Start the year right!

By Kylie Bice

It's the beginning of a new school year in Australia and it's a great time for teachers to start afresh and set their classrooms up with effective routines, practices, language and ideas. 

I've been talking to teachers a lot during the past 2-3 weeks about things to consider when it comes to setting up their classes for effective learning for the year, particularly when it comes to differentiation and students as thinkers and learners.  Here are my top ten tips for starting the school year right:

Have your language ready 

In her model of differentiation, Carol Tomlinson talks about respectful tasks, whereby students feel that there is no one 'right' task, but that students feel that all tasks and versions of tasks have equal value in the learning environment.  It is important to think about how the language that you will use in the classroom to set this tone early.  I like to talk to students about tasks that are 'challenging but achievable' and that I will endeavour to set tasks for different students that meet this criteria.  I also encourage students to choose tasks that are challenging but achievable for them, and that rarely will a single task meet this criteria for everyone at once, and this is ok!  I also like to have an early discussion about our strengths and weaknesses as learners and to give my own examples of this.  Finally, I want to set the scene for the value I place on students' thinking and learning and so I clearly explain that I expect thinking and learning and not just striving to get a good mark, especially if the work is too easy or already known.  Your language should match your teaching style, the age and characteristics of the students, should be matched with appropriate visuals and if possible your school approach to describing thinking and learning.

Explicitly teach the routines 

You need routines and structure for the purposes of safety, belonging, differentiation, classroom management and ultimately student learning (not to mention your sanity!).  Don't assume that just because you know what you want the routine to be, that the students will miraculously figure it out by themselves.  Explicitly teach routines and ask students to practice them.  If students have learned the routines by the end of first term, you will get so much more done for the rest of the year!  This is true whether students are 5 or 15 years old.  The most effective differentiation I see happening in classrooms is when the teacher has taught students the classroom and learning routines and students understand were to go, where the equipment is, what their learning task is, which groups they are learning with and much more!

Teach what it means to think about their own learning/thinking 

Talk to students about this early and ask them what it means to 'think' or to 'learn', and teach them how to figure out how they individually learn best.  I like to do this by playing a memory game with new students (like Kim's game or similar) whereby students try to memorise a number of objects (these could be actual objects or pictures).  Students enjoy the challenge of trying to see who can remember the most objects by the next day or after the weekend.  The real point of this game, however, is to ask the students to take note of how they are remembering the objects, both in the moment and over time.  Then eventually ask them to compare strategies and describe the way they were best able to remember.  This is a great activity to start a discussion about the importance of knowing how we individually think and learn, so we can be the most effective learners possible.

Let students in on the game

As in… the game that is your classroom and the unit of work. What are rules? How can they succeed? What strategies will help them? How are things connected? As teachers we often hold all the knowledge about how one lesson relates to another, how lessons relate to assessment tasks, how groups are formed, how students can improve, what students need to demonstrate and so on.  It is important for students of all abilities to have a clear picture of the links between lessons and activities, and to know the learning goal and how to get there.  As teachers we need to teach this explicitly…and BTW…giving a unit outline on a piece of paper at the beginning of term is not a strategy to achieve this!  My favourite strategy is to have a 'Big Question' visible in the classroom from day one of the unit of work and then annotate to this like a mind map every lesson so that the learning becomes visible as we progress.  I also like to teach students how I mark work and what I am looking for when I mark work.  There are many strategies to achieve this, so go ahead and find one that works for you!

Don't have your teaching program set in stone until you have pre-tested for existing knowledge

I find teachers often pre-assess dutifully early in their career, but then it fades away over the years for different reasons.  Some of the main reasons why teachers tell me they either don't pre-assess or stop pre-assessing are:

  • I have been teaching for a number of years now and have a good feel for what  most students in an average year should or would know. 

  • I don't have time to pre-assess because I'm expected to get through a certain amount of content before the end of term.

  • I have tried pre-assessing before but it is too time-consuming.

  • There is no point pre-assessing because I have to submit my teaching program before the term begins (or within the first week) and so don't have time to change it based on pre-test results.

  • My teaching program, tests, assignments and assessment dates are set for me and I can't change them.


There are so many inherent educational reasons why these reasons are alarming, that perhaps I should be writing a whole other blog just on pre-assessment! Needless to say, some teachers would love to pre-assess and school scheduling and expectations prevent them from doing this. If you do have the flexibility at your school to design your teaching program around the students' learning needs, then please pre-assess and use the data to plan your differentiated tasks and activities! If you are unsure if you have permission to change your teaching program… ask, plead, beg if you have to! Pre-assessment does not always have to be formal, standardised or lengthy, and in fact should more often be quick and easy to administer and mark, be intuitive, can be creative and should match the hoped-for knowledge, skills and concepts.