Teachers’ Conceptions of Student Engagement in Learning: The Case of Three Urban Schools


  • Khaled Barkaoui Associate Professor Faculty of Education, York University
  • Sarah Elizabeth Barrett Faculty of Education, York University
  • Julia Samaroo Faculty of Education, York University
  • Negin Dahya Faculty of Education, York University
  • Shahnaaz Alidina Faculty of Education, York University
  • Carl James Faculty of Education, York University




student engagement, teachers' conceptions, focus group, urban schools, low SES, Mots clés, engagement des élèves, conceptions des enseignants, groupe de discussion, écoles en milieu urbain, faible statut socioéconomique


Although student engagement plays a central role in the education process, defining it is challenging. This study examines teachers’ conceptions of the social and cultural dimensions of student engagement in learning at three low-achieving schools located in a low socioeconomic status (SES) urban area. Sixteen teachers and administrators from the three schools participated in two focus group discussions about their definitions of student engagement, indicators of and factors affecting student engagement, and how to facilitate it. The findings indicate that teachers’ conceptions of student engagement have profound ramifications for the ways that they approach their work. Additionally, the teachers recognize that student engagement is a symptom displayed by individuals, but the roots of engagement lay elsewhere. The teachers also described a wide range of strategies to enhance their students' engagement that focused primarily on the student, the teacher and the classroom through improving student-teacher relationships, incorporating out-of-school issues in the curriculum and the classroom, and having teachers show engagement with educational material. We conclude by outlining several implications for practice and policy and by calling for more research on the origins, development and consequences of teachers’ conceptions of student engagement.

Alors que l’engagement des élèves joue un rôle central dans le processus éducatif, en définir le sens représente un défi. Cette étude porte sur les conceptions qu’ont les enseignants des dimensions sociales et culturelles de l’engagement des élèves dans trois écoles peu performantes situées dans des régions urbaines à faible statut socioéconomique. Seize enseignants et administrateurs de trois écoles ont participé à des discussions thématiques de groupe pour partager ce qu’ils entendaient par « engagement des élèves », les indicateurs de celui-ci, les facteurs qui l’influençaient et les moyens de le faciliter. Les résultats indiquent que les conceptions qu’ont les enseignants de l’engagement des élèves ont des répercussions profondes sur leur façon d’aborder leur travail. De plus, les enseignants reconnaissent que l’engagement des élèves est un symptôme que manifeste une personne, mais que les racines en sont ailleurs. Les enseignants ont décrit une vaste gamme de stratégies qui visent l’augmentation de l’engagement des élèves, qui sont axées surtout sur l’élève, l’enseignant et la salle de classe, et qui reposent sur l’amélioration du rapport enseignant-élève, l’intégration d’enjeux externes dans le programme d’études et une manifestation d’engagement de la part des enseignants avec la matière à l’étude. Nous concluons en présentant les grandes lignes des incidences de cette étude sur la pratique et la politique, et en réclamant davantage de recherche sur les origines, le développement et les conséquences des conceptions qu’ont les enseignants de l’engagement des élèves.


Author Biographies

Khaled Barkaoui, Associate Professor Faculty of Education, York University

Khaled Barkaoui is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, York University. His current research and teaching focus on second-language (L2) assessment, L2 writing, L2 program evaluation, longitudinal and mixed-methods research, and English for Academic Purposes.

Sarah Elizabeth Barrett, Faculty of Education, York University

Sarah E. Barrett is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University. Her research centers on the impact that the core beliefs and values of teachers have on classroom practice. Identity and professional culture are central themes in her work. She has authored several articles on teachers' professional culture, teacher education and teacher identity and presented at several national and international conferences on these subjects. Her current research revolves around teachers' conceptions of professional ethics, new teachers’ narratives of identity-formation and the extent to which K-12 teachers explicitly integrate ethical and social justice issues into their professional practice.

Julia Samaroo, Faculty of Education, York University

Julia Samaroo is currently a Doctoral Candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University. Her research explores the intersections of community, identity, and social justice within educational settings, and further theorizes a Community-Referenced Approach to Education (CRAE).  Her interests are focused on socio-educational issues as it relates to class, culture, ethnicity and race, and interrogating educational policies through the lens of social justice, equity and inclusivity.

Negin Dahya, Faculty of Education, York University

Negin Dahya is an Assistant Professor in the area of Digital Youth at the University of Washington Information School, Seattle, WA. Her research is grounded in anti-oppressive education, postcolonial and feminist theory, with a focus on girls and women of color using and creating digital and social media and technology. Her work addresses digital media and learning in both local and global contexts, including refugee education.

Shahnaaz Alidina, Faculty of Education, York University

Shahnaaz Alidina is a Doctoral Candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University with keen interests in literacy education in the early years. She is currently working on completing her thesis on issues of culture and bilingual literacy learning. Having over 15 years of experience working with children in Early years, Shahnaaz is passionate about home language literacy experiences and the cultural practices that go with them.

Carl James, Faculty of Education, York University

Carl E. James teaches in the Faculty of Education and the Graduate Program in Sociology at York University, Toronto, where he is also Director of the York Centre for Education & Community (YCEC). In his research and teaching, he takes up questions of accessibility and equity in schooling and education that address the needs, interests, expectations and aspirations of students and parents.  As such, he pays attention to how these considerations structure, or are incorporated, into the curricula, programs, and pedagogy of schools and educators in ways that enable, support and encourage the academic performance, participation and achievement of students. His recent publications include: Life at the Intersection: Community, Class and Schooling (2012).