Getting better at planning: confessions of an experienced teacher who should know better…

26 Jul

Learning Styles


So here goes: I’m the annoying teacher at your school whose eyes light up at the mention of a brand new idea. Yes, I’ve tried everything. Brain gym? Tick. Learning Styles? Tick. SEAL? Tick. Philosophy for Children? Tick. Thinking hats? Tick. Project-based learning? Tick. Talk for Writing? Tick. APP? Tick. And when I say ‘tried everything’, I mean going in all guns blazing without stopping to think about whether any of these things are actually having impact on my students’ learning. Now some of the things listed above aren’t even bad ideas. For example, I think Pie Corbett’s Talk For Writing is a genuinely interesting method of teaching writing. Likewise, I still enjoy project-based learning now and again but I don’t think it’s the answer to all of my educational prayers.

This year, however, I’ve been trying hard to refine my practice and have taken a long, hard and sometimes uncomfortable look at what kind of learning goes on in my classroom. The problem I have is that I don’t give myself time to embed pedagogical ideas into my everyday practice. I’m like a magpie attracted to shiny things: ooh what’s that over there? A new initiative? Why not! So this year, to coincide with me moving to a new school, I thought it about time to decide what actually works for me and to focus on getting better at doing these things rather than introduce anything new into my practice. Since becoming an assistant head, I just didn’t have the luxury of time to plan what I call ‘jazz hands’ lessons every day. I needed to start planning lessons much more efficiently.

This is the first in a series of posts which will explore how I have attempted to overcome some of the planning issues I’ve encountered over many years of teaching!

First up…

Problem number 1: The start of my lessons are often chaotic.

I’ve never been one for routines. I don’t take a register (until admin remind me that I’ve forgotten); I don’t do silent reading; I don’t check students’ homework as they come into class; I don’t make them line up before entering. I wish I had got into the habit of doing these things above; some of the best colleagues I’ve worked with do these things regularly and it works for them. The slightly embarrassing truth of my classroom routine is that students come in and I talk to them as they get themselves ready to write down the learning objective. If there’s one thing that I’ve been working hard on this year it’s getting into good routines which are based on quick, engaging starters. I have a range that I use in a cycle so students get used to the kind of activities we are doing. This has led to an increase in the quality of their thinking and responses at the beginning of the lesson. Now it doesn’t take them 15 minutes before they’re really ready for some good learning.

Here are the six starters that I have been using this year.

Would you rather…?

Would you rather


This is linked to the topic we are studying and both options have pros and cons to them. Students have five minutes to discuss both options before we have a class vote. I then ask a couple of students who have picked opposing options to explore their reasoning. After, we then take another vote to see if any students have changed their mind.

Key Word Scrabble 



I saw this idea from @tombrush1982 and immediately, a few of us on Twitter were desperately trying to get the highest-scoring word based on the theme of PE. This is such a good way of introducing key words for a lesson because it adds an element of competition. Rather than listing words they think are relevant, students have to think more carefully about their choices to see if their word carries a high enough score.

Odd One Out 


Students are given four objects, places, people or words and, in groups, they have to decide what they think is the odd one out. I’ve found this to be a great starter because it is easy to make this more challenging by choosing things which can link in different ways. Students often will argue that their odd one out is much better than their peers’ choices!

What’s the question? 


This generation of students do not have the pleasure of watching the classic American quiz show ‘Jeopardy’. It is my absolute duty to let them into the wonders of this show! Plus, it’s a good way to get students to think about a range of questions. I try and choose an answer that would have at least three different questions related to our topic so students understand that exploratory questions are more challenging than closed questions.

Photo stimulus 

Photo Stimulus

Students look at a photograph for two minutes and take notes on what they think might be important. They cannot speak to anyone else during these two minutes. After, students exchange ideas and add to their notes. There are two ways I use the photo; either students have to write a caption for the photograph or they have to create an exploratory question to ask another student based on an idea in the photograph.

Thinking in role 

What would they say

The beginning of a sentence is displayed on the board. In pairs, students have to complete the sentence thinking carefully about what a specific character or famous person might think. This is a good activity to get them to understand different perspectives and to get a sense of different people’s/characters’ voices.

The school that I work in has a two week timetable so each of these starters is used, on average, three or four times during a topic. The feedback from my new students this year has been positive; many have said they like the variety of activities and that they feel they’re getting better with their responses because they’ve had several opportunities to develop their skills around a particular activity.

Time now for some wise words from Mel the Scientist…

Oh dear Debbie, Brain Gym?!! You need to have your ‘brain buttons’ reprogrammed; thank goodness one of us is a scientist.

A few years back I had a similar thought about the starts of my lessons – primarily to keep them busy while I sorted things out, but I’ll officially say I had an epiphany that students needed to be thinking from the second they stepped into my classroom.  I’ve always referred to them as ‘snappy starts’ and have tried out a few of those above so will give some quick science examples of these to show the contrast as well as introducing a few others I enjoy using with classes.

Would you rather? 


This works well in a situation where students have to apply something they have learnt previously to a new situation or to obtain information on prior knowledge of the class. I’ve used for both of these, for example ‘Would you rather be stepped on by an elephant or me wearing stiletto heels?’ This could precede or follow a lesson on the pressure part of a forces topic. Another example is ‘Would you rather drink a glass of dihydrogen monoxide or a glass of water?’ This is a trick question, maybe you can work out why yourselves!

Photo stimulus


Such a great one in the world of science, with photographs of ‘medical wonders’ and amazing electron microscope images there is much fun to be had. I take every opportunity to make this topical by taking images from BBC science news, but my latest discovery is the wonderful @IFLScience who provides an endless stream of amazing images as well as a summary of ‘This week in Science’ discoveries. There is an opportunity for audience participation here, as we’d love to hear ideas for how you use images but my current back catalogue includes ‘What question would you ask the scientist who took this picture?’ ‘What is wrong with or missing from this picture?’ and ‘What would you do next if you saw this?’

So, a few other examples of ‘snappy starts’ I have used:



One of the all-time favourites of students and staff (I often use it in training sessions too!) It is also a particular favourite of some of the more tricky students. Students like making these up themselves, but may need a little help to begin with as it’s trickier than it looks!

List as many…

Making lists

This is a variation on the party game my mum always called ‘Town, tree and country’ but it is now generally known as ‘Scattergories’ after the board game. Students try to name as many examples of something (for example, chemical elements with a single letter symbol) and are awarded one point for each one but a bonus two points for any that nobody else comes up with.

Draw a picture to explain/show

Draw a picture

I am terrible at drawing and my students particularly enjoy pointing this out to me on a regular basis. I do, however have wonderful pictures in my head of how I would explain a concept or summarise a process. So when I ask students to ‘Draw a picture to explain how…..’ I am mesmerised by both the way they think about things and their ability to transfer that onto a mini white board. It can range from ‘how pollutants form in engines’ to ‘why Christmas tree bulbs shouldn’t be wired in series’ to ‘how proteins leave a cell’. They may be allowed to use five words, three words or no words depending on how much I want to challenge them that day!

What’s your conclusion?

What's your conclusion

A science specific one, but given a bit of thought it could be adapted for Maths, Geography or DT. I show some information – perhaps a table of results, some observations or a graph and ask students to come up with a conclusion.  This can be taken further if students are asked to provide suggestions of what to do next, either more experiments to do or recommendations for particular people to follow.

Write instructions for…


So many possibilities for this one to use different styles or audiences. Examples I’ve used include write instructions for plotting a line graph, for balancing chemical equations or for separating two liquids but it is so much more fun if they do this in a particular way. For example ‘Using only pictures…’ or ‘Write instructions for Jay Z/my gran/Joey from TOWIE.’

Students’ thesaurus


You can do this with words you have already used but introduce a couple you have not yet introduced for students to predict their meanings. They come up with another word/few words that mean the same as…..

Three in a row

Three In A Row

Students are given three key words and have to write a sentence using the three words in that order. If a student arrives late, you can choose one of the sentences and ask a student to read it out without the key words and the latecomer decides what they think the missing words are (and will probably not be late next time!)

In our next post, we’ll be looking at how we’ve tried to overcome our second planning problem: designing over-complicated, time-consuming, superficial but fun activities that do not put challenging learning first!



2 Responses to “Getting better at planning: confessions of an experienced teacher who should know better…”

  1. vickysmith68 July 27, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on Vicky Smith.

  2. Georgia July 29, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    These are such great ideas, thank you for sharing.

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