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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Engagement in Australian schools


The article is based on extracts from the report Engagement in Australian schools: A paper prepared by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, © Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, used with permission.

For a long time, policy makers and researchers have focused on the need to deal with disengagement, in forms such as low or erratic attendance at school, negative interactions with peers, and behavioural issues. AITSL is now approaching this issue in a different way. Its new Learning Frontiers project seeks to examine the professional practices that actively promote deep engagement in learning.

Learning Frontiers will be working with ‘design hubs’ (clusters of schools and other organisations) to develop teaching, learning and assessment practices that increase engagement. The design hubs will involve students, parents, business, social enterprises, professional associations and universities, amongst other partners.

The current article looks at what the research has to say about engagement and how to foster it, and introduces the work of the design hubs. Future articles in this series will describe in more detail what Learning Frontiers is doing with schools and other organisations, and will also look at some examples of engaging learning environments.

What is engagement?

Engagement is a poorly defined concept in education. It is clear, however, that engagement is not simply about good classroom behaviour or attendance, but a connection with learning. The student who is quietly sitting at the back of the classroom not participating in discussions or completing their work is as disengaged as a child who is talking with friends or the child who did not show up at school.

Fredericks et al. (2004) propose a framework that distinguishes emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement. Emotional engagement refers to the relationships between students and their teachers, classmates and school. This has also been called 'identification' with school and learning practices (Finn and Zimmer 2012).

Cognitive engagement can be understood as a student's psychological investment in their own learning. When cognitively engaged, students concentrate, focus on achieving goals, are flexible in their work and cope with failure. This is different from high performance: a student who is performing well may still be disengaged if they are coasting and not motivated to exert themselves more than is necessary to get by.

Behavioural engagement refers to students' participation in learning and classroom activities. This includes adhering to behaviour rules, attending lessons as required and arriving at classes on time. Importantly, behavioural engagement refers to the learning behaviours that are significant for high student performance, which may include collaboration and communication with peers. It also covers student participation in other aspects of school life, such as extracurricular activities and school social life.

Behavioural engagement is helpful for cognitive engagement, as it ensures students are physically ready and willing to learn. It is also the aspect of engagement most often measured and reported, largely because it is the easiest to measure: while it is easy to tell if a student is in the classroom, it is harder to know if they are actually working. 

Measuring engagement

Emotional engagement has been measured through surveys that ask students about their attitude to learning and identification with education and school (Fredericks & McColskey 2012). For example, in a study in Logan, Queensland, one in four Year 10 students selected an image of a prison to describe their school; 62 per cent of boys 'not coping' in English did likewise (Connor 2006). The 2003 PISA results include students’ responses to questions regarding their personal feelings about being part of the school community. It found that about 25 per cent of students in OECD countries were considered to have a low sense of belonging, and 20 per cent were regularly absent from school (Willms 2003). 

Currently there are no reliable measures of cognitive engagement in Australian schools. However, some research has looked at behavioural indicators which might suggest cognitive engagement. The Pipeline Project, for example, studied 2000 young people over four years in Western Australia to examine the relationship between behaviour and academic performance (Angus et al. 2012). Teachers completed a behaviour checklist, including a list of productive and unproductive behaviours. In any year, about 60 per cent of students were considered to behave productively, a figure that varied greatly between schools. One in five students was reported to be inattentive.

In Shanghai, efforts have been taken to identify the learning behaviours that contribute to cognitive engagement. For example, classroom participation is classified into active answering (students voluntarily answer questions), passive answering (students answer questions when requested by teachers), and question raising (students voluntarily ask the teacher questions); these different methods of participation correspond to different levels of cognitive engagement with the topic at hand (Huang Pu District Teacher Training Institute 2011).


Promoting engagement

There is limited evidence on the impact of various learning and teaching strategies on engagement. However, the evidence that is available suggests a number of strategies that schools and teachers can take to maximise student engagement.

Project-based learning

Students are able to spend extended time on a topic that interests them with project-based learning, which, if structured correctly, still allows the teacher to support the student with the learning outcomes with the learning outcomes they require (Fredericks et al. 2004).

Student–teacher relationships

Hattie (2009) found that strong classroom management and student–teacher relationships have a significant impact on engagement and achievement. It is therefore important to provide students with a safe environment, which is not just physically safe, but also a supportive place where students feel able to make mistakes as they learn.

Practical initial teacher education and experience with disengaged students

New teachers have suggested the need for initial teacher education to include more practical training on how to deal with disengaged students, to help them translate the theory of their course into practice (Australian Education Union 2009, Seal 2009).

Monitoring student engagement

Identification of disengaged learners is the vital first step in ensuring that they receive help to re-engage in the learning process (Fullan 2006, Griffin 2012). Teachers too can be observed, to help them assess their impact and ensure that students are on the right path.

Classroom observation

Observation and discussion of colleagues’ effective practices enables teachers to access examples of effective practice. Being observed also provides teachers with alternative viewpoints about what was successful in their classrooms.

Professional collaboration

Professional collaboration, for example through learning groups, enables teachers to share ideas about what works with students at different levels of engagement. Topics for discussion could include, for example, the best approaches for integrating engaging technology into classroom practice. Not only can teachers learn new things from collaborative groups, but collaboration leads them to confront their own practice – to adapt and evaluate for continuous improvement.

Feedback and appraisal

Feedback and appraisal help teachers to determine if their classroom performance is having an impact on the engagement of their students.

A number of the approaches suggested for developing engaging teaching are similar to those proposed for good teaching more generally. Professional collaboration, observation of practice, feedback and appraisal can be important ways for teachers to learn from one another about how to engage students. Teachers need support to develop engaging practice, during initial training and beyond, to ensure they are implementing approaches that will work for their students.


The Learning Frontiers design hubs

These and many other issues will be considered by schools participating in the Learning Frontiers design hubs. Supported by systems and sectors and other interested parties, the hubs will use a range of methodologies to explore teaching and learning practices that are built upon four design principles. These principles assert that when learning is highly engaging it is:

  • co created – it recognises both adults and students as powerful resources for the co-creation of community, the design of learning and the success of all students
  • personal – it builds from student passions and capabilities, and helps students to personalise their learning and assessment in ways that foster engagement and talents
  • connected – it connects with and uses real-world contexts and contemporary issues, and is permeable to the rich resources available in the community and the wider world
  • integrated – it emphasises integration of subjects and integration of learning contexts.

Design hubs will work together and with the wider community to develop tools and resources that will enable the scaling of engaging practices into new learning contexts.  

How to become involved

Schools and other organisations can get involved in Learning Frontiers in a number of ways, such as:

  • providing expert advice to schools that are working within design hubs
  • participating in research activities with students
  • suggesting, trialling, evaluating and iterating promising new practices for engaged learning in school contexts through a promising practices resource platform (coming soon)
  • contributing to a blogging space within this platform to share thoughts about engagement
  • working with schools to share practices with the profession and the wider community outside of design hubs 
  • convening a network of peers to discuss student engagement and consider how to apply practices emerging from Learning Frontiers in your own contexts.

To be kept informed about the project, and emerging opportunities to participate, please register your interest. You can also contact the Learning Frontiers team learningfrontiers@aitsl.edu.au or via Twitter at @LFrontiers and using the Twitter hashtag #learningfrontiers.


Angus, M et al. 2012, The Pipeline project: executive summary, Edith Cowan University, accessed 16 April 2013

Australian Education Union 2009, New educators survey 2008 results and report, accessed 17 April 2013 

Connor, J 2006, What's mainstream?, Dusseldorp Skills Forum, accessed 15 April 2013

Finn, JD & Zimmer, KS 2012, 'Student engagement: what is it? why does it matter?', in Handbook of research on student engagement S Christenson, AL Reschly and C Wylie (eds), Springer, 97–131

Fredericks, JA, Blumenfeld, PC & Paris, AH 2004, 'School engagement: potential of the concept, state of the evidence', Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59–109

Fredericks, JA and McColskey, W 2012, 'The Measurement of student engagement: a comparative analysis of various methods and student self‐report instruments', in Handbook of research on student engagement S Christenson, AL Reschly and C Wylie (eds), Springer, 763–782

Fullan, M, Hill, P and Crévola, C 2006, Breakthrough, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California

Griffin, P 2012, The influence of teaching strategies on student achievement in higher order skills, ACER, accessed 15 April 2013 

Hattie, J 2009, Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta‐analyses relating to achievement, Routledge

Hill, R 2011, Successful schooling: techniques & tools for running a school to help students from disadvantaged and low socio-economics backgrounds succeed, Effective Philanthropy, accessed 17 April 2013

Huang Pu District Teacher Training Institute 2011, Training and research for teachers: classroom observation, based on education fairness

Seal, I. (2009) Exploring the experiences of new teachers in working with students at risk of disengagement, DOXA, accessed 16 April 2013

Willms, J. D. (2003) Student engagement at school: a sense of belonging and participation, OECD Publishing, accessed 17 April 2013



Subject Headings

Educational planning
Thought and thinking
Student engagement