Engaging Disaffected Learners (3)

An Action Research project by Megan Dunsby

Project overview

Working with two other members of the department (Anna Watkins and Hannah Gale), we established the following aims:

  • To develop our pedagogical understanding of the reasons behind disaffection;
  • To establish and broaden a range of strategies to re-engage disaffected learners;
  • To build resilience and inspire self-confidence.

These give an overview of our foci, and from here we endeavoured to use different strategies to engage disaffected learners. We decided to all concentrate on year 10 students and boys in particular. Having a shared year group meant that we were able to support each other and help each other to develop strategies.

There are a myriad of reasons why students become disaffected, but in the experiences that we had had in our year 10 classrooms we felt that these were the central reasons why:

  • Disaffection hides a literacy weakness;
  • Pressure of year 10 GCSE (especially with current changes);
  • English is compulsory and relevance isn’t obvious to all.

Initial Research

The National Literacy Trust had the following to say on boy’s literacy levels:

  • “Research consistently shows a gender gap in children’s reading. Boys’ attitudes towards reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading and their achievement in literacy are all poorer than those of girls.”
  • “Unfortunately it is those boys who are least likely to be socially mobile who are often most vulnerable to these triggers. For example, white working-class boys are one of the groups with lowest achievement in literacy”.
  • By GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap [between boys and girls] is 14 percentage points” (National Literacy Trust).

So, why is this gap so big and what can cause boys to become disaffected learners in English in particular? Firstly, the changes to the examination system at GCSE mean that students must sit examinations at the end of Year 11 in which they must recall and apply two years’ worth of learning. This is an overwhelming and stressful prospect for many students, who are immediately disengaged by their own assumption that they will fail at this challenge. This can be a huge cause of disaffection at the beginning of Year 10.

The English curriculum has also become more traditional, favouring more 19th century literature and classic British literature, which means that students are working with challenging texts and unfamiliar language. Some boys in particular find it difficult to understand the purpose of studying these texts, which can provoke disaffection, particularly given that English is a compulsory subject that students have not opted into. Indeed, Caroline Bentley-Davies suggests that a teacher must “signal exactly why you are doing something” (2010, p.165) when improving standards of boys.

In addition, GCSE assessment has become more rigorous; to achieve a Grade 5, students are expected to have a command of subject terminology and an ability to use a range of punctuation and sentence structures with accuracy and for specific effect. Those with weak literacy skills can therefore become disaffected to mask their difficulties.

My personal project overview

After a number of discussions with Anna and Hannah, I decided that I would look at ways in which it is possible to re-engage students through tasks that are influenced by a project based pedagogy.

The literature surrounding project based learning regularly demonstrates its effectiveness at embedding skills and knowledge in a way that all students engage with on a meaningful level. Polman sings its praises stating that, ‘the most significant contributions of PBL have been in schools languishing in poverty stricken areas; when students take responsibility, or ownership, for their learning, their self-esteem soars. It also helps to create better work habits and attitudes toward learning. In standardized tests, languishing schools have been able to raise their testing grades a full level by implementing Project Based Learning (PBL), (2000).

Initial research undertaken indicates that boys who are ‘less socially mobile’, (The National Literacy Trust), are likely to be amongst the lowest literacy levels compared to their socially mobile peers. Patton’s research seems to indicate that it is this demographic of students who are likely to benefit from the autonomy and ownership of PBL experiences.

However the beneficial effect of PBL is certainly not limited only to these students, autonomy is a powerful motivator for all learners, according to Rowe et al, ‘in order to feel any intrinsic motivation whatsoever, students mist feel a sense of autonomy, like thy are in control of an element of their learning’. On boys literacy they comment that ‘In the early years of secondary schooling boys constitute 75 – 85% of students identified at risk of poor achievement progress in literacy. Of some concern is the flattening out of boys’ literacy achievements from year 4 to year 9,’ (Rowe et al).

When reading this research I began to investigate whether this ‘flattening out’ was a feature of my most disengaged year 10 student, Richard. After looking at his spotlight assessments from year 7 to 10, he was a perfect example of the pattern that Rowe et al discuss. After having taught Richard for six months I could see that his dis-engagement came from his belief that he could not achieve in English, together with the fact that he felt the subject was completely irrelevant for him. I began to focus on how I could create a project that would make learning the skills he required to pass English, obvious and attainable.

Spotlight entry 7.1 7.3 7.6 8.1 8.3 8.6 9.1 9.3 9.6
APP Level 4b 4b 5c 4a 5b 5b 5b 5b 5a

(Richard’s Spotlight assessments from Years 7-9)

I began looking at what constituted a project, and Thomas in PBL; A Handbook, (2000) provided a very helpful five point checklist for educators designing projects. He instructs that projects must be:

  • Central not peripheral to the curriculum:
  • Central concept and principle of a discipline
  • Projects include constructive investigation
  • Projects are usually, but not always, cross curricular
  • Projects are realistic, not ‘school like

Thomas’ pointers focussed my creation of a project, but also provided realisation that projects were a time consuming endeavour. Further research acknowledges this as one of the main pitfalls of such learning. Wethers et al have found that, ‘subject orientated secondary teachers have been less inclined to embrace cross disciplinary curriculum, in the form of projects or a more traditional approach, despite it being proven successful in reengaging previously disengaged secondary students, (2012).’ Hope goes on to explain that even though teachers are, ‘frustrated by national standardised tests that are a primary reason for disengaging boys from their learning’ (2010) PBL takes time and commitment that the majority of secondary schools simply don’t have. Wethers surmises that a lack of resources (time and financial) are a ‘fundamental reason that PBL is not a regular feature of the secondary school classroom, (2012).

Despite this, all of these articles unanimously measure a greater level of success from students in all walks of life when given the opportunity to learn in a project based environment. I became interested in investigating whether the disengaged students in my year 10 class, particularly Richard, could benefit from a version of PBL that I was able to facilitate with a deficiency in time and financial resources.

My project in the classroom

Hi Tech High, California became my next area of investigation. This American High School facilitates an entirely project based curriculum and 94% of their students in 2014 went onto college and university. I decided to replicate a project that they call the visual essay for my year 10 English students.

By considering a knowledge, process product model for differentiation I examined my current pedagogy for teaching essay writing skills to boys with low literacy.


By investigating what I actually meant by ‘learn how to write an essay’ I automatically referred back to the exam boards assessment objectives. In Hi Tech High’s case, they take to raw knowledge and work out a way of presenting it in an informative and engaging way that is open to the public. I decided that my raw knowledge would be my assessment objectives.


Richard decided that he would focus on the subject terminology knowledge, and created a glossary to put on the essay.


Strategies and an evaluation of their efficacy

What worked about the task:

Richard was engaged in the task and through assessment it became clear that Richard knew a number of subject terms that he did not before. Richard also felt a sense of achievement at having completed his section of the task and became aware of a crucial element of the success criteria. Richard stated, ‘It was a good task because I just got on with it. I didn’t have to write loads’ and ‘I got to choose what I wanted to do and just focussed on one bit’

What needed improvement:

On reflection I decided that the project was too ‘school-like’ and it didn’t really hit the real world criteria set out by Thomas. Ways to overcome this might include an open evening where parents come to see a display of a series of visual essays or a competition. Once Richard had decided how to incorporate his subject terminology he did not constructively solve much of a problem; this was another of Thomas’ project criteria and time limitations prevented this from becoming a reality.


The most valuable element of this research for me was to fully recognise the power of and potential of allowing students to be creative, curious, problem solving and autonomous. Whilst there are time restrictions placed on us as teachers, I will endeavour to create as many opportunities for students to practise being these things as possible. I fully agree with Sir Ken Robinson, who advocates that, ‘designing your curriculum around project-based learning is a dynamic way of engaging learners and of cultivating their powers of imagination, creativity and enquiry, (Robinson, K. 2011).


Bentley-Davies, C. (2010) How to be an Amazing Teacher. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing.

National Literacy Trust (2012) Boys’ Reading Commission. All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission.

Patton, M. (2012) Subject to Change, New thinking of the curriculum ATL The Education Union.

Polman, JL (2000) Project Based Learning in the Secondary School Classroom, a constructive approach Cambridge Journal of Education, (46) 4. pg 12-26.

Thomas, B (2012) Work that matters; a teacher’s guide to project based learning, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Hope, S (2006) The Constructive Classroom, Journal of Problem Based Learning in Higher Education, (6) 34. Pg 76-90.


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