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29 April 2021
By Zoe Enser

The Power of Routines in English

Routines often get a bit of a bad press. People think routine means stale or restrictive or, even worse, oppressive, with the negative connotations of regime bleeding into the concept of routines in our thinking.

However, routines have real power. In the first lockdown there was a lot of talk in the media about how we needed to maintain some sort of routine as we were plunged into a new way of life, urged to stay at home and shifting away from those day-to-day activities we may have taken for granted. It is also important advice given to those who are heading to retirement, with courses designed to support them in the transition from work to leisure. Although they may have wonderful plans for long lie-ins or adventures in the sun, they may not have quite considered what the day to day will entail and whether they do want one day to drift into the next. Similar advice is given to those who have found themselves unemployed or struggling with mental health. Routines it seems can help support us on a very personal level, but they can also help to support us in the classroom too.

Value of Routines for Pupil Reintegration

One of the things I really focus on with my students are embedding some of the most basic routines of how my class is organised and managed. From how they come in to where they seat, there are gentle reminders about how we do things in this space. Much as we might like the idea of changing seating plans regularly or giving free choice, this can be unsettling, especially for students who are already coping with different classrooms, movement around the school or even bubbles at the moment. Some students now have had multiple classroom or timetable changes to deal with just over the last few months too and stability and routine may be very welcome where it can be offered. Even pre-COVID where I can give stability, I give it. Although some students may roll their eyes and moan, they are teenagers after all, they will find the transition into the class is much quicker and easier with these routines in place.

In the past when I have been a nomadic teacher, I often paired students up to try to maintain that same organisation even when the room layout was different. There is also real security to be found in routines and knowing what is expected of you at different points in the day or the lesson, especially when things have been quite chaotic for some young people, it can really support their sense of wellbeing. I know myself the more ordered my home life is, the more chaos I can cope with at work and vice versa. However, chaos in both settings, and my own wellbeing really suffers. Clear, precise routines can be fantastic for creating the calm environment so many of our young people need. Simple things can provide this.

Benefit of Routines on Learning

Students who feel secure and comfortable will most certainly be in a better position to learn but the learning itself can really benefit from certain routines. For example, when I approach a poem with students, we have we certain agreed approach, an approach which has been modelled and repeated until they are no longer worried when presented with an unknown text. That is not to say we don’t delve, discuss and explore as many angles as possible, but it means we have a way in. We begin by exploring the title and the author if they are familiar with it. There can be a lot to gain by considering that we are about to look at the work of Blake if you have already looked at something by him in the past. We will then think about initial impressions, reading the poem a few times and refining those key impressions with questions, both posed by the students and by me. We will also annotate the text, thinking again about questions or ideas we notice, and I model this for students so they become more familiar with the process, gradually withdrawing this scaffold as they become more and more familiar with it.

We will use similar processes to creative writing, tackling non-fiction or examining a novel, recapping what we will do and why we do it at different stages. This gently reinforces the routine, provides metacognitive prompts which could lead them to even greater independence, with students making links to their previous learning and, hopefully their previous successes too. This will support the development of strong connections between lessons and topics. New learning that builds on previous learning is more likely to stick, than something which appears random or fragmented. That is why sequencing in our curriculum and lessons is so important. Reminding students of those routines can be good primers, preparing the ground for those increasingly complex ideas as we layer up the learning.

Bolstering Your Routines to Enhance Learning

It is not only the recap which can be improved with routine and add a familiar shape to our lessons. Low stakes quizzing and retrieval can benefit from this kind of routine, with students more likely to engage in this activity if it has become a familiar routine. They are also more likely to make the most of that learning opportunity too as they will be more likely to think hard about the questions as opposed to worrying about getting it wrong. If this type of quizzing is familiar to them, they are much more likely to have greater benefits than if the student is overly worried and either trying to surreptitiously look for the answer in their notes, missing out the on the power of retrieval, or avoiding it completely and waiting for the answers. If we communicate why this matters too, and build that into the regular routine, students are much more likely to really engage with this process.

I am also a big fan of modelling and I try to model as much as possible for students. This way they know that when I say we are going to plan, we will do it in a certain way. When we are talking about revision, they know we will use certain processes to do this well. However, having some basic routines, including how books are given out (even more important in some setting with COVID rules), where the ‘do now’ task is positioned on the board or how you approach a text, doesn’t mean losing the enthusiasm and creativity in the class though. What is does offer is a way to strip out some of the extraneous load which is placed on the students’ thought processes. Extraneous load can serve as a distraction, overloading the working memory, leading to students expending precious energy and time processing the most basic instructions, or working out where they are supposed to be sitting, as opposed to be considering the significance of the light imagery in Romeo and Juliet. When the basics become fluent and automated, students can be fast-tracked onto the more complex thinking, analysing, exploring, evaluating and creating, rather than just getting on.

I firmly believe that by embedding routines, we can free up our students’ minds enabling them to get on to the most exciting elements of our subject. We are also building their independence as they begin to explore their own paths within these supportive parameters, an opportunity far too good for us to want to miss.

For more information around the ideas contained in this blog, or for anything else you would like to explore in terms of Teaching and Learning, Curriculum and Assessment, do feel free to contact me.

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