Setting the tone

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Choosing the right activity to begin your lesson is essential, writes David Spendlove

Einstein is quoted as saying, "You can't play the violin if you have just been using a large hammer." And this is a useful metaphor for the use of "starter activities", as promoted by the design and technology KS3 strategy, which will begin its roll-out over the next two years.

The strategy provides a useful opportunity for all teachers of the subject to reflect on their current practice and to identify which elements of the strategy may enhance pupil learning. A key feature that many teachers are becoming aware of is the use of starter activities to set pace, orientation and challenge in the initial stages of the lesson.

The reality is that teachers have used starters for many years. Although they may not have called them "starters" - possibly the greatest feature of the strategy is in unifying a language for teaching - they have been used to capture pupils' interest and set the tone for the lesson.

One danger is that all lessons start to look the same, and we must make sure that pupils don't go from one starter activity to another in different classrooms thinking that it all seems rather similar. As usual, it requires discernment from the teacher to ensure that the starters used are the correct type, at the right time, and that they are used in a proper and positive way - ill-informed selection and use of poor starters might cause more damage than good.

This is where the profession needs to take the basis of a good idea and differentiate to meet pupils' needs. Not all pupils will need starters, some will need physical starters, some will need mental starters, some visual starters and some creative starters, and so on.

When thinking of starters, we need to consider different models of how they can be developed as part of each type of lesson. For instance, a commonly misconceived model is that which typically reflects the notional three-part lesson. In reality, DT lessons are often multi-phased, and to distil them into three parts could be damaging.

However, model A could be used to conceptualise a lesson in which there will be a lot of self-directed pupil activity after the initial starter.

This type of starter may be used as a controlling device to settle pupils after break, waking them up on a warm day and getting them visually orientated towards a creative lesson. It is important, though, that the starter should be contextualised and that it orientates pupils towards the learning activity rather than being a stand-alone activity.

A useful way to consider this is the "hook". The starter activity provides the means for hooking children's imagination. In effect, it is the sales pitch that validates the learning, captures children's enthusiasm and motivates them.

Many DT teachers will use numerous starter activities throughout a lesson and model B would be a useful representation of lessons in which there are many phases in the lesson, including regular plenaries and various starters whenever the activity is re-orientated.

Model C shows yet another way to consider using starters when dealing with a broad concept that may start at the beginning of a lesson but which may be revisited continually throughout. Such a lesson might deal with a difficult idea - where, say, the concept at the start is contextualised in the initial starter activity and sets the scene which is then revisited and feeds back into the main body of the lesson.

Over the next few years, departments will begin to take the concept of starters and develop more sophisticated and appropriate models than those presented here. But the guiding principle must be that teachers must use them competently and appropriately, and they must apply a level of discernment to ensure that pupils' learning is enhanced.

If you choose the wrong starter, it could spoil the main course.

David Spendlove is a lecturer in education at the University of Manchester and is on the council of management for the Design and Technology Association


* Keep the starter short

* Consider why you are using a starter

* Don't use a starter if it is not appropriate or not working

* Don't always use the same starter activity

* See the starter as the "hook" for the rest of the lesson

* Make sure the starter activity is contextualised

* Use starters to refresh the lesson when pupils have become bored or disorientated

* Consider breaking up the lesson with phases and episodes separated by starters and plenaries.

* Vary the length of episodes according to pupils' age and ability. Young children have concentration spans of around seven minutes.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today