Conceptions of engagement held by high school seniors perceived by their teachers as being quiet: A phenomenographic study

Paul Gerard Barker, University of Pennsylvania


This qualitative research study uses a phenomenographic approach to understand what conceptions of engagement are held by a group of students perceived by their teachers as being quiet and how these students' quietness influences and is influenced by their conceptions and experiences of engagement. The approach specializes in identifying and mapping the range of conceptions groups of people hold about the phenomena in their world and focuses on collective understanding rather than on making claims about individual experiences. The study takes place at a Catholic, college-preparatory, co-educational high school in the Mid-Atlantic region. The data are drawn from analysis of the transcripts of open-ended interviews with 23 participants from the 237 members of the Class of 2010. Context for the interviews is provided by each participant's work on a unique senior project as a graduation requirement. Students are asked to reflect on their engagement in the project work as well as in traditional classroom settings. The interview participants are purposefully selected from those rated by teachers to be among the quietest in their class. The study presents student conceptions of engagement in six ascending categories: compliance; response to encouragement; interest and enjoyment; response to challenge; identification of purpose; and exercise of independent choice and control. In their conceptions of the relationship between quietness and engagement the study participants assert that teachers frequently mispercieve their engagement. Findings on the relationship between the quietness and engagement of study participants highlight: quietness understood as a learning advantage; the social construction of classrooms and the importance of identity; the time necessary for internal processing of ideas prior to speech; fear and the desire to avoid embarrassment in the classroom arena; and appreciation of the need for instructional momentum. Understanding how engagement is conceptualized and experienced by quiet students builds knowledge about their attitudes and behaviors and may lead to the creation of better learning conditions for them. The findings also have the potential to inform teacher attitudes and pedagogical practices, as well as increase understanding of the importance of listening and the power of silence.

Subject Area

Pedagogy|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

Barker, Paul Gerard, "Conceptions of engagement held by high school seniors perceived by their teachers as being quiet: A phenomenographic study" (2011). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3455413.