Teachers for a Fair Go
Over the last few years, a project in NSW has investigated ways to identify teachers who are highly effective at engaging disadvantaged students. The Teachers for a Fair Go: Exemplary Teachers of Students in Priority Schools operated between 2008 and 2010. The results of the research are currently being compiled and are to be published this year.
The research built on the Fair Go Project, an earlier study exploring ways to engage low SES students. Both projects were part of the Priority Schools Programs (PSP), which supports communities with the highest concentrations of students from low SES backgrounds.
Teachers for a Fair Go was conducted by a team of researchers, including academics from the University of Western Sydney (UWS), classrooms teachers as co-researchers and departmental officers. It was a joint project between the NSW Department of Education and Training and UWS, funded by the PSP and the Australian Research Council.
Identifying what makes for a highly effective teacher of low SES students
The first goal of the project was to research and develop criteria to identify teachers who are making a positive impact on the social and academic outcomes of disadvantaged students across the early (K–year 4), middle (years 5–8) and later (years 10–12) stages of schooling, and in a variety of rural and urban contexts.
The central criterion used to identify these teachers was their impact on student engagement. Teachers for a Fair Go have classrooms that students really want to go to: where students enjoy being involved, take part in relevant learning experiences of high intellectual quality, and feel good about themselves. There is an environment of sharing and reflection, developing towards a genuine community of learners, in which students value school and see the importance of improving their learning. Classroom management is more focused on learning than on controlling behaviour.
A second criterion was teachers’ ability to help students achieve strong classroom results, and learn to become better learners.
Based on these criteria, it was the intention that 30 teachers (15 rural and 15 urban) be selected who were considered exemplary within their school context. A total of 25 teachers were finally included in the research. The selected teachers became co-researchers on the research team and were trained in the theoretical background, methodology and structure of the project.
Case studies were undertaken into the classroom pedagogies of these teachers over a week of intensive classroom observation, reflection, cross-case analysis and professional dialogue. The aim was to capture both the fine distinctions between, and the commonalities among, these exemplary teachers. At the same time, it was recognised that these teachers do not work in isolation, and results gained in their classrooms are impacted by other factors that may include school effects, the work of other teachers and family and peer influences.
The methodological framework
The research team applied the MeE framework (Munns et al 2006; Munns & Martin 2005), as a methodological and analytical tool. The MeE framework covers the psychology of individual student motivation, including the ways in which students' thoughts about themselves, school and schoolwork affect their behaviour. It also explores, from a sociological position, the interplay of student engagement, cognitive understanding, affective, and value and active participation (Bernstein 1996, McFadden & Munns 2002). Critically, it encourages teachers to consider how students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds may have received disengaging school and classroom messages. Brought together, these psychological and sociological concepts highlight ways in which whole-school policies, practices and interventions encourage every student to feel that education opens opportunities for success.
The MeE framework
A professional learning community
These print-based case studies were posted as they were completed on a closed forum on the Supporting Low SES School Communities website, available to all the project participants. During the research process the forum operated as a professional learning community for participants to engage in professional dialogue and commentary on the case studies.
Each teacher also completed a reflection journal that was posted on the forum. The journals contributed to a further aim of the project, which was to explore, with the co-researching teachers, the personal and professional journey that has brought each of them to their current pedagogical position.
Four of the case studies are to be showcased on the Supporting Low SES School Communities website at www.lowsesschools.nsw.edu.au during the second half of 2011. The following excerpts from two of the case studies, that are already on the Supporting Low SES School Communities website, offer key messages on pedagogy to improve student engagement in low SES school communities.
Susan's classroom is characterised by jointly negotiated, active, constructivist learning. Susan believes that subject integration and student self-direction promote learning. Susan and the students undertake units of work based on integrating concepts across the curriculum including English, mathematics and science. Every lesson has a high literacy focus and includes subject-specific instruction in reading, comprehension, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation.
A variety of teaching and learning relationships is visible in the classroom including: whole-class work; small group work; partner work; individual work; student as teacher; and teacher as learner. Every lesson is positive and provides students with success. Susan sustains engagement through a problem-based cooperative learning environment. The hands-on approach to learning engages students in a variety of interesting, high quality lessons. Students are encouraged to take risks, ask questions and address alternative perspectives and solutions.
I want students to feel that everybody has equal positions in this space… that kids can also guide each others' learning. (Susan)
Nicole believes that holding high expectations and operating as a community of learners provides the best environment for students to engage in their learning. She also believes that responsibility for engagement lies with the teacher's good planning, organisation, use of quality texts and explicit teaching.
Nicole positions students as joint constructors of knowledge, by predicting, interpreting and evaluating information. Rich tasks are designed using a hands-on approach with open ended tasks. Metacognitive reflections continually refocus the learning on tasks, processes and knowledge.
Learning is embedded with high intellectual quality, significance and explicit teaching to break down the secret language of school and assist students to be successful learners.
Learning experiences begin with task positioning, foregrounding content and consolidating prior learning. Students are provided with multiple ways of building the field knowledge. Use of high quality literature and technology sustain the students' engagement in their learning.
We don’t need to feed students the answers. They can do the thinking, processing themselves. (Nicole)
Together, the four case studies explore enabling factors at school and in the classroom that improve student engagement. As well as the commentary of the teachers themselves, they include the perspectives of principals, parents and students.
A professional learning module with a focus on improving student engagement and featuring the case studies is being developed. Completion of the module will provide teachers with accredited professional learning.
The Teachers for a Fair Go project provides a clearer picture of how teachers might help students in low SES school communities to negotiate pathways towards educational success. The findings are informing the system, school leaders and other teachers about the different ways to encourage and support teachers to improve their classroom practices to improve student engagement.
Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique. London: Taylor & Francis
Martin, A. J. (2003) How to Motivate Your Child for School and Beyond. Sydney: Bantam
McFadden, M. & Munns, G. (2002) 'Student Engagement and the Social Relations of Pedagogy', in British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23, 3, pp.357–366
Munns, G. et al. (2006) Motivation and Engagement of Boys. Evidence-based Teaching Practices. Report to the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training. DEST. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia
Munns, G. & Martin, A. (2005) It’s All About MeE: A Motivation and Engagement Framework. Refereed paper presented at Australian Association for Research in Education Annual Conference, Sydney, December 2005
Subject HeadingsEducational planning
Teaching and learning
New South Wales (NSW)