Why start with a starter activity?
Briefly, the four-part lesson works (or doesn’t) like this. You tell children what they are going to learn (if you really want to waste some time, you can get them to copy it off the board); then you do some completely unrelated 10-minute activity that took an hour to prepare. After 20 minutes tidying up, you launch – half an hour into the lesson – into teaching them something. In theory, your class would then apply this knowledge independently, but you took too much time on the starter. At the end, you do a recap, in which you ask your class what they have learned, and they reply: “Nothing. We spent most of the lesson tidying up the Scrabble boards.” Philip Beadle, Education Guardian, 24th October 2006.
This is an old quote, but perfectly sums up a position when a teaching style is applied because you were told to by a senior leader, but the teacher failed to reflect on the impact and the reason why they undertook the activity in the first place.
Starters can actually be applied in many meaningful ways. They can be used as a mechanism to ensure retention of knowledge from previous topics, to get students to respond to previous feedback, to excite the class, to calm the class, to get them wondering about the lesson. All of these are very valid if the execution is good and practice is consistent, building habits in the learners.
The purpose of a starter at GCSE when using Craig’n’Dave resources is to provide engagement on entry. Students will often arrive at different times and you need to decide when the lesson should actually start. This is problematic as you don’t want to start the lesson only to have to repeat most of what you have just said. Equally you don’t want students having nothing to do until everyone else arrives. You need lessons to be self-starting and not dependent on who and how many students have arrived at the lesson. Whist starter activities can be irrelevant to the lesson itself depending on what you are trying to achieve; it is usually better if they focus on the topic in hand. We like to pose questions on the board, get the students to find out more about a topic and complete very short activities that can be thrown away. Critically, it doesn’t really matter if a student completes the activity or not. It is to engage them and get them thinking about the topic before the “real part” of the lesson begins. Students are therefore challenged from the get-go.
With a flipped classroom approach, students can also make a start on their workbooks (at GCSE), or activities (at A’level) without you even formally starting the lesson if you want to do that and instill this habit in the students. You can then pause them further into the lesson when it is calm and everyone has been in the classroom for a short period of time. Critically you don’t want a starter to dominate a lesson. You don’t want it to be reliant on how many students have arrived. You don’t want it to involve logistics that need explaining. You don’t want it to include packing up that will drain pace later. You don’t want it reliant on you!
You do want it to make sure all students can engage with something productive whilst they are waiting. You do want them to be in the right frame of mind for the lesson, to warm them up. You do want it to be brisk.