Can we improve on the classroom countdown?

Counting '5, 4, 3, 2, 1' is now the favoured way of silencing a class - we could be more creative, says Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty

Can we get lift-off with the classroom countdown, asks Stephen Petty

Recently trained teachers tend to use the “countdown” as their favoured way of silencing a class and introducing the next phase of a lesson. That calmly delivered but imposing “5…4…3…2…1” works well, giving everyone just about enough time to abridge and conclude all on-task and off-task discussion. 

Many of us older hands have unashamedly adopted it, finding it much more effective than the more traditional hand-in-the-air approach or the so-called fixed stare.

Frankly, I have had it with the hand and the stare. Being silently magisterial might work for some colleagues, but it has rarely done it for me. Waiting expectantly at the front with hand aloft just makes me cut a lonely and slightly ludicrous figure.

As several minutes of futility pass, I start wondering how my life has come to this. A couple of nice children on the front row might possibly notice me and smile compassionately. The rest continue to remain oblivious. Even the TA still chunters on. 

Robotic recitation

The countdown is so much better, but I wonder whether its popularity means that we are now collectively overdoing it? Given how common it has become, those of us in the countdown community might be wise to adapt and personalise the routine a little.

Think of what it’s now like on the other side. Children are now being confronted with that same robotic “5,4,3,2,1” recitation over and over again – often several times in one lesson, and then repeatedly throughout the day and potentially all the way through to Year 11 and possibly beyond. 

What must they quietly make of us, as we thus slowly narrow their distinction between human teacher and programmed automaton? For their and our sakes, shouldn’t we now seek to vary and develop it a little? 

At the moment, the only countdown variation they might experience is in language lessons, where they might possibly hear it in a different tongue. Maybe their German teacher starts it off by bellowing out “Sechs!” Let’s hope so. 

Go ahead. Make my day

I am sure that we can all dream up our own individual versions. For example, “I am going to count to three – there will not be a four,” (from Die Hard) would mark some kind of departure. 

Though I think we could move on from numbers altogether, if we maintained that same kind of forceful, forbidding tone and timing. Maybe some of us could opt, for instance, for Clint Eastwood’s “Go…ahead... Make…my…DAY”, or Hendrix’s “Knowledge…speaks…but…wisdom...LISTENS.” Or there’s Churchill’s “Never...never…never…give…UP.”

All of these deliver variously helpful messages, and all build up to a suitable attention-grabbing final word. (“Please…shut…the…f***…UP” also has its advocates, but is probably best left as something to envisage.)  

Better still, why don’t we use the countdown to familiarise our classes fully with a repeated sequence of quotes, mnemonics, formulas, answering-rules or whatever? What better way, for instance, to reclaim a class of young scientists’ attention than to have them all curtailing their chat in order to join the teacher in another hollering of “King…Philip…Came…Over…For…Great…SEX”, thereby also helping them to remember the order for scientific classification?

This is surely the future for that slightly colourless countdown. At last, we have lift-off. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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