Establishing the learning context: the importance of objective-setting and starter activities

The start of a lesson sets the direction, and therefore the success, of the rest of the lesson: Lynn Maidment discusses how to get off to a good start.

Consider for a moment what the optimum conditions for promoting quality learning experiences are for you. You might like to envisage yourself in a learning context you have recently experienced, or in one that you would like to experience. Depending on your interests and personality, it might be learning to sky-dive or mastering the art of knitting, servicing your car or finally getting to grips with a new language. What you think about is not important; what matters is identifying the aspects of the learning experience that you think need to be present to help you to be successful.

What matters is identifying the aspects of the learning experience that you think need to be present to help you to be successful

What’s important to you?

Doubtless somewhere on that list are some, if not all, of the following:

  • knowing why you are doing what you are doing
  • understanding the incremental steps that lead to success
  • feeling that you are an important and influential part of how things progress
  • having your opinions valued and taken into account in modifying and personalising approaches
  • enthusiasm for the task in hand, which creates the motivation to undertake it
  • a clear rationale for how the new skill will help improve, promote or enhance your life experiences
  • having experienced, skilled teachers who display passion for what and who they are teaching
  • clarity about how you could use the skills to promote further development or success
  • minimum anxiety, embarrassment or fear
  • high challenge, low stress
  • enjoyment and encouragement
  • the belief that you can be successful, which allows you to consider acquiring the new skill in the first place
  • opportunities to problem-shoot and problem-solve
  • opportunities for collaboration and individual reflection
  • stimulating surroundings
  • the expectation that you exercise some autonomy in the development and practice of the skills
  • a learning partnership committed to making you successful
  • success modelled with clarity to expected standards and outcomes
  • assessment criteria that are unambiguous.

Applying this to the classroom

Now you might want to consider carrying out a similar activity with a group of your pupils. If you do, you are likely to find that there are marked similarities between what you would expect from a quality learning experience and what they expect. They may express these in different ways, but essentially their expectations are the same as yours. There is nothing strange or discordant with what we both want from a learning experience, but with children we sometimes need to spell it out so they can contextualise what they are doing and why they are doing it. This is where the importance of setting of learning objectives and the starter activities becomes apparent.

When we identify learning objectives, we are illustrating to pupils the continuing learning sequence, reminding them of past progress and identifying future challenges, expectations and opportunities for success. Ensuring synergy between learning objectives and the starter activity will help teachers secure high-quality learning: in effect, the starter and objectives provide pupils with the GPS-equivalent of a route map for successful learning.

The starter and objectives provide pupils with the GPS-equivalent of a route map for successful learning

From a teacher’s viewpoint, planning this route requires thought, insight to individual pupils’ current achievements and challenges, and the time necessary to weave together differing but complimentary components into high-quality beginnings to lessons that take account of all learners.

Improving the start of your lesson

Having acknowledged that the beginning of a lesson needs to include a starter activity linked to the learning objectives doesn’t necessarily mean that we can then all successfully carry out such a complex set of activities. So in the same way that we clarify performance objectives for pupils, we need to manage the process of change for ourselves, building incrementally towards success.

Steps to take

If you know that planning for learning in these areas is a challenge you have yet to master, consider approaching change in the following way, rewarding yourself with a figurative pat on the back when you feel it goes well and carefully considering amendments to practice when it does not.

  • Identify a colleague who models good or outstanding practice in objective-setting and lesson starters. Ask if you can observe this part of one or two of their lessons and spend some post-lesson time reflecting and talking with them about the sort of things they are doing and why. Identify which of their practices you might modify and use for your own classes and then, using ‘bite-sized chunks’, incorporate them in your own lesson planning.
  • Choose to develop your new practice with a class you feel confident with. Avoid the Friday afternoon or Monday morning slots when learning can be most problematic.
  • Ensure that, prior to the lesson where you use your revised approaches for the first time, you let pupils know you are going to alter practice, giving them a clear rationale for change and answering any questions they may have to clarify how these changes are designed to enhance their learning.
  • Before the start of the lesson where you begin introducing these approaches, ensure that you have written clear, concise lesson objectives, either on table cards or on the interactive whiteboard (IWB), using language pupils can easily understand, to succinctly identify the expected learning outcomes.

Before the start of the lesson where you begin introducing these approaches, ensure that you have written clear, concise lesson objectives, either on table cards or on the interactive whiteboard, using language pupils can easily understand, to succinctly identify the expected learning outcomes

  • If you have to take the class register within a set time of the lesson starting, either have your starter activity on the IWB, distributed by a trusted pupil or by a classroom assistant at the door in the form of activity sheets or cards, or if you have time before the lesson starts, put the activities on the tables. You want pupils coming into the room to have something meaningful that switches them on to your lesson and away from the chaos in the corridor they have just come from. Having something ready means that the on-time arrivals are rewarded for being there and are not left waiting for the stragglers to arrive before switching on to learning. A great deal of learning time can be lost in this way. Teachers need to plan to avoid this classic time-stealer, when pupils with nothing to do are likely to create an off-task activity to occupy themselves. Getting them back on task can be a real nightmare, so avoiding this situation is the best solution.
  • Use your self-evaluation processes to help you, at the close of the day, consider how successful the changes were. What went well, what could be further improved and how did you and the pupils feel about it?

By developing high-quality starts to lessons, you invest time in an important part of the successful learning experience and illustrate to pupils and other interested parties that you are clear where the lesson is going and what you expect from it.

'If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.'
Lawrence Peter, Canadian educationalist, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969)

A detour is something neither you nor your pupils may be able to afford to make.

Author details

Lynn Maidment is an educational consultant, writer and trainer at Beacon Development and Training, specialising in teachers’ professional development. She can be contacted via...