Five years ago, way before there was much talk at my school about ‘do now’ quizzes, retrieval practice and interleaving, our head of maths at the time – the brilliant Matt Thompson – controversially decided to ditch ‘starters’ in favour of ‘starter mats’. They looked like this:
The idea was that the starter mat would include 4-6 short tasks/questions, based on things that had been covered both recently or in previous units. Questions included would be used to check understanding of things recently introduced, encourage recall of things learnt in previous units and would be heavily based on teacher assessment – if there was something students were finding hard then it would go into lots of mats to improve their confidence in it; if there was something they had all got wrong in a summative assessment then it would be included to check understanding once it had been gone over again. Increasingly, starter mats started to feed into eachother; if most of the class got a ratio question wrong on Monday, it would be re-taught then a ratio question included in Tuesday’s mat, and ratio questions would go in every lesson until the teacher felt they had ‘got it’.
The process around the starter mat was that students walked into the classroom and got on with them straight away and then the teacher would go over the working and answers under a visualiser, questioning students about which bits they had got right and wrong and probing the reasons for incorrect answers.
At first, the senior team were a bit unsure. When we went on learning walks we felt that they were a bit of a lazy start to a lesson; students immediately worked on them – sometimes for up to 15 minutes – without the teacher really doing anything. We felt they took up too much time and I remember lots of indignant ’20 minutes into the lesson and the teacher was still banging on about the starter mat!’ conversations at senior team meetings. We felt that constantly going back over old stuff was taking time away from the introduction of new learning. The maths team held firm though. They said that starting a lesson with quiet work was better than starting a lesson with a teacher dancing around with thunks or brainstorms or whatever. They said that in a 70 minute lesson, 20 minutes on recall of previous learning and practicing to improve fluency was time well spent. They said that going back over old stuff was essential. They even said that if the students struggled with the starter mat they might even spend the whole lesson on it and not move onto any ‘new’ learning at all!
Now of course we all know that they were absolutely right. Recall, fluency, interleaving, constant formative assessment and adapting short and longer term planning based on it: we all know that those things are the cornerstones of good teaching. Add to that that maths results started to go through the roof and the team felt that starter mats had been one of the key ‘game changers’ which they directly attributed the results, now in the top 1% nationally, to, and we couldn’t really argue!
So I now use starter mats in my English lessons. They are brilliant for year 11 – allowing you to constantly recall key knowledge of literature texts, test students on terminology, check understanding of how the different papers work and isolate and practice key skills around grammar and reading. I use them as a formative assessment tool too – like maths, I gather ‘data’ (in the loosest sense of the word) on what students know and don’t know, can and can’t remember and are strong and weak in, which then directly inform my lessons, homework and revision sessions. As English teachers, we know how easy it is at key stage 4 for assessment to become all about answers to exam questions, which has its place but can make it very difficult in terms of both our assessment and our feedback to isolate what the problem is or precisely how students can improve.
I love them. Below are some examples. In the first one you can see a task on complex sentences. This was because I had noticed in a piece of extended writing that students weren’t using them so I taught some different structures then popped them on the SM. The SM highlighted that double dashes hadn’t been well-understood, so I retaught them and had a box just on double dashes the next day:
In this one you will see a section on apostrophes. During circulation I had noticed students weren’t using them consistently. Popping this exercise on the SM the next day allowed me to see whether the issue was carelessness or confusion around how to use them and therefore judge whether a teaching episode was needed. There is also a Macbeth recall task based just on Act 5 as I had noticed in a Macbeth lesson the previous week that students’ knowledge of it was weaker than it was on the rest of the play so had asked them to reread it for homework.
Here I use one of the boxes to check recall of some words that had come up in the reading of a text that some students hadn’t known the meaning of. I have a space in my planner in which I write down any new vocab that I might not have ‘planned’ to teach but came up in a lesson. Notice that a double dash sentence comes up again in the sentence box because of the recent insecurity around it.
I have hundreds of these mats now and will gladly share them with anyone who wants them. That said, the point of them really is that they are set in direct response to your assessment if your students’ needs.
They have really changed my practice and, as I said at the beginning, do so much that we want to achieve in our teaching – recall, formative assessment, interleaving, responding to students.