Starter tasks – are we using them badly?

We know that the brain actively seeks to tie new information to what it already knows (i.e. schemas, activation theory etc) and the role prior knowledge plays in this. Therefore, the intention of an introductory task or ‘starter’ *should* be to elicit prior knowledge. 

This intention may have been lost along the way as the three-part lesson (starter, main, plenary) became more dominant and starters were instead dictated by a set amount of time (i.e., having to be no longer than 5 minutes long). Subsequently, the ‘starter task’ became a vehicle for securing engagement or a tool for managing transition and lost sight of its primary function. We don’t want to fall into the same old trap of making a task engaging for engagement’s sake. 

However, being aware of the challenges that varying levels of prior knowledge can present (e.g. distraction, loss of interest), it is understandable why we may have begun to use starters as a chance to engage all learners. 

As with any task, we should always be asking ourselves, ‘what is it we want the learner to actually think about?’ 

A starter recall task such as “tell me everything you learnt last lesson about the Egyptians” is likely to be ineffective because it doesn’t provide appropriate retrieval cues. It will yield varied results and will not give an honest picture of what all students actually know. 

If we provide opportunity for limited thinking to occur, that is likely what we will get in return, so we should think carefully about how these retrieval questions are written. 

Near the start of a unit, or when recently learnt info is being recalled, the starter should contain sufficient retrieval cues to activate prior knowledge – e.g. Egyptians believed in afterlife. How did they prepare the dead for this? What did they do during these ceremonies? 

If we know the knowledge is very recently learnt, or it has not yet been recalled enough to be secure in the learner’s mind, then specific (and perhaps even leading) cues should be used. 

As that same knowledge is retrieved later on in a sequence of learning, we can move away from being specific to encourage more thinking on the part of the learner – e.g. what did Egyptians believe about the afterlife? 

If the function of a starter is to primarily activate prior knowledge (and secondarily engage the learner), then it must also present the opportunity to uncover a lack of prior knowledge or misconceptions. 

In order for that to happen, a starter should not only follow the path of simple recall, but require greater depth on behalf of the learner, so that the teacher can assess their current understanding more easily. Including misconceptions is one way to achieve this. 

Providing a task that demands greater depth of thinking can tell us a lot more and help to guide the rest of a lesson in the appropriate direction – “Were Ancient Greek and Egyptian beliefs similar?” 

Simple recall is an effective starter task, but it must be designed carefully so that it achieves the desired result. 

In summary:
– Is the starter task eliciting/activating prior knowledge?
– Is the starter task just for engagement?
– Does the starter task focus on simple recall?
– Does the starter task provide opportunity for deeper thinking? 

Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

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