For as long as I’ve been teaching (12 years) the received wisdom on the ‘right’ way to teach is to deliver a three, then four (or even five) part lesson: starter, guided bit where teacher is allowed to talk, main course and pudding. Sorry, too juvenile to resist. Last of the four, but in no way the least, is of course the plenary.

There’s lots I could say about the efficacy of this structure, but broadly speaking I’m not too concerned: yes it may have been a shot across the bows of the professionalism of teachers, but it’s certainly helped to erode some of the very worst practice.

Anyway, my subject here is the starter. Unsurprisingly, they’re meant to start off your lesson and engage students in active learning the moment they shuffle though your classroom door. I’ve seen (and been responsible for) countless starter activities either projected (or written in the old days) on the board or scattered over desks. This means that the keen beans who arrived early don’t have to lose precious learning time while they wait for the cool cohort who will cut it is fine as you allow ’em to. Prompt and engaging “bell work” means that the kids are ‘on task’ immediately without you having to say or do anything much and allowing time to get your register taken. What could be wrong with that?

Well, I was somewhat startled to read Phil Beadle‘s “dissenting view” in his cracking book How To Teach, where he posits that starters are “the ultimate, conclusive evidence that the absurdly patronising and utterly ineffective micro-management the government has sought to impose on schoolteachers in the interests of raising our ‘professional standards’ has gone way out of control.” Strong stuff.

He goes on to advise that we don’t bother with them unless observed or alternatively, “teach a lesson that is so good nobody will notice that it doesn’t follow the government’s strictures”. His main objection seems to be the amount of planning needed to make this possible. Time which could, in his view, be spent more effectively doing something that actually makes an impact of students’ achievement. Like using formative assessment to mark their books.

I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly endorse this advice, but I’m always intrigued to hear someone straining against what is often unchallenged orthodoxy.

Phil ends his tirade with the prediction that, “the starter will eventually go the way of the rah-rah skirt, the puffball and twenty inch flares, and will be thought of as having been every bit as ridiculous.”

Is he right? Would be really interested e to hear of any solid research which contradicts him.


@DKMead has sent me a link to his blog where details the research of Geoff Petty on Evidence Based Teaching and John Hattie’s Visible Learning. Their research shows that the first 10 minutes of the lesson can have a massive impact on learning and progress. The recommendation to spending this time most effectively is three part:

1. Show a visual representation of the learning that will take place during the the lesson
2. Set learning intentions that are not outcome based but focus on what will be learned
3. Use questioning to recall prior learning

No surprises here: the second two in particular are things we’ve surely all been doing for ages. The trick is to combine all three.