A breakdown of...starter activities
"But sir, what's the title..?"
I bloody love a good starter. Whether it is a breaded mushroom in a low-end chain restaurant (this says a lot about my upbringing...), or a ten-question retrieval quiz, I am all for it.
Now, the use of starters and plenaries as part of 'good' lessons is certainly nothing new. In fact, they are one of the few elements of education that have remained unchanged for the past twenty-or-so years, with NQTs being taught their benefits in the classroom. Back in 2004, while JoJo was telling everyone to 'Leave (Get Out)' and Christina Milian was dipping it low, the DfE were advising teachers that:
"Starters exploit the prime learning time at the beginning of lessons when pupils are often at their most receptive and concentration levels are high. Effective starters are about purposeful, whole-class, interactive teaching involving all pupils." (DfE, 2004)
So, clearly all new teachers are certainly aware of the benefits of starter activities and I am sure that we are all able to think up weird and wonderful tasks to engage students. The real difficulty, though, is making this last throughout the academic year, when our time is running out and we still have a whole unit to get through (damn you, 9-1 GCSE!!)
So here are some ideas of starter activities that can keep students engaged - many will be familiar, but perhaps there are a couple here that you could add to your ever-expanding career repertoire:
1) Get students to retrieve
A retrieval quiz is one of the most popular starter activities, particularly in recent years since retrieval practice became fashionable (see my previous blog post for an introduction to this). This is a great method for engaging examined groups with the core content of your subject and easing the burden of revision further down the line. While it might not be the most engaging starter activity, it certainly gets the whole class involved and could be used a way of introducing new topics (particularly if they are connected to previous work). A simple ten-mark quiz on mini whiteboards is a quick and easy starter, or teachers could use digital platforms such as Kahoot! to spice the whole thing up a little (just beware of that one pupil that puts 'Adolf Hitler' as his name. Every. Damn. Time.)
For Key Stage Three classes, the use of retrieval quizzes is perhaps less popular (no doubt due to the waves of teachers complaining of over testing); however, by introducing an element of fun, we could still use them effectively in the classroom. In History, rather than asking students for a particular date, event or name - I often ask KS3 students to 'give me something in the course beginning with A', or 'give me the name of a female from the course'. You could even write ten answers on the board and have students create the question; this makes the entire quiz low stakes and the whole thing is differentiated by outcome.
2) Get students to discover
There are two things about History that make it the best subject to teach. First of all, it never changes, so we barely need to replace textbooks or adjust our teaching based on recent developments (like I imagine Politics, Economics and the sciences all need to). Let's face it, every one who studied History to GCSE has had to study the World Wars and Nazi Germany - it is almost a right of passage.
Secondly, the thing that History has going for it is the element of mystery and student discovery, which often does not exist in most subjects. One of the best starter activities that maximises this element of mystery, is to begin the lesson with a piece of source material. It could be a video clip of a twentieth-century revolution, a Victorian painting or a handwritten letter from the 1500s. Imagine pupils coming into a class, not seeing a title on the board and not knowing what they will be learning about. Instead, they have to work in pairs/groups/as a class to figure out the title of the lesson - this is student engagement at its finest. Particularly as schools begin to move away from constrained curricula (see the latest issue of Impact), these starters could be a great way to broaden student learning beyond the scheme of work.
3) Get students to appreciate
If 'discovery' is the greatest thing about History teaching, then the perceived lack of 'relevance' is one of the worst things. As the world advances towards artificial intelligence and computer-based problem solving, the future of my subject is in jeopardy. Students are turning to Computer Science, Economics and 'STEAM', which they see as being more relevant in the modern world - so it may be useful to bring this fight into the classroom...
Having a starter activity that enables students to appreciate the relevance of what they are studying could be a way of improving engagement with the entire course, not just this lesson topic. For example, I found that students were more involved with our recent topic on empires and migration, when topics were linked to modern-day issues such as Brexit and the Windrush Generation. I would start most lessons with a clip from a news report or a BBC article, which immediately grabbed the attention of the students. Asking: "Did anyone see this last night?" and having one boy reply: "Oh yes, I did, sir!" makes all other pupils sit up and listen to whatever it is that they have missed.
Understanding the relevance of a subject or skill to the modern world will always improve engagement. Now, I just need to find a way to make the witch craze relevant to the modern day - thank God, Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a thing again...
4) Get students to question
Let's face it, learning is hard. So, its no wonder that so many students switch off from lessons within the first few minutes (I have no concrete evidence for this, other than the kid asleep at the front of my class...) One way to reduce cognitive load, right from the outset, is to break down any difficult terminology or question; students could discuss this at the beginning of the lesson to come up with their own definition/ideas.
For difficult topics at Key Stage Three, I ensure that all students write the definitions of key terms that are relevant to the lesson - writing these in a different colour could be yet another tool to aid learning. These key definitions could then be revised through retrieval quizzes.
5) Get students to endeavour
Maria von Trapp once banged on about how we should 'start from the very beginning', but sometimes, Maria, it is not a very good place to start. One criticism with Generation Alpha (or whatever name we are giving to our current students...) is that they are too reliant on a 'spoon-feeding' culture. Everything is just a click away, be it directions, telephone numbers or looking up a fact/figure. Our students are more likely to check the current weather by looking at their phones, rather than just looking out of the window!
So, perhaps adding an element of challenge and discovery to our lessons would help to counteract this demand for 'information now'. Try flipping the lesson on its head and begin with the overall outcome - whether this is a formula, a military defeat or an account of a natural disaster. Students then have to work through the lesson (perhaps in groups, using source material) to reach the intended outcome. This element of manageable challenge will stretch all students; just be careful with the tail end of the class, who could quickly become disengaged if the challenge is too great!
So, no matter the method, starter activities are incredibly useful for getting students engaged with their learning. They not only improve productivity and attainment, but also have a significant impact on pupil behaviour once they become part of a routine. As curricula become more constrained and the pressure of time increases, an effective starter activity will no doubt become more significant. It may also be one of the only remaining elements of 'fun' in an increasingly exam-focused education system, so as teachers we should try to let our imaginations run wild!