Classroom Routine: Finding A Balance

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I recently read an article by Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) that discusses regular and consistent classroom procedures. He outlines, in a neat table format, what was agreed upon among the staff of a school where he had worked previously, and I must admit that it looks well put together with some good ideas (e.g., orderly lines of students, behaviour expectations posted on the board, targeted questioning for specific students, etc.). It should be noted that Tom’s article does clearly state in the title that the classroom procedures outlined are indeed suggestions and should not be taken to “straight-jacket” the teacher. I wonder, however, whether this kind of thing can be too regimented or rigid, creating an environment that fails to maximize learning.

Teachers vary widely in how they approach their own classrooms and how they structure their lessons. In my own school, you will find those who are highly regimented with students sitting in rows of desks, their lessons broken up into 5, 10, or 15 minute sections, lecturing and seat work. You will also find those with a more organic, or less rigid structure, including desks in pods, or no desks at all, group work and collaboration being the most common student activity, the teacher functioning as a facilitator rather than lecturer, and something different happening in every class. I should point out that I do not consider one method of organizing a classroom to be better or worse than the other, realizing that all teachers fall somewhere different on the structure / routine / organization spectrum.

I’ve found my own approach to classroom procedure and planning has changed a fair bit over the ten years I’ve been teaching. I began not really knowing what I was doing, or at least it felt that way due to my level of inexperience and relative isolation from others in the school (as much my fault as anyone else’s). I tried to do things in a highly structured way: 5 minutes for hellos and to take attendance, 15 or 20 minutes for lecture, 20 minutes for students to work on questions, and 15 minutes to go over said questions. This wasn’t a particularly bad plan, but I wasn’t really thinking about the students and how they experienced the lesson, as I was more concerned with what I was doing.

After a while, as I became more involved in the school and felt more a part of the staff, I began to look more at what other teachers were doing and trying to find a balance of some sort to help me guide my planning. I had recently been exposed to inquiry-based learning through curriculum development in social studies I had been involved with and loved the student-centred focus of such an approach. I found IBL made a rigid structure to class (at least how I envisioned it) difficult, as students work at different ability levels, tasks, and paces concurrently. I had to reduce how rigid I wanted class procedure to be if I wanted to allow for more time for student inquiry. This also meant my classroom would switch from teacher-centred to student-centred.

Today, I try to find a balance between routine, structure, and providing an environment that is conducive to learning. I see all these teachers on twitter who have the most unconventional classrooms that look exciting and fully supportive of inquiry or project-based learning models and I wonder “Why can’t it be like this in my own classroom?”. The answer is that it can be like this, but to an extent. Teaching high school with standardized exams and considerable amounts of course content places stress on teachers to deliver curriculum rather than have students explore it. Therefore, a large part of what I do now is trying to meld these two approaches together, by having a hybrid classroom of sorts: one that prepares students for standardized exams, while providing daily opportunities to challenge students with inquiry and process skills.

Does this affect the procedures and routines that occur within my classroom? Undoubtedly, yes. More and more I see students grasp the idea of the task we are working on during the week and come into class, collect their folders of work from the file box at the side of the room, textbook from a class set or other material required for their activity and start in on their own without me having to do an introductory talk, mini-lecture, or establishing procedures for the day. I spend more time checking with individual students about their progress with an activity and helping them work their way through it. This, in its own way, is a kind of procedure, but it does require students clearly understand what we are trying to do and to be motivated, at least a little, to do so.

Have I figured out the best way to go about organizing my classroom and establishing expectations for students? Probably not, but I have tried to do things differently than in the past for the purpose of improving my own practice and the experiences that students have with history and geography while they are with me for 60 minutes a day. There’s a balance to be found in how this kind of thing works and part of teaching, I think, is continually trying to find it.

Mark Smarter, Not Harder

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As teachers, we’ve all been there: spending hours after school marking papers and assignments, or correcting tests over the weekend. There’s been more than one occasion, in order to meet an end of term deadline, that I’ve taken marking with me on family vacations. There are a number of fun events or get-togethers with friends that have gone by the wayside in order that I put a dent in that constantly growing pile of papers.

When I was younger, I used to complain about all the marking. Sure, it’s probably the least fun part of the job, but it’s important for me to realize it’s a job I signed up for. I’ve come to view this common teaching task less as a burden and more as a way to gain insight into my students as learners and myself as an educator. In order to do this effectively, I decided it was vital my marking be smarter, not harder.

When I first entered the teaching profession, I believed that the more assessments I created, the more students would engage with course material and the more I marked, the better picture I would get of student learning. This was a recipe for disaster as I not only spent long nights marking, but an even greater amount of my time was dedicated to creating more assignments to fulfill what I thought was a worthwhile cause.

The solution I’ve found (at least to date) that helps address some of these concerns is to mark unit pieces in the following categories and ways:

  • Unit tests: tests are standard in most education systems and should function as a summative piece of work to illustrate what students can achieve after investigation, instruction, practice, and learning has already occurred. I prefer to keep the value of testing as low as possible to allow more emphasis on the learning and inquiry processes – I acknowledge this isn’t always up to the teacher and more and more I find evaluation schemes are dictated at the district level.
  • Unit assignment: A single assignment per unit, or one for two short units, is enough to allow students time to use inquiry and process skills together to apply what they’ve learned in class already. Assignments should allow students to connect concepts, consolidate information, or apply learning to novel situations. I’m a fan of using small group work (pairs) for these assessments, as they provide the opportunity to problem solve and research together, building communication and analytical skills through collaboration. I’ve also been applying analytical scoring scales with feedback as the primary method of marking.
  • Unit portfolio: A folder containing in-class activities students have worked on throughout the unit is vital to initial student exposure and engagement with new ideas and concepts, as it provides regular practice with specific sets of skills (not to mention it helps some students stay organized). As smaller pieces of work, these are quicker and easier to check for understanding (I may ask that 3 or 4 pieces be ready on a particular date, which I will check for level of detail, conceptual understanding, and analytical skills). I do not provide a mark for these individual pieces, but use them as formal assessment to inform my teaching and allow students to get into the material (I will provide written feedback, however, about the student’s general approach to the task or any significant issues with understanding). Folders are quick to assess and include a large amount and variety of student products. These may be completed  individually, but I prefer students to work together in groups of two or three.

Portfolio box to keep work from my 6 classes.

I used to give multiple assignments per unit and mark every in-class activity like it was an assignment or item from a test. By reducing the number of assignments and ensuring that each is well-designed, covering a range of skills and competencies, I’ve reduced the amount of correcting I do per unit. By using portfolios of work and focusing on feedback rather than numerical marks, I make every day activities relevant and informative (for myself and students) as pieces of assessment.

Smart marking is a great way to make this part of the job easier, more effective, and interesting. I’ve come to view correcting as a useful tool in my work, rather than a dreadful task. It can still be challenging to balance this with other work tasks and parts of my life, but it’s far less stressful than it used to be.

Innovation and Change

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The approach we are taking to the study of history is a theme-based one, which considers broad topics in the social studies and investigates how changes in these areas over time have influenced the human experience. Thus far, we have considered the theme of innovation and have traced developments in this area during major periods in human history. A brief summary of these ideas and concepts are included below.


The goal here is not to explore all major innovations in depth, but to focus on a few from each period of human history, helping us better understand the idea of innovation, it’s causes and consequences (both positive and negative), and the complexity of human experience that results.

An important consideration here is also how innovation can lead to more innovation. The innovations of hominids and Early Modern Humans, while quite significant, were relatively few in number compared to what would come later. For example, hominids developing the use of early lithic (stone) tools would make it possible for later humans to build upon these innovations to create a wider range of tools of varying materials for specific purposes (e.g., bronze tools for artisans to craft goods in ancient Mesopotamia, or the creation of bronze weapons and armour during the same period, contributing to the first empire building by Sargon of the Akkadians). As civilization developed and more people lived in cities, specialization of labour resulted in a wider range of occupations and, hence, increased the possibility of further innovation. Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), illustrates this phenomenon:


As we know today, innovation is key to our experiences in all aspects of life, just as they were in the past. Ideas – another crucial aspect of the human development – is linked to innovation and, as we will see in the coming weeks, can have complex causes and deep consequences for a considerable range of experiences.

New Facebook Page

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I’ve decided recently to start a Facebook page linked with this website and my instagram. The main reason for this is to provide another place where students and parents can get updates on what’s happening in Socials at GC and in my classes in particular. I’ve been posting pictures and updates there so far, but announcements and assignment information will follow, as will additional information linked to content covered in Social Studies courses. Feel free to follow or like the page to get these updates, and spread the word around.

Trevor Mackenzie on Inquiry-Based Learning

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If you’ve poked around my website, you’ve probably noticed a section dedicated to Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) that was linked to a major paper I wrote while completing my M. Ed. in education. The details of IBL are presented there, but in short this approach to teaching is about formulating driving or “essential” questions and building research and analytical skills through student investigation of knowledge. This is very different from the teacher at the front of the room lecturing all class long while students take notes. IBL has students actively engaged in uncovering or discovering information and using it for a specified purpose. The key point here is that students are not passive, but very much present and participate in the learning they do.

Trevor Mackenzie has been a recent lead teacher in this area, promoting greater use of IBL in classrooms. I recently read an article of his posted on the Edutopia website (the link is here if you want to check it out). A common issue that he tries to address is that students and teachers, especially from more traditional education backgrounds, are not used to this switch in teaching and learning. Teachers who attempt to jump in head first and give their students full freedom to conduct their own inquiries from start to finish are likely to be met with a lot of uncertainty and stress. Trevor advocates for scaffolding (starting at an entry level and building IBL gradually gradually to eventually gain greater independence), which he believes is necessary for the teacher and the student if IBL is to work. This is the same approach I suggest in the paper mentioned above.

Trevor has written a book about just this topic, called Dive into Inquiry: amplify learning and empower student voice, which I’ve picked up and and working my way through at present. It’s definitely worth a read if you think this kind of instructional approach could be for you. Inquiry is becoming a central part of the Social Studies curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s something I’ve already been bringing into my classroom, a little bit at a time.

Inquiry is most successful when strongly scaffolded. The Types of Student Inquiry act as a scope and sequence to support learners in their journey toward Free Inquiry. In my classroom, we begin in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry unit, move on to Guided Inquiry, and if all goes well, conclude in Free Inquiry. These four types of inquiry make up our time together in the course.

This structure allows us to successfully address the curriculum and the “must know” content and skills of each discipline, grade level, and course. In the Structured, Controlled, and Guided units, I plan to achieve specific learning objectives and unpack particular resources in order to best prepare my learners for whatever summative assessment they will see at the end of our time together. Whether it’s a provincial, state, or governing body exam or the SAT, I ensure that this material is learned during the types of student inquiry I have more control over.

Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.

Here’s a quick video from Trevor’s website that introduces some of these concepts.