Misson says a focus on the negative (disengagement) rather than the positive (engagement) unfairly suggests educators are simply not doing their job.

“If you take from this report the sweeping statement that our teachers are no good at engaging students, I don’t think that’s the right conclusion, but you can say that ‘we always need to do better’."

Goss, School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute, remains confident that the report holds much worth for the sector.

“We acknowledge that the data about what’s happening on the ground is not nearly as strong as it needs to be to mount a comprehensive assault on the problem….

“However, we didn’t just base this off one report that gave a single number. The South Australian study made it very clear that this is a prevalent issue across all types of schools...”

Goss is convinced that the research unearths a hidden epidemic that calls for a comprehensive reform of our education system.

Crucially, it’s the ‘compliant but disengaged’, rather than the outwardly disruptive or aggressive students, that make up the biggest chunk of those not ‘with it’ in the classroom, he suggests.

Perhaps they crouch in the back row, eyes glazed, brains inconspicuously tuning out.

Shielded by the hum of class activity, their apathy goes unnoticed.

These are precisely the children we need to worry about, Goss says.

“Over the last ten years a number of studies have painted a clear picture that about 40 per cent of Australian school students are regularly disengaged from their learning (and) that media sometimes likes to focus on the students that are aggressive or out of control…” he tells EducationHQ.

“The data that we saw clearly showed that too many teachers are being thrown in the deep end and being told to sink or swim, and that needs to change,” he says.

More public attention needs to hone in on this passive disengagement, which is the most common form of student distraction, according to Goss.

“Students just avoiding work, slowing down.  There’s a term called ‘easy riders’ who just go slowly and the teacher’s expectations of them drop and that feeds on itself.

“I was pretty surprised to see that those students are just as far behind on average in their learning as the students who are acting out, so it’s a really serious problem.”

The report’s list of school-level recommendations include;

  • A school-wide behaviour management plan is not enough; schools should build teacher capabilities to create effective classroom environments
  • Better induction programs for beginning teachers, and ensure they are led by expert mentors
  • Regular opportunities for all teachers to collaborate and give and receive feedback on their practice
  • Provide practical tools to help teachers engage students, such as student response cards

System-level recommendations include:

  • Strengthened university training for trainee teachers, which includes evidence-based techniques for engaging students, as well as placements in challenging classes guided by expert mentors
  • Promote the use of evidence-based theory on classroom environments to schools and teachers
  • Targeted support to low socio-economic schools, where student engagement is lowest
  • Gather better data on why students are disengaged with more nuanced indicators