How routines can automate expectations to generate more learning time

Learning to drive a car can be very difficult even for the most confident of person. Sitting in the driver’s seat, with the key in your hand, the whole process looks overwhelming. Where do you start? Check handbrake, foot on clutch and brake, insert key into the ignition, check the mirrors and so on. The list feels endless as well as your nerves and self-doubt. However, with time, effort and support from an instructor the countless hours of practice begins to pay dividends. Learning to drive becomes less threatening and automated and shortly you jump in your car and unbeknownst to you, you arrive at your destination. Driving is no longer a series of small procedures but one operation. Now it’s routine.

Routines help automate instruction or expectations by chunking. The initial learning to drive a car is overwhelming because of cognitive load. Our working memory has limited space and can quickly become strained under a large amount of information. Yet, continuous practice and consistency can help automate the learning and improve the retrieval strength in our long term memory. For instance, you now no longer jump in a car and think through each step on how to start the car, instead the operations are chucked leaving more space in your working memory to talk to a friend or change the radio station. Similar to our structures in schools, routines that are consistently applied may provide more time to dedicate to learning.

The start of many school lessons may consist of pupils lining up, completing a task on entry or a combination of other expectations. For the teacher, it’s easy, these are the rules of their classroom but for the pupil it may be a memory minefield considering they have ten teachers each with varying and often frequently changing routines. It is easy for us to say to pupils to line up outside the door, when entering place your equipment on the desk, write the date and title underlined in your exercise book and then complete the task on the board but then some days it may be different. Yet we become frustrated when certain tasks are incomplete and begin to question “why can’t they remember?!” and the answer may be that they actually can’t – their working memory is overloaded. Therefore, a consistent approach to the start of every lesson (even more effective if adopted whole school) will help pupils chunk the rules from four separate actions to one.

Similar to learning how to drive, routines for the start of lesson can be quickly automated to the point pupils are completing the expectations in autopilot. And there is no better place than schools to consider the use of routines and apply them consistently to create a healthy and efficient learning environment. Schools are busy and vastly complex which can be stimulating and excruciating for the working memory. Routines are an effective way to simplify school life for teachers and pupils. Other examples can extend to how exercise books must be laid out, checking equipment at the school gate, how to enter and exit an assembly or social time or how to respond to feedback. A good example of the latter is after pupils receive feedback they must check the five B’s before asking the teacher for support – brain, board, book, buddy and lastly boss.

Routines can also create clarity in behaviour expectations to minimise impact to learning. Similar to the start of lesson there are a range of techniques to support classroom behaviour management. However, clear routines that chunk simple expectations can provide absolute clarity. For example, to bring the class attention back to the teacher a simple command, “Quiet Time”, followed by counting from 4 to 1 with an expectation that students are quiet. If not, a warning is issued to pupils that a detention will follow if they do not cooperate. Simple, clear and if used consistently will remove all ambiguity as pupils become automated to the system. Pupils do not have to order all the requests in their brain and then consider the consequence. It’s a sequence which is now chunked providing the teacher with a quick tool for behaviour management to gain the attention of the class and refocus their working memory on more learning.

Forming routines can quickly chunk expectations to support automation, therefore reducing cognitive load so more working space and time can be dedicated to more learning in the classroom. As discussed above, at first it will be like learning how to drive a car. There will be many mistakes and possible refinements but once automated more time is generated for learning. Chunking is a strategy that has many benefits. It can also have a positive impact on curriculum and teacher planning and task development to utilise the science of working memory to support pupil learning.  Bearing in mind the impact working memory can have on pupils, we need to consider how we can minimise distractions that can easily be chunked together to avoid cognitive load. In doing so, routines can play an important role in tuning out the white noise that is generated through fractious school systems and help put our pupils in the driver’s seat.


Cover photo: Dave Thompson/PA Wire