When I trained to be a teacher lessons were supposed to come, like a meal in a fancy restaurant, in three parts – starter, main and plenary. The concept of a ‘starter’ became fetishised and developed into a systematic obsession. INSET courses on starters seemed to happen every week. They were a common focus for lesson observations and producing resources for them clogged up reprographics departments for months on end. Huge, huge amounts of time and effort for a part of the lesson which, although it expanded as time went on, was initially only supposed to last five or so minutes. It was as if we had all come to believe that if our starter was whizbangy, engaging and differentiated everything else would just fall into place.
And make no mistake, ‘starters’ were supposed to be whizzbangy. Laminated card sorts were good. Putting a laminated card sort in an envelope and labelling it “TOP SECRET” was even better. Using police tape to make a classroom look like a crime scene was best practice.
I would love to say that as a younger teacher I was wiser than my peers, standing back and seeing this for the nonsense it was but, of course, I did not. I could fill a blog with creative starter activities that now fill me with as much shame as they once did pride. Although I have spent years weeding them out of my planning they occasionally still jump out at me, lurking forgotten on dusty old hard-drives. Only recently an awful old starter I once created, which used choosing the next England football manager as a metaphor for the succession crisis of 1066, exploded out of a folder called ‘1066 and stuff’ like a malevolent, mocking Jack in the Box.
As time went by and I became more experienced my ‘starters’ did become more rigorous, historically authentic and considerably less effort to plan. A couple of years ago they typically involved responding to a historical source linked to the content of the main part of the lesson. What they had in common with my old style of ‘starter’ was they usually looked forward and not back, which meant that while they were certainly better than they had been, the work produced by students was inevitably of limited quality – they couldn’t complete it to a higher standard simply because they did not yet know the content on which it was based.
I developed a sneaking sense that the time would probably be better spent testing my students on what they had learned in the past and, indeed, with my KS4 students this is what I did as exam dates drew closer. However, still to a point indoctrinated by the ‘hook ‘em in’ philosophy, I lacked the courage to unashamedly roll this out to all my classes; after all, what could be less engaging than beginning a lesson with a test?
Two years ago I finally plucked up the courage to stand by my convictions and, as a matter of routine, replaced all my ‘starters’ with ‘reviews’. Fifteen short questions, read out by me, completed in silence, to be self-marked by each student. Five on the previous lesson. Five on the topic. Five on anything they might have learned about since they had started history at secondary school. A doddle to plan, and homework suddenly became much simpler than it had been too – children were simply told to take exercise books and knowledge organisers home and learn them, using the read/cover/recite/write/check method we taught them in Year 7.
As I had expected, work improved. Extended writing and essays became more detailed and discussions in lessons more nuanced as children referenced previously covered material with greater confidence and fluency. What I had not anticipated was the enthusiasm with which children adapted to the change. Any fears I had about sullen resentment were soon dispelled. To my pleased surprise, students looked forward to these tests. They hissed ‘yesss” and even fist-pumped when I read out answers and they got it right. They groaned when they got answers wrong that they just knew they should have known. One boy even exploded out of his chair and shouted “GET IN!” the first time he got full marks. I found children testing each other in the corridor at break. Two girls who sat next to each other drew tables in the back of their books to keep track of their scores. What I had one believed would be miserable drudgery turned out to be full of fun and joy. Scores, overall, steadily rose.
I will never return to ‘starters’. I am sorry I persevered with them for so long. I should have known better.
So welcome to my lesson. Pens out. One to fifteen in your margins. Nothing new, it’s a review. Question one..