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Exploring the evidence base: The role of routines in creating an effective learning environment

7 min read
Ann-Marie Argyropulo-Palmer, Subject Leader for Music, University of Birmingham School, UK

Whether introduced by individual teachers or employed school-wide by leaders, routines – a specific sequence of actions regularly followed – are a common feature of UK classrooms (DfE, 2011). Routines as recommended classroom practice can also be seen at a national level, with the government’s own behaviour advisor, Tom Bennett, noting the importance of routines in creating and maintaining school culture (Bennett, 2017). In addition, routines are commonly utilised in teacher education – for example, through the scripted teacher behaviours as outlined in Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion (2021) or through the instructional coaching methods used to support learning for new colleagues as part of the Early Career Framework (Young, 2020). What is less discussed is why we do this and how routines support learning. This article will consider these questions before going on to consider how developing a deeper understanding of routines can help teachers, teacher educators and school leaders to maximise their effectiveness.

Supporting attention: Understanding routine actions and the brain

If students don’t attend to the right information, it is quite unlikely that they will learn anything. A teacher’s greatest talent consists of constantly channelling and capturing children’s attention.

(Dehaene, 2021, p. 150)

Routines are a powerful tool for learning because they support the direction of attention. Attention is defined by cognitive scientists as the mechanisms by which the brain selects, amplifies and deepens the processing of information. Consequentially, it is a precious and limited resource that is essential for learning (Dehaene, 2021).

Routines support teachers to successfully direct learners’ attention in two primary ways. The first is through reducing the volume of information for the ‘thinking’ brain to process and assess (Begeti, 2020; Fuster, 2008). The second is by creating social norms that make it more likely that students will select and attend to the learning that the teacher intends (Blakemore, 2018). Both work towards the same goal of making it more likely that students will attend to and engage with the learning that the teacher has planned. These concepts will now be explored in more detail.

The neurology of routine and attention

Routine or habitual actions are stored in the basal ganglia (Begeti, 2020). In contrast, attention, self-regulation and decision-making engage the prefrontal cortex (Fuster, 2008). Appropriately selecting what to attend to from an environment that is likely to be oversaturated with competing stimuli is highly challenging. This task is even harder for children and adolescents, whose brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex, are still maturing (Blakemore, 2018). 

Establishing a routine for regular sequences of actions in the classroom reduces the volume of stimuli being processed by the prefrontal cortex. Reducing the competition for students’ attention makes it more likely that they will attend to and engage with the learning intended by the teacher.

Creating and maintaining a positive culture: Understanding the power of social norms

Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit

(Durant, discussing the writing of Aristotle, 1926, p. 87)

A positive classroom culture, considered here to mean the customs and social behaviours of a class that enable a productive and supportive learning environment, can be formed by the establishment and maintenance of routines (Grossman et al., 2009). Over time, as these routines become the norm for the group, they have the potential to move from becoming behaviours enforced and enacted because of the routines to becoming behaviours that are enacted without question because they are congruent with the identity of the learners in the class (Clear, 2018; Hogg and Abrams, 2007). Self-identity and related self-efficacy have been found to have a causal relationship with academic success (Zimmerman et al., 1992) and, as such, the potential of routines to support improved academic attainment by encouraging students to develop personal identities as effective, successful learners is significant. 

When attempting to engineer the adoption of specific, desirable behaviours through routines, it is also helpful to consider the influence that group identity and peer behaviour are thought to have on establishing and maintaining group culture (Hogg and Abrams, 2007). While we are all influenced by other people, children are particularly susceptible to the influence of adults; adolescents, on the other hand, are more concerned with the opinions of peers (Blakemore, 2018). Particularly for the latter group, harnessing the influence of peers by achieving a critical mass who regularly and reliably undertake the routines can be particularly effective (Granovetter, 1978).

Routines in teacher education and professional practice

Just as routines are helpful for child and adolescent learners, so too can routines support teachers’ own learning. Whether these are routines to support classroom organisation, behaviour management or teacher instruction, freeing up the ‘thinking’ brain and making room for focused attention on other areas of teaching or the classroom is helpful. Particular examples where routines can be used to support teachers’ professional mastery include creating the mental ‘space’ to allow the teacher to shift their focus to a specific developmental target (e.g. questioning), supporting teachers to work more responsively and focus on building positive relationships with students (Mccrea, 2020; Fletcher-Wood, 2018; Grossman et al., 2009). In addition, routines can play a pivotal role in supporting the teaching, learning and practice of expert teaching behaviours (Lemov, 2021; Mccrea, 2020). 

What routines are not

So are routines essential for effective teaching? No. If the learners were all highly motivated and able to attend fully to the learning, and the teacher possessed a high degree of professional mastery, routines would be largely redundant. It is likely, however, that in most classrooms, routines will be a powerful tool to support both students and teachers.

Does the use of routines equal an authoritarian approach to student management? Not necessarily. While some schools have faced criticism that their strict use of routines is more about exercise of power than social justice (Mathews, 2021), a wide variety of authors, ranging from Lemov (2021) to researchers exploring democratic structures and student voice (e.g. Noyes, 2005), note the importance of purpose over power. Senior leaders are encouraged to consider communicating to staff, students and their families about why particular routines are in place and how they support learning. Alongside careful consideration of how to manage student non-compliance, sharing the how and why of routines presents the opportunity for schools to operate in an ‘authoritative’ manner, exercising authority based on expertise, as opposed to appearing to impose routines for the purposes of control. This will be particularly important where stakeholders have experienced abuse of power, either personally, institutionally or generationally. Consequentially, critical examination of how, why, where and when routines can be a useful pedagogical tool, alongside discussion of criticisms of and problematic use of routines, is of importance in teacher education.

What do we know about effective routines?

Mccrea (2020) outlines the essential ingredients of an effective routine. He notes the importance of ensuring a simple and clear sequence of actions, where the very first student action is easily achievable with minimal effort. All routines also require a cue, which is the signal to begin the routine. Cues should be distinct, concise and ‘multimodal’ – for example, by considering combining a verbal cue with a non-verbal gesture from a specific location in the classroom (Mccrea, 2020).

Routines must also be explicitly taught, repeatedly reinforced and consistently maintained so that the processes become automated before the benefits to learning will be enjoyed (Mccrea, 2020). This will require dedicated time, commitment and understanding from staff and will be easier where routines are shared across the school.

Key takeaways

What is it about routines that makes them particularly helpful in an educational setting? What should teachers, teacher educators and school leaders consider to maximise the effectiveness of routines?

  • Routines help to direct learner attention (Begeti, 2020; Fuster, 2008)
  • Attention is understood to be an essential prerequisite for learning (Dehaene, 2021)
  • Routines can be particularly useful for children and adolescents because the areas of the brain responsible for attention and self-regulation are still developing (Blakemore, 2018)
  • Routines can also be helpful in teacher education as they support the development of professional mastery through the deliberate practice of expert behaviours (Lemov, 2021); they also support teachers to have the mental ‘space’ to teach more responsively, focus more readily on building positive relationships with students and work on any specific development areas (Mccrea, 2020)
  • Routines are most effectively formed and maintained when they are simple, clear and have a very easy first action to boost student uptake, and they must be explicitly taught and repeatedly rehearsed so that the real benefits, once the routines have become internalised, can be reaped; for this reason, routines will be more easily established when they are shared throughout the school (Mccrea, 2020)
  • Communicating the purpose of routines to staff, students and their families can help to support the use of routines within an authoritative (the exercising of authority based on expertise; Friere, 2005), as opposed to authoritarian (implying an emphasis on power and control), approach to student management; this also has implications for teacher education.
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