Secret Number 6: Start Lessons Promptly

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by Tikumporn Boonchuaylue

Related article: 7 Starter Activities for PGCE Students and Newly Qualified Teachers 

As a 17-year-old ‘A’ – Level student I was a typical lovesick teenager. I was easily distracted, and if I got the chance to slack-off, then I was sure to take it! I look back at those days and, to my embarrassment, I sometimes have to cringe! However, one question does come to mind quite often – which lessons were the most productive for me at a time when my human nature (and my attitude) led me to be quite a disillusioned and lazy teenager?

The answer: it was always, without exception, those lessons that began promptly and had a definite focus.

As teachers we’re always very, very busy. There’s so much to do in such a small amount of time, and it can be tempting for us to take a rest whilst we’re working. Whilst a relaxed environment is generally conducive to the learning process, there is a danger that we can cross the line and create an atmosphere that’s too relaxed: one that encourages our students to be unproductive. To illustrate this I can use an example from my personal journey.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience?

As a pre-university student all those years ago, I remember some of my chemistry and biology lessons particularly well, but for all the wrong reasons. These lessons would typically begin with the teacher having a nice, casual chat with all of the students in order to create a ‘relaxed feel’. Sometimes we would even begin by making a cup of tea for each other, and this made myself and my peers feel ‘adult’ and ‘special’: reinforcing the fact that we were the big kids in the school and that we had a certain status.

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“An AMAZING Book!”

This ritual would sometimes last for 15-20 minutes before any real learning took place, with one of my teachers in particular discussing anything that came to mind: whether it was a story from her past or an incident with another pupil. After this long ‘introduction’, in which approximately a quarter of the lesson had been eaten up, we would begin the lesson properly.

But were we motivated at this stage?

How had this casual entry into the lesson content affected our ability to learn thereafter?

The answer is that for many of us it had generated a lazy frame of mind, and it was difficult to come out of a relaxed state and go straight into a learning activity (which was often rushed, because of the time wasted at the start of the lesson).

Charles J. Givens, author and once a multi-million dollar business owner, summarizes this problem very eloquently:

Success requires first expending ten units of effort to produce one unit of results. Your momentum will then produce ten units of results with each unit of effort.

Charles J. Givens (Author of Wealth Without Risk and Financial Self Defense)

 

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From this we’re able to understand that for students to achieve results, they need to gain momentum within the lesson.

However, momentum can only be achieved if the teacher initiates it with an appropriate starter activity that requires at least some effort.

The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale University describe the start and end of the lesson as being “important moments” of instruction. They describe the signifiance of these critical times of the lesson in rather bold terms:

The events that occur during these windows can influence the engagement of students in their learning as well as their ability to synthesize major concepts.

So, as soon as the lesson starts (or better: as soon as the kids walk through the classroom door), give your students something to do!

This can be:

  • A quick quiz or worksheet (requiring around five minutes to complete)
  • A question written on the board that the students have to answer
  • A quick vocabulary game (more on games here)
  • An ICT based task (e.g. using iPads to find out how Oliver Cromwell died, completing an online quiz about dinosaurs or writing a short blog post)
  • A role-play or conversation starter with students working in small groups (particularly good for language classes)
  • A practical construction activity (e.g. ‘Use the coins to make fifty-five pence’, or ‘Use the molecular modeling kits to make a molecule of glucose’)
  • Cut and stick activities (e.g. matching words to descriptions, adding labels to diagrams, making pictures out of shapes, etc.)
  • Surprise scenarios (e.g. turning your classroom into a ‘crime scene’, and getting your students to take samples and follow clues)
  • A QR code treasure hunt (these are particularly good fun, and are also a great way to build ICT into your lessons).
  • A Kahoot! quiz

I’m sure that you’ll probably have other ideas to add to this list too, and that’s fantastic! If not, then don’t worry; formulating quick and productive starter activities is a learning process but the good news is that the more you do it, the more ideas you’ll have!

Remember: after the starter activity has finished, always review what was done. Get the students to mark each other’s quizzes, or comment on each other’s blog posts, or whatever assessment method you feel is appropriate for the activity.

Once that’s been done, you can move on to the next crucial step in the teaching and learning process: defining the learning outcomes (to be covered next week).

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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