Touchpaper problem #5: How can I start a lesson well?

Touchpaper problem #5: How can I start a lesson well?

A bad beginning makes a bad ending.
Euripedes, Aeolus

I have demonstrated my epigram more times than I like to remember; almost every unsuccessful lesson I’ve taught has started badly.  Whatever the cause: a disorderly entrance (latecomers, a fight at breaktime, my being distracted), a poorly pitched hook (inaccessible, uninspiring or poorly connected to the lesson), or my own disorganisation (inability to connect the computer, missing worksheets, lost books) the result is the same: a gradual, collective realisation that the lesson is spiralling out of my control.

In the hope of diminishing the incidence of such lessons, the fifth of Laura McInerney’s seven touchpaper problems runs: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

At next Saturday’s touchpaper problems party I will be facilitating the group tackling this problem.  I’d planned to avoid pre-empting discussions and synthesise what I’d learned by blogging subsequently.  However, having seen Laura’s post on the topic and the insightful comments it has attracted, and examined the depth of prior comment offered on the fourth question by my fellow facilitator, Michael Slavinsky, I decided to draft some ideas in advance, in the hope of:
– exploring the different ways the question can be framed and open the debate
– laying out my own current practice – so those attendings on the day can guard against my own solutions
– providing a discussion of use to teachers thinking about their own entry routines.
I would welcome comments, whether or not readers are attending the party.


How do we get this as quickly as possible?

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Frame #1 – What is a good routine/strategy to manage student entry to the classroom?

I begin the lesson with a slide on the whiteboard showing the lesson question and a ‘do now:’ a task (self-explanatory or clearly explained, accessible at all levels and with an appropriate extension) designed to hook students into the lesson.  I stand in the doorway, at right angles to incoming students, allowing me to welcome them one-by-one while scanning the room.  The first four students give out folders, the next one or two give out whiteboard pens or any sheets needed immediately.  Students sit where they like as long as they do so quickly and choose their neighbours wisely.  As soon as possible, students should be sitting, writing their response on whiteboards (as a rule of thumb, most should fill their whiteboards with ideas).

Once everyone is in, I stand at the front, scanning and using carefully chosen language to ‘narrate’ student behaviour (‘I see Robbie writing something interesting, I see Ahmed just getting started…’  Once everyone is sitting and writing, I may begin to move towards anyone who has been slow in starting – by the time I reach them, they are usually settled.  Then I’ll circulate, nudging students for any last changes (bags on the floor, writing), checking answers, offering encouragement, challenging individuals to develop
their points further, giving hints, and picking up on issues I noticed as they came in – upset children, people who wanted to talk to me.  (Throughout the sequence so far, no student is allowed to ask me anything unless there is a medical emergency taking place (i.e., never)).

Then, three or four minutes after students entered and with everyone having some ideas as to the answer, I ask for students’ attention: pens down, everyone looking at me, I start calling for feedback on the hook.

If this goes to plan, the start is smooth, purposeful, business-like – all students are learning as quickly as possible.  The accent is on immediate engagement in the task – I agree with Laura on this point, there is no time to waste.  The hook, designed to intrigue students and getting them thinking, changes every lesson; the routine for approaching it is set in stone & students know what I expect of them. Whiteboards make students’ participation visible: they can pretend to think, but they can’t pretend to write their ideas; I can see everyone’s thoughts and offer immediate feedback.  The prohibition on talking to me may sound cruel, but it allows me to scan the room and get everyone settled, I can then deal with individuals’ needs a minute or two later when everyone else is already learning.

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Frame #2 – How do we hook students into a lesson?

I appreciate that fetishising ‘engagement’ is problematic: I believe in clear structures and students’ adherence to simple routines, for their own benefit and that of their peers; brilliant starters in chaotic rooms are wholly ineffective.  Equally, I am convinced that we ignore the psychology of learning and students’ emotional reactions to us, our subject and our lesson at our peril.

Classroom climate:
I try to create something for which I suspect all teachers aim: I want my lessons  to be safe, challenging, interesting and worthwhile.  So, I treat students with respect, I hear from everyone (ensuring I do by using lollipop sticks) and make sure students listen to each other too.  When I had my own classroom, I spent time creating a classroom which sought to embody this: famous historians, quotations about history, values I wanted students to show, key ideas and strategies.  I also used to play music as students entered every lesson, to frame the environment – and to give students a cue as to the time available.  I try to develop good relationships with students, talk to them outside lessons, look out for them when they have problems and so on.

I’ve become increasingly agnostic as to the efficacy of pursuing student motivation in and of itself; in preference I aim to ensure all students succeed in challenging, worthwhile tasks, so I can be sure they’ve learned and which may build subsequent motivation.  For this I rely on the conventional foundations of good teaching: challenge, support, planning, assessment, questioning.  I also spend time trying to demonstrate that what students are studying is of relevance, whether it’s the lesson, unit or the subject as a whole.  Finally, I try to engender motivation by using a good hook for each lesson…

There’s probably a post in this one day: I’ve always been pretty good at employing introductory stimulus material: initial activities which intrigue students and set up the key ideas for the lesson (at least compared to the other facets of my teaching).  This may mean asking questions about a visual source, a tricky problem (asking who is the logical choice of ruler on Cromwell’s death, for example) or a near-impossible task we will return to and master in the lesson.

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Frame #3 – How do we get students into the main lesson activity most effectively?

I build towards the main activity of the lesson through a series of intermediary steps, each of which I see as crucial.  The main task is only reached after the hook, a link back to the previous lesson (to aid recall and demonstrate lessons’ connections and direction) and the sharing of learning intentions.  I would be unhappy to omit any of these; on the rare occasions I do, lessons seem to prove less effective than usual.  To quote Daniel Willingham:

A good deal of time – often ten or fifteen minutes… is spent setting up the goal, or to put it another way, persuading students that it’s important to know how to determine the probability of a chance event….  Spending a lot of time clarifying the conflict follows a formula for storytelling from, of all places, Hollywood.  The central conflict in a Hollywood film starts about twenty minutes into the standard one-hundred-minute movie.”
Why Don’t Students Like School?, pp. 74-5

There is also a question as to what productive problem-solving is.  Teachers’ hold conflicting opinions about, for example, the validity of memory exercises or discovery learning.  However, I’m sure this goes beyond the intent of the question, so I’m going to define student effort towards any problem I have set as ‘productive.’

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Frame #4 – Which of my actions are redundant?

This synthesises Frames 1-3 through a different lens: what can we cut?  I’m asking myself this more often, since reading Good to Great and adopting the belief that one foundation of success involves stripping out anything that’s not essential or brilliant: cutting out the good and the ok to leave more time and energy for the great.  I’ve spent far more time in my career considering Frames 1-3 than Frame 4.  My lessons take time to get to the main point; if I forced myself to begin the lesson’s main activity after fifteen minutes, rather than twenty, would students benefit?  What would I cut to do so?

I looked up the distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions
– A necessary condition is one without which the aim will not be achieved (a planned activity for students on entry?)
– A sufficient condition is one which guarantees our aim will be achieved (hard to envisage: high intrinsic motivation on every student’s part?)

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Frame #5 – Can any strategy fit all students or all teachers?

Who are these students?  Are they happy or sad?  Do they enjoy school or count the hours to escape?  Is it Monday morning after a good night’s sleep, or Friday period 5 after a litre of Lucozade?  Will my techniques work with another individual’s teaching style or in another school context?  Many comments on Laura’s post expressed scepticism as to there being any answers; for example, Teacher Toolkit wrote:

There is NO simple answer to this. Every lesson is unique. Every class and every teacher different. Each lesson; each day, is equally very different. Monday period 1 vs. Friday period 5?”

So are there any universals?  I suspect there are.  I don’t want to see teaching mechanised into rote procedures, but I’m convinced there are best practices we can share, providing actions teachers can improve upon and a repertoire from which they can then choose according to their context.

There are some cracking comments on Laura’s original post, but I’d encourage more responses below; your ideas will surely be of use, whether to me, to other teachers or for the touchpaper problems party.