Lesson Intro Dos and Don’ts (Part Two)


In “Lesson Intro Dos and Don’ts (Part One),” I addressed false starts, which are caused by skipping the intro and diving right into the lesson. In this post (Part Two), I address two other intro problems, which I refer to as IDK (i.e. I don’t know) and JK (i.e. just kidding). Both of these problems result from an unsuccessful attempt to activate students’ prior knowledge.

IDK Intros

The Problem: Vague Intro Questions

This problem arises when the intro question is too vague to elicit appropriate responses from students. Examples of such questions include the following:

  • “Can anybody tell me what we did yesterday?”
  • “Who remembers what we learned yesterday?”
  • “How did we end things yesterday?”
  • “What was the last thing we read?”

Questions such as these have at least two unintended consequences. First, they can hurt the teacher’s credibility by giving the impression that s/he either can’t remember the previous lesson or can’t formulate clear questions, both of which are highly unlikely. Second, they force students to guess what the teacher is asking, which not only wastes time but also engenders frustration.

The Solution: Two Simple Steps

I believe this problem can be solved in a matter of seconds with just two simple steps:

  1. Specify prior knowledge. Specify what you want students to recall/review during the intro portion of the lesson. What facts, concepts, procedures, or experiences would you like them to write about and/or discuss? What specific “answers” would you like them to provide?
  2. Write appropriate questions. Formulate 1-3 questions that will elicit the answers you identified in step one, as if you were a contestant on the game show, Jeopardy.

Below, I illustrate these steps with examples from four content areas.

1. Specify prior knowledge2. Write questions
English Language ArtsRomeo and Juliet is a tragedy. Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play. (a) What happens to Romeo and Juliet at the end of the play? (b) What words might we use to describe this kind of play? (c) What is the literary term for this type of play?
General ScienceThere are many different types of clouds. The different types of clouds produce different types of precipitation.(a) Yesterday, we learned the names of several types of clouds. Who would like to come up and list one on the board? Who would like to list another one? (and so on) (b) How do the clouds listed here differ from one another? OR What’s different about the various types of clouds?
World HistoryRoman architecture has influenced the design of many prominent buildings in the US (e.g., columns, arches).(a) By a show of hands, who has visited the White House? Who has seen pictures of it? (b) Look at these pictures and pay close attention to the architectural features. What do you notice?
Spanish I/IIAll regular -ar verbs use the same set of endings: o, as, a, amos, ais, and an.(a) Look at this list of verbs: mirar, hablar, caminar, and escuchar. What do they all have in common? (b) What letters do we replace -ar with when using each of the following pronouns (e.g., yo, ella, nosotros)?

JK Intros

The Problem: Unfamiliar Content

Like IDK intros, JK intros also result from an unsuccessful attempt to activate prior knowledge. However, in JK intros, the attempt is unsuccessful not because the question is too vague, but because it addresses content that students have not yet learned. The following scenario illustrates this problem perfectly:

To activate students’ prior knowledge on the formation of political parties, a U.S. Government teacher prepares the following question: “What do you know about how political parties are formed?” The teacher feels certain that students will be able to come up with at least one plausible answer even though they have not yet learned about this concept. However, when the teacher asks the question, the students are completely puzzled. To save face, the teacher laughs and says, “Just kidding. That’s what we are going to learn today.”

It probably goes without saying that asking unanswerable questions is not only ineffective but also embarrassing. The problem, though, is that many teachers believe it’s impossible to plan intro questions on a topic that students know nothing about. Yet, while it is certainly more difficult than writing a few questions on yesterday’s lesson, it is entirely possible with a shift in perspective and a few simple steps.

The Thinking: Changing Your Perspective

Removing the I-M from impossible requires a new way of thinking about the following elements:

  1. Students. Let go of the idea that students don’t know anything about the topic. Students come with vast amounts of prior knowledge, so even if they have not learned about the topic of the lesson, they certainly know about a topic that is similar, related, or analogous to it.
  2. Questions. Think beyond the topic of the lesson. Is is not necessary for intro questions to address the lesson topic directly; they can address almost anything, as long as certain criteria are met: (a) It relates, somehow, to the topic of the lesson. (b) Students know about it or it can be shared with them (e.g., pic, video clip). (c) It respects common decency and personal boundaries.
  3. Inspiration. Remember that the inspiration for crafting interesting and relevant intro questions can be found almost anywhere. Take the following as examples:
    • concepts from other subjects (e.g., art, music, media studies)
    • universal “themes” (e.g., love, friendship, conflict),
    • personal experiences (e.g., disagreements, changing schools)
    • everyday things (e.g., music, social media, food, sports)
    • major milestones (e.g., first day of school, graduation, wedding)
    • primary sources (e.g., photos, news articles, historical docs)
    • historical figures (e.g., presidents, Civil Rights leaders)
    • famous people (e.g., singers, actors, reality TV stars)
    • books (e.g., children’s books, movies based on books)
    • hypothetical scenarios (e.g., winning the lottery, traveling in time)
    • symbolic representations (e.g., iceberg, diamond ring, apple)

The Solution: Three Simple Steps. Now, you just need a few simple steps to help you apply these new ideas to your intro questions.

  1. List and choose. Think about the topic of your lesson. What have students already learned or experienced that is similar, relevant, or analogous to that topic? If needed, use the bullet points above for inspiration. List all of the ideas that come to mind; then, choose the best one.
  2. Specify prior knowledge. Specify what you want students to recall/review during the intro portion of the lesson. What elements or components would you like them to write about and/or discuss? What specific “answers” would you like them to provide?
  3. Write questions. Use the idea you selected as inspiration for several questions. The questions should elicit responses that you can connect to the topic of the lesson.
1. List and choose.2. Specify prior knowledge3. Write questions
U.S. Government-
The formation of political parties
Similar experiences may include being part of a clique, starting a new club or group at school, and organizing a protest. The two best options are starting a club or group and organizing a protest, but students may find clubs more relatable.I want students to identify a cause that they care about and list some of the steps they might take to form their group and then build it, such as talking to someone in authority, asking people to join them, etc.Name a cause that you care about. Imagine that you wanted start a new group of club that’s devoted to that cause. What actions would you take to get your club up and running?
English Language Arts- the three rhetorical appealsStudents have had many relevant personal experiences–e.g., trying to convince their parents to let them do something, trying to get a teacher to accept late work or change a grade. I want students to describe the situation in which they argued for something and explain how they tried to convince or persuade the people involved. Think of a time when you tried to convince or persuade someone to do something. (a) Describe the situation (who, what, why). (b) List some of the arguments you used to try to convince or persuade the people involved.

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