Why Fixed Routines Are Liberating

Needle GrooveMost progress is made slowly, over a long period of time, by dutiful, steady, hard work. When I worked in project management, I knew the people who delivered on time were well organised and methodical. They quietly got on with it. They were unlikely to be promoted. Perhaps they didn’t want to be promoted. They had been doing the same thing for years, and so they were really good at it.

Routine makes us more efficient, because it makes many more processes automatic, freeing up our working memory for the real thinking. Using the same lesson pattern while varying the material means that our pupils’ attention, and our attention, will be better focused on what really matters: the learning. But if we are preoccupied with inventing and implementing ever new methods of delivery, this is enormously distracting.

The complexity should be in the subject matter, not the delivery. A commentator on a recent post of mine said that in the private sector, he was told to KISS everything, and it worked. KISS means ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Excellent advice; would that it were more widely disseminated to new teachers.

There should be plenty of thinking going on in our classroom, but we should work to ensure that as little as possible of this thinking is focused on making our pupils work out how to respond to our latest jazzy teaching technique, and as much as possible is focused on the really interesting material we are delivering.

Likewise, our planning should be very little concerned with methods of delivery. We should work to establish routines that we use day in, day out, so that we can focus our minds on what really makes a difference: curriculum design. With less time spent doing fiddly planning, we will have more time to build our own subject knowledge too, a vital and often neglected component of our effectiveness as teachers.

Well established routines also help new teachers enormously. They have much more to think about than experienced colleagues, and so if we can provide them with a tried and trusted framework which is already familiar to pupils, their lessons will run much more smoothly and effectively.

Routines can be tweaked, but they should never be scrapped and replaced overnight. Small, incremental, organic change should be the norm. We want to fine-tune our routines to make them even more effective. But unless we use them faithfully, we’ll never achieve this fine-tuning.

Why would anyone be opposed to using the same routine over and over again, when there are so many benefits? Perhaps the most common objection is boredom. The assumption here is that routine means sameness. Of course it doesn’t, because the material being taught varies endlessly. When the mind is focused on this, engaged with this, there should be no danger of tedium. And keeping other, less important factors constant sharpens that focus.

I do wonder though whether some teachers object to routine because they believe teaching should be fun just as much as they believe this about learning. Being steady, organised and methodical just sounds too much like hard work.

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7 thoughts on “Why Fixed Routines Are Liberating

    • Yes. Pressure is often applied to teachers to vary delivery and use ‘innovative’ methods. The assumption is that teachers must grab pupils’ attention. The result is exhausted teachers, jaded pupils and little learning.

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      • Exactly. This article complains that new teachers don’t learn about the importance of routine, but I’ve gotten pressure from above to change it up. I’ve been told, for instance, that today’s adolescent can’t focus for more than twenty minutes at a time, and that therefore an hour class should have at least three distinct activities, with the order changing daily. Complaints are met with reference to the length of TV shows, but TV shows succeed most when their narrative structure is predictable.

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  1. I was always amazed when I began my student teaching assignment, that as noisy as the class was upon entering the classroom, if I issued an order like “Get your folders and get ready to take the two-minute test” they complied immediately, no questions asked, and seemed grateful for being given direction.

    Routines are essential–particularly with middle schoolers. I had a student who was almost always off-task. I recall once giving an instruction on what they were to be doing, and how long they were being given to do it. As students were doing it he asked a neighbor “What is it we’re supposed to be doing?” Not that he did it, but it was important for him to know what it was he was not doing.

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  2. The idea that all lessons need to be fun is alive and well at our school. When I have inquired as to why there isn’t much practice I have been told by various teachers that the lesson needs to be fun or the students wont be engaged. Last year (yr 4) my daughter had a teacher that spent a great deal of time on fun activities as opposed to teaching. Some fun activities are fine but the majority of these kids don’t know their times tables, can’t spell or punctuate, have limited vocabularies etc etc. Both my daughters thrive on routine in the class room. It’s important to know what’s coming next.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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