Reclaiming KS3: Engagement

In this series of blogposts I’m exploring ways that KS3 can be reclaimed rather than being viewed as a second priority behind KS4/5. To go further, what I’m suggesting is that if schools want to ensure maximum progress gains at KS4, then targeted investment in KS3 is essential.

The three ways that this can be achieved are:

  • Challenge (Read the post here)
  • Engagement
  • Early intervention


employee-engagement-survey-staff-surveyThere’s been a lot of discussion about the nature of engagement and relevance in the eduTwittersphere in recent months and it’s clear that these concepts raise a range of issues to be explored.

Sometimes I find that engagement is often tied up in discussions of relevance and self-esteem and many other concepts that shift the focus of learning away from the student and on to the teacher. When engagement becomes synonymous with ‘entertaining’ and ‘fun’, there’s an implication that if there’s an issue with achievement or student behaviour, it can be explained away as ‘the child only behaved that way because they found the lesson boring’. This approach fundamentally undermines teaching staff and excuses poor behaviour. It gives students an opt out and acts as a stick to hit teaching staff with – hardly conducive to developing a high performing team. Positive behaviour for learning should be non-negotiable, regardless how entertaining students find the lesson. In this post, I’ll be exploring why challenge can help foster engagement and how through praise we can promote engagement within an academic environment.

Creating a culture of challenge is difficult and it’s not unheard of to meet resistance from students, particularly if they have a fixed mindset that learning should be ‘easy’ otherwise they’re a failure. But a culture of challenge can be nurtured in as little time as a couple of weeks through the teacher being enthusiastic about challenge, praising students who encounter and then overcome difficulty and avoiding praise for finishing first or anything that could be taken to be ‘innate ability’.

At this point it’s not uncommon for the growth mindset to be routinely misapplied as a pacifier to raise students’ self-esteem, which in turn is used as a sibling concept to engagement. Usually the idea is that if students feel good about themselves and the lessons are engaging then they’ll feel willing and ready to learn. I disagree with this approach. The underlying principle of the growth mindset is understandably useful: that success is linked to effort and through responding to feedback, students can routinely make improvements. Where confusion can occur is that if you state that ‘if you have a positive enough mindset and just try your best, you’ll be as successful as the next child’. There are enough studies that suggest that not all students will reach the same standard – if that were the case then there’d be a problem with differentiation because there would be criticism about the lack of stretch and challenge at the top end (more can be read here). It links in with the mathematically impossible suggestion that all students should make above average progress. Whilst I don’t go as far as the Disappointed Idealist, I do maintain that there’s merit in using the theoretical ideas of mindset to support engagement within the classroom.

Whilst the nature of a growth mindset is (at times) contestable, there is value in avoiding a fixed mindset where students feel that succeeding on ‘easy’ tasks is safe and allows them to feel clever but without challenging themselves. At this point some focus needs to be attached to the design of KS3 curricula: are we giving students a challenging diet that will enable them to thrive? At this point it’s clear that engagement is closely linked to levels of challenge. If we don’t expect students to access challenging work, they’ll fulfil our low expectations of them. If they get used to low risk tasks at KS3, they’re going to be less willing to engage with increasingly challenging material at KS4 for fear of looking stupid. By nurturing engagement and linking it to challenge at KS3, students can be better prepared for KS4. When new Progress 8 measures will track the performance of all students, not just those in targeted groups, ensuring middle ability students don’t get lost in at KS3 is absolutely essential.

In defence of challenge as tool for engagement

Employee_EngagementWhen children know they’re tackling something challenging and are supported to achieve, the engagement and success feeds into future lessons, which in turn creates a ‘this is what we do here’ climate in the classroom. There’s sometimes a risk that  ‘engagement’ becomes the goal in the lesson – usually resting on a definition that reads ‘engagement = chatting, busy, atmosphere’ or worse… ‘buzz’ (a catch-all term for why a lesson ‘wasn’t quite outstanding’ but without any practical next steps as to how to magically acquire said ‘buzz’). I don’t insist on a silent classroom all the time, but sometimes the moments when my students are most engaged is when they’re working independently on really difficult tasks. There’s value in a range of teaching styles and tools, but we’ve got to make sure that independent writing isn’t pushed to one side under a misplaced idea that somehow extended independent writing is the students ‘not really doing anything’. To have a successful KS3, we perhaps need to consider how a challenging KS3 leads to increased levels of engagement.

That’s not to say that a KS3 diet should be dry, nor the same as KS4. A mistake in the name of ‘challenge’ can be simply shoving a load of KS4 texts into KS3 and thinking that solves the challenge problem: it doesn’t. At worst, without thoughtful consideration of teaching methods such texts get reduced to shadows of themselves in order to make it ‘KS3-friendly’, in turn losing the very challenge they were supposed to create in the name of ‘engagement’.

A successful KS3 plan allows of ‘reading for pleasure’ and a much wider range of fiction and non-fiction that can enthuse students to learn more and read widely. For that reason, projects can be useful, as can making use of the wealth of knowledge in school libraries. There are some texts that students find engaging that are simultaneously challenging e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a text we currently teach in Year 9 that also appears on some A Level specifications. Through a range of interesting texts that are relevant to the students (David Didau writes an excellent post on reclaiming the idea of relevance), we can foster engagement through challenging tasks. Students can relate to ideas that they encounter through literature, develop empathy and soft skills as they discuss the complexities of characters’ experiences and feel proud of themselves when they transfer knowledge from one domain to another, building on their subject knowledge.

Engagement can involve handing over the reigns to students for example, letting Y9 students work in groups to provide micro-lessons on certain literacy skills, which they then deliver to the class as skills revision (often with the amusing side effect is that they parrot the things that you say/do – colour coded lesson objectives was a highlight of last year’s micro-lessons). It can involve throwing a difficult text at the class and saying ‘you’ve got 40 minutes to come up with an interesting interpretation of this poem’. It can be getting them to develop empathy and produce creative writing informed by non-fiction research about 9/11 and the Rufus Sewell dramatisation and it can mean putting yourself alongside the students and complete the tasks with them in real time, and opening yourself up to their advice and feedback. Crucially, engagement does not mean having 6 million mini-plenaries to ‘prove’ learning is taking place nor is it shoe-horning in each learning style or thinking hat or whatever other gimmick is currently in vogue. It’s about setting the bar high, guiding students to achieve and celebrating their very real achievement.

When students know they’ve done something difficult, they are usually filled with pride. From this, we can give praise to students who demonstrate engagement because they’ve done something challenging and we can pass specific praise home. A postcard home saying ‘Ben has just responded very thoughtfully to a challenging piece of 19th Century literature and I’m pleased to say that he’s developing the skills to be an excellent scholar of English’ is much better than the generic praising of group work skills as you circulate the room. Through praise, we can nurture engagement in an unapologetically academic environment. And where students struggle, we can give praise that’s appropriate to their needs for example ‘Charlotte has been studying a difficult text and I’m impressed that she deployed a range of reading strategies to help her achieve’.

At root, a view of challenge linked to engagement has a much more positive view of student capacity. It suggests that all students can access a high-quality curriculum and succeed (through appropriate differentiation). It allows students to feel confident taking risks, work independently and avoids cramming Year 7-9 with busy work that looks great but lacks knowledge retention over time. Fundamentally, it rests on the principle that most students really do want to achieve and want to be proud of their achievements. We’ve just got to design a KS3 that enables them to thrive and prepares them for their examination years.



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