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.