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Routines, habits and consistency in my classroom

Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) recently tweeted something that I’ve not been able to get out of head since:

When it comes to teaching, variety is not the spice of life. Routines, habits and consistency rule the game.

Adam Boxer, 2021

I realised it is exactly what I have been telling my ITT students this year to mitigate the fact that they arrive in October and begin teaching without witnessing first-hand the slog that has gone into establishing routines to enable effective behaviour for learning. To their fresh eyes, they often assume the class is inherently disciplined, focused and respectful to their teacher. Often, this is just not the case.

So, this blog is an explanation of the routines, habits and consistency I attempt to build into the classes whom I teach.

  1. The threshold

I set a very clear and firm rule with all my classes with regards how they enter my space: Once you reach the threshold of the classroom, the lesson has begun and I expect you to complete your bell task (‘Do now’) immediately at the back of your book.

To clarify, the threshold is the imaginary line that marks the entrance to my classroom door. Too often students arrive, perhaps after the first students whose previous lessons’ classrooms are closer to mine, who have perhaps begun the bell task and these later enterers disrupt their learning by having a chat, or staring gormlessly at the board, with their coat on and not a pen in hand. I do not accept this. The lesson begins the very moment your foot steps on my classroom’s threshold.

My marker for being late to the lesson is also dictated by how quickly they begin learning, not when they pass through the threshold. For example, arriving on the bell, but sat at a desk with your book open minutes later is the same to me as arriving, physically, after the bell has gone.

2. Greeting at the door

In order to achieve the above expectation, this routine is vital. Where absolutely practicable, and aiming to do so without fail, I greet my students at the door, with the bell task ready on the screen to ensure a prompt start to the lesson.

When I greet students, I always ensure (even if I am not feeling it that day) to:

  • Smile
  • Say ‘Good morning/Good afternoon’
  • Then say ‘Please can you turn to the back of your book and complete the bell task, thank you’.

Crucially, I expect students to also smile and say ‘Good morning/afternoon’. In fact, I do not allow them not to. When they do not, I insist they do. If I am modelling polite and respectful behaviour from students, I expect the very same in return. AND, I expect it from EVERY SINGLE STUDENT. This creates a culture of respect and ensures my classroom is a pleasant and safe environment, ripe for learning.

Students who fail to meet this expectation are sanctioned in line with the school’s behaviour policy – consistently, and with no exception, though I find I rarely need to do this. Also, an automaticity from students to do this kicks in pretty quickly – far quicker than one might think.

3. Bell task/Do Now

As a matter of routine, I use a form of recall/retrieval practice as the opener of my lesson. This takes different forms, and over time I vary the diet, but to begin until the routine is embedded I use a simple low-stakes quiz of approximately six questions.

The questions are a mix of content from last lesson, last week and last term as appropriate to build strengthen students’ long-term memory. It might look like this:

1. How did Dickens feel about the vulnerable and disadvantaged in society?
2. What word means ‘intending to teach’?
3. What is the enemy of man in ‘Exposure’?
4. What does the mother lean on ‘like a wishbone’ in Poppies?
5. Which poem starts ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running’?
6. What is the speaker remembering in the poem ‘Remains’?

4. Cold calling

The only time I allow students to put their hands up in a questioning phase of a lesson is if wish to build upon, or challenge a student’s answer. Otherwise I cold-call to ensure no opt-out from students and so they know I will continually check their understanding and I expect them to participate actively in the lesson.

Of course, cold calling is only effective in the right classroom environment. A culture I refer to often (inspired by the work of Tom Sherrington – @teacherhead) as a culture of error.

As practitioners, we are so often concerned with students actively avoiding errors/mistakes/misunderstandings, but this solution is actually focused on created a ‘culture of error’, that enables a teacher to efficiently ensure that every learner in the classroom is truly understanding the lesson content.

A significant way to do this, is to shift the mindset of the teacher – even breaking ingrained habits where necessary – to ensure the right culture and learning environment permeates the room and focused on checking understanding for everyone.

Tom suggests these useful examples of such a shift in mindset:

  • From “Does anyone know”? to “Does everyone know?”
  • From “Can anyone do it?” to “Can everyone do it?”
  • From “Well done to those getting it right” to “Let’s find out who still can’t get this right and help them out”.

This shift in teachers’ communication with learners is incredibly powerful, but needs to be embedded deeply within the pedagogy of a teacher and become habitual. This does not work if applied on a superficial level, or if only deployed infrequently.

This must be the mindset every single time.

How do I, as a teacher, ensure that every student in my class knows the answer to these questions? How do I avoid an illusory notion of assessing all students’ understanding?

Consider again my bell task from routine three above.

With tasks such as these, the instinct may be to pose questions in the vein of “Does anyone know the answer for question 1?” or perhaps cold-call and select a student e.g. ‘Jake, what did you get for question 1?’ followed by congratulations to Jake for a correct answer and a cursory acknowledgement to the other learners of ‘did you all get that?’ followed by a few nods. The problem is, I may feel that because I have heard a correct answer that my students understand – but this is so often not the case. Even those students who fill in blank pages after Jake’s offering retrospectively have not actually learnt much, except how to avoid my attention as their teacher.

Furthermore, after working your way through the questions, we might ask the students to tell us their score. ‘Ok Year 10, hands up if you got 6/6… 4/6… 2/6’ etc. However, this is such a poor proxy of gauging the understanding of learners, but it happens all the time! (If it has not happened to you – I do not believe you!)

We need to find the errors, the gaps, the mistakes first.

This is how I changed my mindset when giving feedback on this task to instil a culture of error and ensure that everyone in the classroom knew the answers to these questions by the end of the feedback session.

After students’ allotted time elapsed, I asked them to put their pens down, close their books, face the board and framed the feedback session with:

Thank you, Year 10. Now, I am not interested in those of you who got the right answers, I am far more interested in those who perhaps have a gap in their responses today. I would imagine that perhaps question 1 and 4 might have been struggle for you. Hands up those of you who did not get an answer for those…

Notice how I make it OK, almost expected for some students, not to have a correct answer in their books. This works well and six hands are raised aloft. I praise this with a simple ‘good’. It is vital to see gaps in learning as part of the experience, with positivity, as students know they will be addressed soon. I then continue with:

Of course, there may be other gaps too. So, let’s find out who has not got the correct the answers and help them out. Fraser, let’s see if you can help everyone understand the answer to question 1. Please open your book and tell us your answer. Everyone else, open your books too as Fraser is going to help us all. Pop your hand up if you had a gap for Q1…Fraser is going to help the six of you with gaps to make sure everyone understands this answer. The rest of you should be ready to do the same with next questions too, where you can.

Of course, Fraser was a deliberate choice in cold-call – I knew he had the answer, but I want the atmosphere to be a supportive one, where students help everyone know something. I had already made it clear that I wanted to seek out gaps in their learning, and the lesson’s focus shifted to helping everyone out.

A similar process followed for the feedback of questions 2-5, and we all had the goal of making sure everyone understood.

The process ended with me posing this question to a series of students: “Does everyone now know the answers to the questions? Jack? Abbie? Becky?” Perhaps due to the culture in the classroom, Becky actually responded by suggesting (unprompted by me), and addressed to the class: ‘Can you confirm that you have all the answers now? I don’t think Mr Hale will move on until everyone does’.

This is not a perfect example of a lesson. This is not the finished article. But, this shift in teacher mindset towards the deliberate intent to “Can everyone do it?” is essential if we are going to begin to address this problem in teaching.

5. Do not allow students to paraphrase answers verbally

You may not have experienced this in the classroom, but if you have, please know it is a HUGE bugbear of mine.

Imagine, if you will, that you have the students to write down a response to the question: How does Scrooge juxtapose Fezziwig?

Here’s what the student writes (a real example):

WhilstScrooge is presented as a miser who exploits his clerk,Fezziwig is presented as his antithesis: a benevolent and generous boss.

Here’s what the student says (a real example):

So, um, it’s sorta like Scrooge is a miser who is a rubbish boss, whilst Fezziwig is far more benevolent.

Students have an odd habit sometimes of thinking we are asking them to paraphrase a written response or verbalising an answer from memory when called on. NO. NO. NO.

If I am to develop academic register in oral, as well as written responses, I must insist on the students reading out the answer EXACTLY AS IT IS WRITTEN ON THE PAGE. This has a huge benefit to the whole class who are then steeped in academic language that underpins strong writing.

Of course there are more…

There will, of course, be more routines I establish, but these are the ones that have had the greatest impact on my practice and will hopefully allow you to reflect upon your own.


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