Rocks of Routine

By Jack Tavassoly-Marsh – Vice Principal and T&L Lead.

In this post, I am going to outline what a typical lesson looks like in my geography classroom on a daily basis. What are the rocks of routine that I use to set high expectations of myself and for the students that I teach? The quality of my teaching is based around several ‘rocks of routine’, pedagogical skills that I do habitually, yet I have had to really think about, and continue to reflect upon, which create lessons that have a real purpose, that being, effective learning over time, in my opinion. 

Rocks of routine become embedded over time, and these set the high expectations that I have from the students. I often say that the rocks of routine are the ‘cereal’, what you do on a daily basis, with minimal thinking/planning, that allow for great learning. When conversing with other teachers, especially when discussing observation ideology, I often say that I am not interested in seeing the ‘Full English Breakfast’, something that requires time at the weekend to put together when you know someone is visiting, and prefer to see the day to day quality of teaching/learning in the classroom, the ‘cereal’. You know where this is kept in the kitchen, and together with the milk, it can be put together in seconds. The process is simple, effective and consistent. This is what I aim for from my lessons.

I have been asked in the past; what are your strengths in terms of your classroom practice? It is always difficult to answer that question, as I always tend to focus on what I am trying to improve. However, I think the visitor to the lesson was expecting me to say AfL, differentiation, questioning, behaviour for learning etc, however my response at the time was; high expectations. Hopefully by writing about the rocks of routine I use below, it will improve my own teaching practice further, having to reflect whilst writing this post, but also show that effective teaching and learning is built upon high expectations from every lesson, every day. 

1. Entry to the classroom

Either – Students line up outside my classroom as there is space for this to happen. I don’t expect the students to wait in silence, however I do expect them to be silent once I get to the door (having been teaching inside the classroom during the lesson before, or from arriving from another classroom). I expect students to line up in single file. Once silent, and I insist upon this, I can address the class as a whole outside the classroom to ensure they are aware of the instructions for the first task. As students enter the classroom I make the point of doing the following:

– Smiling and welcoming the students by name

– Checking of uniform so that there are no issues that will come up once in the classroom that aren’t linked to learning. 

– Positively praising students for great effort/work from previous lessons.

Or – I stand at the door and welcome students as they arrive. Students are not expected to line up outside if I am already at the door. Students come in and get on with the task that has been set. Either way, I ensure that I am: 

– Smiling and welcoming the students by name

– Checking of uniform so that there are no issues that will come up once in the classroom that aren’t linked to learning. 

– Positively praising students for great effort/work from previous lessons.

High expectations of the students are set outside the classroom. Students enter on my terms and not theirs and are ready to learn straight away. 

2. Do it now first task

There has been a lot of writing within education recently on the use of knowledge retrieval questions and how to use knowledge organisers in the classroom. Having read articles by Joe Kirby and the book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ based on Michaela, this is something that I have tried to embed this year in the classroom. The positives I have found are straight forward. Students understanding of key geographical terminology has improved, with students widely using terminology correctly in both verbal and written responses. Therefore, post homework lessons start with questions based upon knowledge organiser homework, whereby students have self-quizzed and self-assessed their own understanding of key terminology and concepts within geography units that we have studied thus far. This has been since the start of the GCSE course for years 9, 10 and 11. The process hasn’t yet been embedded throughout KS3 geography, but is something that I am looking to promote, having trialled the use of knowledge organisers this year. 

Post HWK lessons:

First task – low stakes questions – related on the knowledge organiser that was set for the homework. 10 questions are set that range from:

– Match the key term with the definition

– Write out the definition for the following key term

– Write out the key term for the following definition

– Match the statistic (case study based) to the effect

I don’t take in scores for each student, however I do take in their homework books, a separate exercise book that all students in years 9 – 11 use for doing homework and practice exam questions. I expect to see two A4 pages of self-quizzing and self-assessing, using green pen (school and department policy) to show areas of misconception, or areas that require further understanding. 

Lessons without HWK being set:

First task – knowledge retrieval questions – related to topics/content that has been covered in the previous lesson, previous topic/month or previous year/topic depending upon year group and content covered. 

On the whiteboard is one simple PPT slide which I have posted below.

Knowledge Retrieval Question Template

BOB simply means ‘back of books’ and students complete their answers to these questions in silence for 5 minutes (there is a timer built in to the PPT slide in the blank bar). The yellow question is from last lesson, the green question is from last month/topic and the blue question is from last year. This process has re-iterated the importance to students to ensure that their knowledge of the latest content covered is as strong as their knowledge of the content covered, in some cases 18 months ago, the challenge for all students moving forward. However, more importantly than that, students are able to synthesise their knowledge and understanding across multiple topics/concepts, thus gaining a greater confidence across the subject, as well as using subject specific terminology across multiple topics too.

After the initial 5 minutes of silence, students share their ideas with a partner and then through no hands up questioning I can ascertain as a class the understanding of certain areas/misconceptions and then act on these as appropriate. My challenge is to try and improve this, and I am going to trial using the ‘Geog Your Memory’ work by Jen English, that you can read more about  here: 

3. Transitions

Feedback that I was given during my PGCE year has stuck with me ever since. A question was posed; how do you ensure students have understood your explanation? Discussion ensued and the point that my mentor was making was that some students weren’t engaged with my explanation. On further reflection, some students were silent but not engaged, some students were silent yet carried on working, some students were silent but making silly faces to each other. I decided that this was an area of my teaching that I really wanted to work on. One of the words I immediately banned was ‘quiet’, a subjective word that clearly meant something different to different people. One students’ version of quiet is very different to others’. What I am going to outline below works for me, but that is not to say that it works first time, every time! That is the skill of being a responsive teacher. 

Gaining attention

I use the following phrase most frequently – ‘pens down, eyes on me and listening silently please’. I then wait for this to happen and insist upon this prior to starting the next part of the lesson. Insisting is important. It ensures that all students are making eye contact, are not working and will take part in the next part of the lesson. 

I have used a countdown in the past, and with some classes I will still do this, however, I make it explicit as to what I expect, and I talk through the countdown. For example, ‘Pens down, eyes on me and listening in 3, thank you to those who have listened so far, 2, still waiting for one or two pens to go down, and 1, thank you very much’. I find that positively framing comments during the countdown works really well for me, and specifically with year 7 and 8 classes. The ‘signal, pause, insist’ strategy in ‘The Learning Rainforest’ by Tom Sherrington outlines this strategy really well if it is an area you would like to work on in your own teaching practice. 

Checking clarity of instruction

After any instruction period of a lesson, I get a student or multiple students through PPPB questioning to explain back to the class what we are doing next if an instruction. This ensures that I have checked the clarity of my teacher talk, thus allowing me to circulate during the task and provide timely verbal feedback, rather than ‘fighting fires’ with a sea of hands up as students are unsure of what to do. This may seem obvious, but in many lessons I get to visit, this is absent and leads to off-task behaviour as students haven’t quite grasped the task at hand.

Chunking of written instructions 

Any instructions that are given for tasks are also chunked in written form either on a PPT slide or on paper, for students to refer back to during the task, as well as being able to tick them off for learners that find chunking of tasks particularly useful. Therefore, students that have poor short term memory skills or processing skills, have the ability to refer to these instructions at any point, thus again allowing myself to circulate and support/stretch, knowing that students can access the work. 

4. Questioning

I love questioning, I was always asking questions in class when I was at school, and I always want students to question their knowledge and understanding. For me, in geography, this is part and parcel of every lesson. I take questioning seriously, as I want all students to be involved in question and answer sections of the learning, and to feel confident in giving ideas, whether right or wrong. My go to questioning strategy and often underrated in my opinion, is ‘think, pair, share’. I use it all the time, in every lesson, every day. I set a question, allow thinking time individually in silence, then sharing their ideas with students near to them, whether it be next to, in front or behind, and then finally sharing with the class. For me, this allows students to answer the original question in confidence, as they have had the chance to assess whether their idea was a good one, as well as perhaps having an idea after the dialogue with a peer. The through simple strategies such as ‘Cold Calling’, ‘Pose Pause Pounce Bounce’ and ‘Probing’ questioning I will try to make sure that every student has given an idea/answer at some point in every geography lesson they have. Find out more on PPPB questioning here:

If questioning the class at once, my go to strategy is mini-whiteboards, with a simple ‘keep your answers to yourselves’ command with a competitive element built in, followed by a 3, 2, 1 release. I then monitor whole class responses at once, which can be useful to provide formative feedback on understanding for me to then respond to within the lesson if need be. 

I set high expectations from student answers as well. ‘Speak like a Geographer’ is a vision being used by many geography teachers, and one that is constantly pushed by geographers such as Jen English and Kate Stockings. The guise is simple, challenge students to use geographical terminology at all times in their answers. Quite often I will say, say it again as a geographer, as that is who you are. An example would be a student going from ‘one way we can look at development in a country is looking at how wealthy it is’ to ‘one economic development indicator is GDP/capita, which is the total value of all goods and services produced within a country per year, divided by the population. This provides an understanding as to the strength of the country’s economy.’ Setting high expectations from students’ verbal answers sets the level at which you expect all students to reach. It also sets the level of passion and enthusiasm you have for your students talking about your own subject area. 

5. Task completion

My teaching improved drastically upon reading ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby. I cannot recommend it enough. The fact that there is going to be a geography specific version of this book released in 2019, written by Mark Enser, is very exciting for all geography teachers indeed. I cannot think of someone I would want to write the book more. However, I digress, the reason for the mention of MELC is that it led to one of my go to statements. It is laminated in A3 around my room and simply says ‘if it’s not excellent, it’s not finished’. High expectations at all times of what students can achieve is crucial. So much so, that students have changed the way they ask the question, to ‘Sir, is my work excellent?’ which sets the expectations where I want them to be. A simple rock of routine, but one that I wouldn’t go without. 

6. End of the lesson

The end of the lesson is as important as the start of the lesson in my opinion. Not only does it provide me with the opportunity to celebrate great work, attitude, geography, but also it sets up a colleague to have a great lesson with the students that I currently have in my classroom. In my opinion, how you let students out of your classroom says a lot about your expectations of the students. Are you rushing to get them out as your thoughts are on your next class? How will the students you have just taught head to their next class, in an orderly manner or a mass rabble? I do the same thing every lesson and it seems to work for me.

– One student per row puts back any resources that have been used (textbooks, Atlases, glues etc)

– One student per row recycles any surplus paper

– All students are required to stand behind their desks in silence with correct uniform

– I thank the students for the lesson and for their hard work

– I release the students row by row (six students at a time) so students leave the classroom in a mature and orderly manner when each row is ready

I let the students leave the classroom from one of two positions, either the front, or by the door to the classroom. If by the classroom door, it is because I like to check that work has been stuck in if applicable. One of my pet hates is when students slide work into their books in a rush and don’t take the time to glue the work in, especially when they have taken time over it. I challenge this by asking to see the work glued in. When I started this, at least 3 or 4 students per class wouldn’t have stuck the work in. Again, high expectations at all times and this has improved to near to zero each time now. 

There are other areas of my teaching that I have a consistent approach towards, such as providing whole class feedback using a visualiser, using extension questions to synthesise understanding across multiple topics, sharing great work with students using a visualiser, ensuring DIRT time for students, and modelling expectations of work/sharing success criteria with students. I will hopefully share posts on how I implement the aforementioned in due course. 

However, what I have written about above are the rocks of routine that I use in every lesson, every day. These have allowed me to embed high expectations from every student I teach, yet also setting myself high expectations which I expect to meet during every lesson too. I would really like to hear about your ‘rocks of routine’ and what impact they have had.

Thanks for taking the time to read. 


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