TouchPaper Problem #5 – Getting Classes To Enter Rooms Effectively

This is the fifth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #5 – What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Education is a zero sum game. We have a finite amount of time and once it’s used up, there’s no more. Every second a student is doing something they shouldn’t be in a lesson, we are losing them. This sounds harsh, I know. Children do have the right to daydream, rebel, fight us, make friends, and so on. BUT, as teachers, our job is to try our best to rein in those inclinations, or even use them purposefully, for the few short hours we get each day and push as much energy as possible into the pursuit of expanding knowledge and skills. That expansion should leave students less afraid in the future of new things, and may even open areas of passion and interest. It’s a good power that we yield.

But, we don’t always do it effectively.

In particular, the starts of lessons can be tough. Thirty individual learners, each with their own pathway to your door, each bringing their own anxieties and excitements, all need to come together within a few minutes and be operating as one body. We are basically trying to perform a magic trick of turning lone wolves to turn into an ant colony.

It is this analogy – wolves into ants – that made me first think about TouchPaper Problem 5. Question is: How do we do it?

Over the years I have seen some very effective techniques for getting students into their lessons and calmed down. Greeting at the door is sometimes considered important. But what if this means taking attention away from students inside the room who then start thumping ten bells out of each other? Other teachers have books already laid out on desks, but how long does this take? Does it mean the students are out in the corridor longer? And does that even matter? (After all, if 10 seconds longer on the corridor means the lesson starts 30 seconds more quickly than otherwise, we have ourselves a winning situation).

Furthermore, I’m not sure any of these techniques is necessary. I’ve seen great lessons that started with a teacher who didn’t say a single word. They didn’t greet. They didn’t move. They didn’t speak. So what did this classroom have? Arguably, it had trust. But how do I know that? Can I measure it? Could any observer see it?

Of all the problems in the series I think this might have the most unpacking to do and could yield the most specific answers. If it did, it would provide a very useful “rule of thumb” for teachers when they meet their. It’s also possible that there are differential points for types of room, age, frequency of being in the room, etc. I suspect it will also be a topic area with very little written about it – so if we want a solution we must think carefully, how will we find it?

It’s not an easy one Question Number 5. But it’s fascinating. I look forward to hearing what people think.

Categories: #TouchPaper Problems

19 replies

  1. It’s highly addictive this series of questions – hmmmm – stand them up outside to enter in orderly file or let them leak in in their own time and tackle the start of the lesson in a softer way. No right answer here, because it depends upon the state of discipline the school (and you) are currently enjoying. The reality is that lining them up outside is part of the ‘rule the mob’ approach to school management. It’s both depersonalising and ultimately dehumanising – the antithesis from where the space in which great personal relationships are formed. I am a great fan of the Teenage Whisperer website,, and I worry most about those children quietly dying in schools.
    Because my own school setting means that children are coming from one lesson to the next in groups that are forming and reforming because of setting, music lessons, LDD support etc. I have recommended no formal queuing except outside of workshops in the past – in other words, different approaches dependent upon the risks inside the room, not the risks outside.

  2. I’m not sure I’d agree education is a ‘zero sum game’, I’d like to believe the children can carry on learning outside the time they’re with the teacher, often influenced by what that teacher has done during their time together. (Also there is always the option of your extra curricular influence).

    The ‘secret’ to those teachers who don’t say anything, is that they have found the magic formula – the students *want* to be in that room doing that lesson with that teacher. I’ve had the occasional class where that happens, and it’s fantastic. Where you can’t achieve that, pace, targets, motivators, spatial strategies such as lining up are all helpful.

    So, there is no one answer, except the answer ‘it depends’.

  3. Interesting ideas Laura – I’m really glad I’ll be in this discussion… The distinction between necessity and sufficiency is a fascinating one which I’m looking forward to getting into.

    I was thinking this through the other day and wondered whether more consideration is needed about the latter part of the question. What is productive problem solving? Although I suspect we’d agree that what we want students doing as quickly as possible is a ‘hook’ rather than a ‘settler’ (something thought-provoking, not something purely pacifying), I wondered whether the truly productive problem-solving only comes later in the lesson, after some teacher input… and therefore there’s a second strand of this question – not just how do we get students learning as quickly as possible, but how we tailor the whole introductory phase of a lesson to get students into the main activity. (cf Willingham – on how the key idea should really kick in about twenty minutes into the lesson). Many of the hooks I use are designed to introduce themes of the lesson – but also sometimes, more than anything else, to intrigue or confuse students as preparation for the main work of the lesson… I don’t know whether such activities can be described as productive problem solving…

    I’d initially focused on the first half of the question, as you have here – then I worried I’d missed the point, because there’s also something to be investigated about how you structure introductions to tasks… This may add too much complication – by creating two separate questions though. What are your thoughts?

  4. Great question to consider. I agree with you Sue about teacher’s influence extending beyond the classroom and that the learning that ‘sticks’ is being internally processed and manipulated by the learner independent of teachers and school. However, back to the point – I disagree that it is ‘magic’ and feel this language can be confusing for new or struggling teachers. Yes, some teachers have a larger than life charisma that students and adults are naturally drawn to and students want to be their room, but I have seen many teachers get tough classes in, calmly in silence, that don’t necessarily fit this description. I think it is trust, and trust is built up through predictable routines and established codes which enable the students to position themselves in the ‘space’ of their teacher’s room. I think the teachers who get students in, in silence must have established routines and expectations through a series of previous lessons. I’m not sure there should be a ‘formula’ – we deal with people and relationships, after all. However, I have seen NQT’s feel desperately inadequate because they feel they cannot get the first ten minutes right. I think it is about consistency. If achieving calm (greeting at the door – body half-in half-out, welcoming, addressing every students by their name if possible as they enter, having a focus) takes 20 minutes the first time, then do it. Next time it may only take 16 minutes and so on until students learn to trust you, your demands on them and what is required to get the learning to begin automatically.

  5. I’ve found that no single strategy works for every class. Also the same class responds different at different times of the day (coming in from lunch for example). Sometime I have to enforce queuing outside the class (usually at the start of the year) and sometimes it is not conducive to getting started with a class that I know very well. The best way for me to start a lesson is to greet most people at the door but have a challenge on the whiteboard. But even this has to go by the wayside if I’m up against it. If you know what you need to get done and know when your shared goals are being compromised, that’s when you need to reign in and reestablish routines.

  6. Relevant one, this Laura. Had a particular group this year with 30 Y9 (fitting into a room with 30 desks – tight fit). Their entrance into the lesson has been a source of concern but I think, by the end of term, we were getting it right. The ‘joshing’ across the room as they came in, sat (or didn’t) at their (or someone else’s) desk was worked on in these ways:

    1. Don’t assume the calm orderliness of the first 2 weeks in Sept is going to last. They were sizing me up. Even more significantly – they were sizing each other up. Expect the week 4-6 testing of the boundaries and prepare for it.
    2. Change the seating plan as many times as you need until you’ve got it most effectively managed. This was still happening in weak 13 with adjustments.
    3. Exert authority over the corridor leading up to the room as well as the room. Sometimes you’re trying to change behaviour that may be accepted in other parts of the school. ‘My corridor’, ‘My room’ – ‘this is what we do here….’
    4. Know it eats into the lesson – but we’ve re-stood behind chairs, and gone out and lined up to come in again. Sometimes you need a visible and physical message that the particular entry you’ve just witnessed was totally unacceptable. Even with students who are taller than you. But not to be ‘over done’.
    5. Regard it as a long-term investment. If it means I can teach the type of lessons I want to from Feb – see the time from Sept-Jan as worth the investment of detail, time and repetition of expectations.
    6. I’ve spent lunchtimes marking that group’s books for a P4 lesson – using codes (for them to write out the definitions from the wb) or follow up Qs about their work to which I want them to write a response as they sit down (all the dept have all ex books laid out on a desk by the door for students to pick up as they come in – no dead ‘handing books out’ time). It helps if those arriving a couple of minutes later enter a room where students already have their books open and are working on a response independently. I’ve certainly marked this group’s work more often than any other so they have a starter activity of responding to my comments.
    7. Use of key open-ended question on wb, images w. follow up Q that all can manage (find 3 things in common between the 4 images). Used the strategy of ‘thunks’ that I came across this year off twitter to useful effect (Twisted Sifter twitter account is great for these).
    8. Reading a student’s work out from previous lesson whilst they’re settling and getting on with the opening task. Opportunity for public praise as well as setting expected standards, as well as insisting on not talking whilst you are speaking.
    9. Not making a public challenge of late-comers – but noting, and asking them quietly later in the lesson, at their desk, why they were late in.
    10. Keeping it in perspective: whenever I’ve got what I consider a ‘difficult class’ I usually surprise myself when I go down the register and count up the number who are actually causing vexation. Suddenly ‘that class’ is 6-8 individuals – and the majority are fine. It’s a useful exercise and means you start praising the majority who are on-side and you can concentrate on separating and reducing the ‘minority’.
    11. Relentless consistency & resilience until they ‘get it’. Be determined to erode the behaviour rather than be worn down yourself.

    Will probably have to go through these things again with the group for a couple of weeks in Jan – but hopeful that after that they will remember the expectations.
    Interesting Question Laura – and will good to pick up the techniques of others on this one.


  7. Are all of these for KS3/4 teachers only.

    3 words. Routine. Clarity. Precision.

  8. Useful and relevant comments throughout; what though is the relevance/impact of the immediately preceding lesson. What have the pupils for to look forward to? Do they bring any reflections on the previous lesson to this one? what is the nature of progression?

  9. Timetable all PE lessons so they never precede mine.
    Having just read Lemov, maybe you should drill your class against the clock until they have eliminated all wasted time (he doesn’t mention this in the context of starting a lesson but does with handing out books and other transitions). He would also say that the starter needs to follow a consistent format so they never need to ask questions before starting. Actually he says some other things that might be relevant e.g. about providing pens (well, pencils). But then he also insists you should shake every student by the hand on the way in – I put this down to cultural differences.
    Personally I think that the starter needs to be simple and consistent for classes that tend to prevaricate on arrival, but simple (possibly also deep – like a thunk) and more varied for classes who arrive looking to engage. Hopefully the former transform into the latter as the year progresses…
    I have tended to always relate the starter to the previous lesson and then, if I have a great hook for the new material, I put this after the starter. I’m not a fan of writing down the LOs as a starter – I think if they are to be important they need to be introduced properly by the teacher to the whole class.
    This raises another aspect of the question – it doesn’t just ask for the quickest way to get them doing something productive, it asks for the quickest way to get them problem-solving productively. Do you just mean ‘learning productively’ as opposed to being quiet and busy? or do you really mean ‘problem-solving’? in which case the nature of that starter is less flexible as it has to involve problem-solving, which then needs to be defined.
    Perhaps the question is best answered by someone going round lots of different classes and just timing it to see what works best. The trick with this would be to spot whether the teacher, age, school policy or anything alse meant that there wasn’t one right answer for all teachers and all classes.

  10. Thought I would briefly share my technique for getting my middle schoolers into class quickly and focused on work. It got my students engaged and also gave me the opportunity to share/reinforce some key messages on our classroom culture…more importantly, it worked!

    It wasn’t that clever: I just made a competition out of it. I started out at the beginning of the year talking about all we needed to accomplish, why it was important, how the class could earn privileges and trust by demonstrating that they could act as responsible scholars, etc. I also emphasized why it was so important to be able to maximize the short amount of time we had together each day. All of this was a lead-in into my presentation on the “seating competition,” which was basically a competition I set up between my various classes to see which class could enter the as classroom quietly and as quickly as possible.

    Of course, I had to model what entering class correctly looked like, etc., in the beginning and we had to practice a few times, but this is how it worked: I had each incoming class line up outside the door each day and handed the timer to the designated “timekeeper” for the class. When they were ready, the clock started and stopped when every student had entered and were seated quietly working on their “Do Now” warm-up exercise. We’d record the time on the chart (it helped I was math teacher teacher, so we could reinforce some skills with this, too). We’d tally up the times at the end of each week (or two) and the winning class would win some privilege – a homework-free day or something.

    Initially, wasn’t sure it would work, but the kids really got into it, and all I had to do is stand silently at the head of the classroom. After a while, it became less about the competition and just what “we did.”

  11. There is NO simple answer to this. Every lesson is unique. Every class and every teacher different. Each lesson; each day, is equally very different. Monday period 1 vs. Friday period 5?

    A rule of thumb I would give to ANY teacher = one foot in the door and one foot in the corridor in order to meet and greet (at least) the majority of the class, before retreating back into the classroom. This will of course, vary for each teacher and classroom location, depending on the landscape of the students in the room.

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