More foundations of effective teaching


Continuing his series on the basics of effective teaching, Matt Bromley discusses how to create good routines and habits to ensure that everyday classroom tasks run smoothly and efficiently.

As I explained in my previous article (The Foundations of Effective Teaching, SecEd 395, October 16, 2014), the essential groundworks of effective teaching are built of rules and routines, regularly repeated and reinforced. 

Or, to quote Doug Lemov in his book Teach Like a Champion: “Great teaching is an art... (and) great art relies on the mastery and application of foundational skills, learned individually through diligent study.” 

Indeed, Lemov argues that: “One unmistakable driver of student achievement (is) carefully built and practiced routines.”

So let’s take a look at how to establish good habits and routines for undertaking everyday tasks – such as handing out work – in order to reduce low-level disruption...

Sweat the little things

When setting and enforcing rules and routines, it is often tempting to focus on the big things. After all, it is hard to ignore a flagrant flouting of the rules without losing face. 

But the silent killer in the classroom is low-level disruption – those seemingly minor distractions like tapping a pen, swinging on a chair, chewing gum, drawing graffiti in an exercise book, and so on.

Low-level disruption is what really stymies learning because it wages a war of attrition; it corrodes the edifice of good practice you have worked so hard to construct. The best way to deal with low-level disruption is to remember that it is not (usually) intended to undermine you, it is just a cheap form of entertainment. So keep your cool. 

Quickly take the names of the perpetrators without making a scene or stemming the flow of learning, then sanction them after the lesson – but do not ignore it or it will spread like a virulent weed.

Most low-level disruption arises during transitions, during those moments in which mundane everyday tasks are performed and there is a lull in the pace of learning. 

It would follow, therefore, that to embed good routines for managing those transitions is – at least in part – to obviate low-level disruption. 

Take the distribution and collection of classroom materials. If you explicitly teach your students how to pass out papers on the first day of school – taking a minute or so to explain the right way to do it (e.g. pass across rows, start on the teacher’s command, only the person passing papers can get out of his or her seat, do it in silence, etc), then allowing students 10 to 15 minutes to practise it, although it may distract you from the curriculum for half an hour at the start of the year, it will pay dividends over time, saving you time and energy every lesson for the rest of the year and limiting the opportunity for students to engage in low-level disruption.

If an average class passes papers back and forth 20 times a day and it typically takes 90 seconds to do so, imagine how much time you will save if a class got so much better at doing it through practice that it only took them 

30 seconds. That’s 20 minutes a day! Just think how much time you will save each term and each year, and how productively you could use that time. And just think how little time your students will now have to engage in low-level disruption.

So establish early on how you want books to be handed out and get your students to practise this everyday exercise over and over until they get it right. Make this rehearsal a competition to see how quickly they can do it, setting a target time and praising them when they achieve it.

As well as practising handing out work, it is worth rehearsing some of the other seemingly inconsequential activities that take place every lesson, such as transitioning from one task to another, engaging in paired talk and group work, taking part in questions-and-answers, and so on.

These activities are the glue that binds your classroom together and the oil that greases its wheels. As such, it is crucial you get them right, so you’d be advised not to leave them to chance.

The glue that binds your classroom together

Establish rules and routines for paired talk such as how to take turns, make notes, give feedback to the class, comment on other pairs’ answers, and so on. 

Likewise, practise how to work as part of a group, reinforcing what’s expected of students – for example, any member of the group could be asked to give feedback so every student must be prepared. 

Perhaps the most important routine to practise, however, is how to engage in whole-class question-and-answer sessions: make clear your rules around no-hands-up (questions will be targeted at named individuals and no-one must call out) and no-excuses (everyone must give an answer, “I don’t know” is not acceptable), and practise routines such as commenting on and adding to someone else’s answer in a polite and constructive manner.

As well as rehearsing classroom drills and habits, practise frequently used study skills such as skimming and scanning texts, taking notes, mind-mapping, etc. Again, dedicating time at the start of the year to developing these skills will pay off over time. 

Another routine to get right from the very beginning is marking. You will need to condition students in the art of self, peer and teacher assessment. 

Make clear that students have to mark their own work for spelling and punctuation before they submit it for peer or teacher assessment, and make clear what you will and will not mark, what you do and do not find acceptable in terms of presentation and accuracy. 

Set out clear ground rules such as: work that is not handed in on time will not be marked and the student will be given a detention, work that is illegible or does not have a name on it will not be marked, work that contains basic errors will not be marked and will have to be rewritten, etc.

As with all the rules and routines in this article and the one that preceded it, it is absolutely vital that you expect 100 per cent compliance and do not give in to the temptation to “let that one go”. It is a war of attrition, but you will win it one battle at a time.

Plan lessons backwards

Another routine to be practised and perfected is lesson planning – a well-planned lesson, after all, is a great way of keeping students engaged and on task. However...

Planning lessons is the bane of many teachers’ lives and a part of the job that’s most likely to keep them up at night. I know teachers who spend longer planning a lesson than it takes to teach it. 

Why is this? Because many teachers make the mistake of focusing their energies on designing amazing activities – things for students to do in the lesson which are engaging and fun. 

But, rather than looking at a blank sheet of paper and thinking up fun activities to fill it, you should start your lesson planning at the end – with the objective. By formulating your objective first, you are forced to ask yourself “What will students understand today?” (which is measurable) rather than “What will students do today?” (which is not). 

A lesson activity can only be successful if it enables students to achieve the lesson’s objective in a way that can be assessed – whether or not an activity is fun is of secondary importance if indeed not entirely irrelevant.

So here’s a useful routine to establish when planning lessons...

  • When you plan a lesson, start by asking yourself: “Why am I teaching this?” and “What outcome do I desire?” 

  • Then ask yourself: “How does this outcome relate to what I intend to teach tomorrow and the next day?” 

  • And finally: “How does this outcome relate to what students need to learn by the end of this term/year/course?”

By building these questions into your lesson planning routine – repeated and reinforced every time you sit down to plan until it becomes a habit – you will stop planning each lesson in isolation-based on “fun” activities. Instead, you will start thinking about lessons as the small pieces of a large jigsaw – and each piece will develop ideas intentionally and incrementally while leading to the mastery of larger concepts.

Planning for the whole – for the medium-term rather than one lesson at a time – means methodically asking how each lesson will build on the previous lesson and prepare for the next. 

It also means asking how this short sequence of lessons fits into a wider sequence which leads to mastery. This way, if you fail to achieve the previous day’s objective, upon which tomorrow’s objective depends, you simply go back and re-teach the content until students achieve mastery.

One final point: lesson plans shouldn’t just focus on what the teacher will be doing but also on what students will be doing. This is not a contradiction: the objective must precede the activity and activities should not be deployed simply because they’re fun. 

You need to make sure your activities are meaningful and enable students to achieve your objective. Planning what your students will be doing is critical because it helps you to see the lesson through their eyes and this encourages you to find ways of keeping them productively engaged, thereby limiting instances of low-level disruption.

In The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall says that what students do in the classroom day after day is what they learn and become expert in. In other words, when making notes they’re likely to forget the contents of their notes but remember the act of note-taking. 

Therefore, we need to make sure that when we plan we remember that the activities students engage in will become inextricably bound up in their minds with the content of the lesson.

When I started teaching, I divided my planning sheet into two columns: on the left was “Teacher” and on the right was “Students”. 

It seems a simple idea now, perhaps too obvious to share here but, as often happens, the simplest solutions are the best solutions and the best solutions are often rooted in rules and routines regularly repeated and reinforced until they become good habits. And, as Aristotle taught us, excellence is not an act but a habit.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of teaching and learning for a large further education college and multi-academy trust. You can find out more at

Further information
To read Matt Bromley’s first article, The Foundations of Effective Teaching, visit


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