Disruption-free lessons vs Effortful engagement: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Disruption-free lessons vs Effortful engagement: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

These past 12 months have really highlighted how strong (or not) a school’s culture, norms, routines and standards are. Our return in March to face to face learning has been overwhelmingly positive, with students and staff on the whole enthused about being back in their classrooms. But how successfully students have returned to learning has been variable, and has once again highlighted in my mind the importance of routines and high expectations in the classroom and across the whole school.

A recent conversation about ‘disruption-free lessons’ got me pondering about the fluid boundary between ‘managing students’ behaviour’ and ‘engaging students in the lesson’. I asked whether in these ‘disruption-free lessons’ teachers would still utilise the important strategies that we know (or that I assume we know) good teachers use to keep their students engaged in the learning – things like front-loading instructions, being seen looking, narrating the positives, praising hard work, acknowledging when instructions are followed etc. The response I got was that teachers shouldn’t have to use any ‘behaviour management strategies’, that they should just be able to get on with teaching.

At the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this response didn’t sit well with me, but after some reflection I have boiled it down to this: I completely agree that teachers should be able to teach lessons free of disruption; but there is absolutely no point in teaching if your students are ‘non-disruptively’ switched off. So yes the whole school systems should deal quickly with any disruption in lessons without the teacher having to waste time on this (I am 100% behind no-nonsense approaches, one reminder and at the second reminder you’re out – we haven’t got time to waste on every child in the room being given multiple chances); but it is still incumbent on the teacher to use all the means at their disposal to ensure that their students are engaged in the learning. So the ‘behaviour management strategies’ I mentioned above are just as much about supporting students to stay engaged in the lesson as they are about minimising disruptions.

And by engaged, I don’t mean that the teacher is entertaining the students (which could be very engaging), I mean that the students are paying attention, putting in effort, and thinking hard about their learning – so let’s call this effortful engagement.

Disruption-free lessons vs Effortful engagement

You can think about these two factors on a two-dimensional continuum:

Let’s consider each quadrant in turn: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good (quadrant A)

This is where we want our lessons to sit – students are able to concentrate on the lesson, free from disruptions in their environment. Students are effortfully engaged, thinking hard about their learning and deepening their understanding of the subject.

Cognitive load theory tells us that our working memory capacity is limited and easily over-loaded, so a classroom environment that is calm, quiet and doesn’t compete for students’ attention will free up space in their working memory for them to be able to focus on the learning at hand.

Equally, as Daniel Willingham says, “memory is the residue of thought” – so what students are thinking about in their lessons is what they will remember over time. If they are sat there daydreaming, thinking about what happened at breaktime or what they will do once school is finished, if they are not actively thinking about their work, then they are highly unlikely to remember what it is that you wanted them to learn in the lesson.

So lessons that are free of disruption AND that required effortful engagement from the students will contribute to improved student learning. And good behaviour management strategies, deployed by the teacher, are important in supporting this, even if the whole school system is also very effective at managing behaviour.

The Bad – part 1 (quadrant B)

Let’s say your school has successfully implemented a ‘disruption-free lessons’ behaviour system. Students are given one reminder, and at the second disruption they are removed from the lesson. This is a brilliant start, but what it will very quickly show up is the quality of the teaching. If the teacher is able to engage students, prepare and deliver high quality lessons that make students think hard, then these students will thrive.

However, if the teacher ‘just teaches’ at the students, without considering their engagement, without genuinely listening to their input and giving them high quality feedback, then what you will end up with is a class of bored students who are most definitely not learning. I have seen this in too many classrooms in my time as a teacher: some teachers (and some SLT) consider it to be entirely the students’ responsibility to stay engaged and on task in the lesson. But even adults in a training session can’t sustain their focus and attention if the session isn’t engaging them! So why should we expect students to be any better at this than us?

It is absolutely incumbent on the teacher to deliver a meaningful, engaging, enjoyable (I wouldn’t say ‘fun’, but that’s for another blog another time) curriculum, and incumbent on the school to support teachers to develop this. The onus is also on the teacher to support the students in meeting their expectations for disruption-free lessons, through strategies such as the ones that I mention at the start – front-loading instructions, making your expectations crystal clear, being seen looking, narrating the positives, praising hard work, acknowledging when instructions are followed, holding the class’s attention etc. If teachers deploy these behaviour management/engagement strategies as well as having a whole school ‘no-nonsense’ behaviour system, then you’re on to a winner, and you will move from ‘quadrant B’ to ‘quadrant A’ in no time. The latter does not absolve the teachers of the former.

I will also add here that ‘effortful engagement’ in learning for me means that the work being done by students has to make them think hard about the subject at hand. It’s not enough to give students ‘busy’ work – for example, lots of worksheets to fill in that don’t actually make students think, or cut and stick activities that take longer than the value they add to the learning warrants. If your resources do make students think hard, then great. But if they don’t, then what is the point in them? Students will know that they are just being given ‘busy’ work, and are less likely to genuinely engage.

The Bad – part 2 (quadrant C)

So let’s say that you are already well versed in different strategies for engaging students, such as the ones already mentioned above, but your school’s behaviour management system isn’t sufficient to ensure disruption-free lessons. Can you still achieve this in your own lessons? Most probably. Will it be harder? Most definitely. And it will take much longer.

If the teacher is having to ‘compete’ for their students’ attention, if the lesson is disrupted multiple times by the same students before they can be sent out, if these students are then brought back in to the lesson by a member of SLT or a head of year – then the inevitable outcome will be that the learning of the rest of the students in that class suffers. Even if the teacher is a master of student engagement, when their lesson is repeatedly interrupted then their students’ learning will be negatively impacted and they won’t make the same progress that they could have made otherwise.

Also, the time and effort that the teacher has to spend on retaining (or regaining) students’ attention in these circumstances means that the teacher will also be cognitively overloaded and will find it more difficult to focus on responding effectively to what learning is happening in their classroom – so the learning of those students waiting patiently is affected even more, because their teacher is mentally and emotionally drained.

This is where effective whole school systems are critical. It is not the teacher’s fault if students who continuously disrupt are not being adequately dealt with. It is not because the teacher didn’t plan a good enough lesson. It is usually because the school hasn’t got clear enough systems that set unapologetically high expectations of behaviour and hold students to these standards.

I would argue that the amount of effortful engagement that is possible in a disrupted lesson is hugely reduced, and I don’t think that it would be possible to have a lesson at point X on the graph below:

In fact, I would edit my original graph to delete that far top left section – something like this:

So here the school really needs to improve their whole school behaviour management systems – once they do, this teacher, and their students, will fly, moving quickly from ‘quadrant C’ to ‘quadrant A’.

The Ugly (quadrant D)

Ever walked into a classroom to see most students chatting to each other, ignoring the teacher’s instructions, whilst the teacher hands out worksheet after worksheet, in the hope that some students will complete some of these tasks?

Or it may be that only some of the students are disrupting, but most are getting on with the busy work that the teacher has given them. That’s ok, isn’t it? Well, no, I don’t think it is. Those students who are trying to work are still being disrupted, even if minimally. And the work that they are being given isn’t making them think hard, because the teacher knows that if they try to move the class on to the more challenging (and interesting) work, those students who aren’t paying attention will start to complain loudly because they don’t understand what is happening (Newsflash: that may be because they weren’t paying attention).

This lesson is more common than people would care to admit. Or perhaps well meaning SLT (and teachers) don’t even realise that this is what is happening in the lesson, and how much it is limiting the learning of their students. This is a classroom where disruption to the ‘flow’ of the lesson (so where students are distracted by their peers) happens regularly AND the work being provided to them is either not engaging, or too easy, or lots of ‘busy’ work to fill their books without actually adding to students’ understanding and long-term retention of the subject, developing their mental schema.

These lessons make me sad, because students (and many teachers) are being let down by a whole school system that doesn’t ensure disruption-free lessons, and teachers are clearly not receiving the professional development needed to maximise their impact in the classroom with students.

These lessons will do nothing to close the gaps that already exist between students of differing starting points and differing educational needs. In fact, they will only serve to widen the gaps.

Take away messages

1. I think it is important for teachers and school leaders to reflect on where they think their lessons and their schools sit within the disruption-free lessons/effortful engagement continuum. Which of the scenarios above most closely resembles your setting?

2. It is the school’s responsibility to support teachers with creating a disruption-free environment through whole school behaviour management systems. However, as much as systems that prioritise disruption-free lessons are essential, they are not sufficient to ensuring students engage in the lesson.

3. It is the teacher’s responsibility to support their students in meeting these expectations through positive behaviour management strategies and lessons that challenge and support students. Teachers need to be well versed in how to develop and maintain positive, effortful student engagement and they have a responsibility to increase the likelihood that students will stay on track and avoid disrupting. If teachers don’t yet know how to do this (or could do with more practice) then professional development is essential.

4. If lessons are disruption-free and teachers are able to effectively use different strategies to keep students engaged, the focus will naturally shift to what teachers are actually delivering. Are students being given ‘busy’ work, or are they being asked to think hard?

And of course, it is the students’ responsibility to work within their school’s systems, respond to their teachers, and work hard on their learning.

Finally, I think it goes without saying that both levels of disruption and engagement of students are closely linked and feed into each other. If disruption is minimised by effective whole school systems, you are more likely to be able to engage students in challenging work. If students are more effortfully engaged, you are likely to have minimal disruption. This is the virtuous cycle we are aiming for.

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