Why I’ve changed how I use starters…

For many years I used starters as a way of controlling behaviour and settling pupils down to the lesson. Many (many) years ago, as an NQT, I spent hours making resources to place on desks before pupils arrived or to hand out as they walked through the door. I worried about how to engage them immediately; how to do so in an interesting way; how to link the starter to the rest of the lesson; or how to make it part of a 3 part…then 4 part lesson. I definitely think I overthought this process : )

I purchased books promising 100 starter ideas but found it difficult to engage with most of them. In many cases, I have spent an inordinate amount of time planning this task, with some successes and some failures along the way.

So what has changed? As a teacher of 14 years, 5 schools and 2 countries, I find myself looking at this task in a different way and asking myself ‘what is it’s purpose?’

As teachers we reflect on our practice constantly, perhaps obsessively so, and for me, starters and plenaries are no exception (I think I’ll leave plenaries for another post!) I want to not only make the most of the time pupils spend with me, but also to ensure they are enjoying and engaging with what they are learning.

Here is an overview of a few things have changed for me in terms of how I now use starters:

1. They are low risk

There is a lot of talk about this at the moment and ‘low stakes testing’ has become a bit of a buzz word phrase and I am all for introducing tasks that seem low risk for pupils. Previously, some tasks have confused pupils or left them with partial answers which then led to shyness on their part. However, by introducing tasks that are low risk pupils feel more confident when engaging. The tasks I choose are not make or break and they are only requiring pupils to ‘remember’ or use knowledge they already have. I also want pupils to feel empowered and self-assured at the beginning of the lesson and have found that the less input I have at this stage, the more confident they feel about the answers they have supplied independently.

2. Fun

This is for me as much as them as I love making quizzes and games! I am trying to see how many quick fire games I can currently devise for starters…so far I’ve managed: multiple choice quizzes, free recall quizzes, true or false, anagrams, crosswords, word searches, fill in the blanks and select the correct answer. I’m working on at least 5 more as I write ; ) Not only does this make it fun for them, but it also introduces a competitive edge which for a few minutes makes them forget they are learning!

3. Short

I don’t think there should be many rules with regarding starters and teachers should always follow the lead of the pupils: which is why sometimes a starter has become a full lesson (I’m thinking of a GCSE class who became so engrossed in a debate based on their starter answers that the bell had rung before we had even looked at the main task). However, I try, wherever possible, to make my starters short and sharp so pupils don’t feel it is a laborious task. I set a timer and make the instructions simple.

4. Based on previous knowledge

This is linked to my thinking of ‘what do I want them to learn?’ ‘how do I want them to use their knowledge and skills?’

I always look back at the previous lesson and then consider my learning objective for the current one. Then I select parts of the learning from the previous and use that as a basis for the starter. I’m an avid reader of anything to with memory retention and recall and I think this has really improved the way in which I am able to support my pupils in terms of accessing information they have learned and stored away. It also gives them a way of linking what they know to how they approach a new task.

5. I try not to introduce new content

I am definitely guilty of introducing new content in the starter and asking pupils to engage with it. This almost never worked for me and just meant that I then had to stop the lesson, re-explain the task and set pupils off again. Quite often, if it was too hard , they then forgot the starter when engaging with the rest of the lesson so it turned out to be almost useless. I now try and save any new content for the main body of the lesson and go through this step by step. If I have to introduce new content I try and keep it simple, fun and relevant and quite often use images rather than text.

6. A bridge between lessons

I have previously made reference to this but I cannot stress enough how important I have found the need to make concrete and transparent links between the learning in different lessons. As we know, no lesson is stand alone and is all part of a bigger plan that we have for our pupils’ learning. They won’t always see it this way, but by making a clear bridge at the start of each lesson it does become easier for them to make those links themselves.

7. I allow them to go further

As mentioned, I am a victim of allowing starters to go on for far too long. While I do not want this to happen too often, I am in favour of letting starters progress further if this is helpful and driven by students. I always ask for feedback after a starter just so pupils can consolidate their knowledge but also so they feel the task is valid and significant to their learning. This usually adds 5 minutes to the task itself and quite often leads to fun and energetic discussions!

8. I think about what I want from pupils and what they need for the lesson

This is linked to my metaphor of a ‘bridge’ between lessons. As well as linking lessons, I also consider exactly what it is that I want them to have achieved by the end of a lesson. If it is to accurately use similes and metaphors in a paragraph, then my starter is not going to focus on metaphors. It may instead ask pupils to identify similes in a paragraph or to choose the correct definition. If they can use recognition here, then they will be able to then link that knowledge to the main body of the lesson. It also means that if the recognition is not there, I need to re-teach. My aim is to have the skills and knowledge needed for the lesson, at the forefront of their memory…before it goes back into storage!

None of these ideas are new and I’m definitely not reinventing the wheel. They are based on a lot of reading and research, and if you’ve read previous blogs you’ll know how inspired I am by Rosenshine! What’s clear is that they have revolutionised the way I use a task that has most definitely increased in importance in my planning.

Long live the lesson starter!