Becoming a Consistent Teacher: Stares, Hand Signals, and Routines

My school year wrapped up and I might be happier than my students. It isn’t that I dislike my job or am burned out. It’s just that having a break is wonderful.

When I compare the end of this year with the end of last year, it is a world of difference. Last year, I was exhausted, burned out, and looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of getting away from work). This year, I am happy, have energy, and am looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of enjoying the break). The primary reason for this change is personal growth.

The primary areas I have grown is consistency in classroom management and classroom routines.

  1. Classroom Management

Having consistent classroom management procedures drastically improved my teaching and reduced my stress. My “secret” is so simple, it is a little ridiculous. 

“3, 2, 1, Stop.”

I hold one hand in the air and countdown with my hand and voice. At ‘stop’ my hand forms a fist and my voice rises in pitch.

That’s it. The beauty lies in the simplicity. The ‘countdown’ cues students to quickly come to a stopping point in their work/discussions. The ‘stop’ cues them to stop. The rise in pitch is yet another cue. If many students do not respond, I pose a rhetorical question, “When I say 3, 2, 1, Stop. What should you do?” This is generally enough to get most students to stop. But for those who require more assistance, I have found it effective to move into their proximity while giving them a teacher stare. 

The Teacher Stare

The teacher stare is not angry, happy, or blank. It clearly communicates displeasure and should always be accompanied/followed with a signal that directs the students towards proper behavior.

A few seconds have passed and, in all likelihood, you now have the misbehaving students’ attention. Once they are looking at you, you can use a hand signal to guide the students into proper behavior.

Pro Tip: If there are multiple students misbehaving across the room, you should give each group the teacher stare, moving towards the worst violators. At the same time, use hand signals to cue behaving students sitting near those misbehaving to get their attention. This could involve signaling the behaving students (near the misbehaving ones) to tap the misbehaving students on the shoulder and point towards the teacher.

Hand Signals

Hand signals work because they are clear and simple. They also work well for students who struggle with English because these students will already understand the concept of the signal (be quiet/open you book/write/etc), even if they do not understand the accompanying words. The key to hand signals, is being consistent. You must teach the signals before you use them and then you must use them regularly to ensure students remember what the signals mean (Teaching and reinforcing hand signals is a very quick process). You should find that regularly using hand signals improves student behavior and reduces the amount of time you spend correcting students.


Quiet Open your book/notebook You should be working (move your hand like you are writing, accompany with a look to imply, “get to work”)

Closed hands transition to open hands


The key to classroom management is being consistent and clear. Establishing simple routines and consistently applying/enforcing them is challenging at first because you are not used to it, and neither are your students. But it is worth it. You should persevere.

  1. Classroom Routines

The two types of classroom routines I have focused on building are procedural and transition routines. 

Procedural Routines

Procedural routines involve what students do once they have been given a task. It is easy to just have an inferred procedural routine, I gave “it” to you, so do “it”. But this is unnecessarily vague. Be intentional with your routines. Teach students how you want them to take notes. Organize your class to have the same overall structure each day. Have a few standardized formats for your worksheets. 

The purpose of this standardization in everything from lesson structure, notes, assignments is not for controlling students. The purpose of standardization is to allow for productive freedom. The standardization gives students the structure they need to be creative.

Transition Routines

Transition routines are imperative to build. But, if you observe an expert teacher they can seem to be naturally occurring. But they are not. Successful transitions are a result of careful planning and training. In order to grow in this area you must be intentional. Think about it, and try different setups and instructions in the classroom. Find one that works, and stick with it. 

What is the next step for students?

What do they need to bring?

Where do they need to go?

How should they go there?

What will students do when they get there?

Students will not naturally transition from one task or location to the next. Have a plan, train them. Praise them for their successes, even in something as small as a transition, because successful transitions are not small. A class that is full of successful transitions can easily save you 5 minutes each class. Those extra minutes add up very quickly.

I am certainly not done learning in these two areas, but the progress I made in classroom management and routines seems to have had an out sized impact on both my students’ learning and my quality of life. 


What are well-structured and ill-structured problems?

Well-Structured Problem: Yields a correct answer through the application of an appropriate algorithm (SERC)

  • Response: right answer
    • Examples
      • 1+2=3
      • When you let go of an object, why does it fall?

Ill-Structured Problem: Does not yield a particular, certain answer (SERC)

  • Response: claim and justification
    • Examples
      • How did the United States win the revolutionary war?
      • Which economic system allows for the most human flourishing?

How should you teach in a well-structured domain? How should you teach in an ill-structured domain?

My thesis is that you should teach both in largely the same manner because the underlying structures of each domain are the same. In order to successfully answer a question in either domain, students must retrieve content from long-term memory and then successfully apply it to the problem following the correct procedures.

Simon (1973) stated that a problem’s domain (well/ill-structured) depended on the individual learner, “The boundary between well structured and ill structured problem solving is indeed a vague and fluid boundary.” He also said that the processes used in solving ill-structured problems can be successfully applied to well-structured problems.

If the categorization of a well/ill-structured problem depends on the learner, then the categorizations are relative and subject to change.

Academia has not universally agreed with Simon, however. Reitman (1965) argues that ill-structured domains are not easily defined and are often conditional. As a result, students must combine various separate schemas in order to answer an ill-structured problem. This essentially results in the student creating “new” knowledge whereas in answering a well-structured problem, the student would be recalling and applying “old” knowledge. It is argued that solving an ill-structured problem involves content knowledge, structural knowledge, domain-specific strategy, and general searching strategy (Sinnot, 1989). It is my basic argument that these are needed to solve a well structured problem too.

Take the simple problem of 13+9=x.

You obviously cannot solve this problem without content knowledge. You also need to understand the structure of addition. You must know not only how to add individual numbers, but you must carry out the procedure in the correct manner.

Components of solving ill structured problems (Voss, 1988 and copied from Hong, 1998)

  1. Recognizing that there is a problem
  2. Finding out what the problem is
  3. Searching and selecting some information about it
  4. Developing justification by identifying alternative perspectives
  5. Organizing obtained information to fit a new problem situation
  6. Generating some possible solutions
  7. Deciding on the best solution by the solvers perception of problem constraints
  8. Implementing the solution and evaluating it by developing arguments and articulating personal belief or value

In his 1998 dissertation, Hong states, “There are critical differences between the two problems as shown by the literature review. Well-structured problems require cognition, including domain-specific knowledge and structural knowledge, and knowledge of cognition (e.g., general strategies)…In well-structured problems, there is only one correct, guaranteed solution, achieved by using specific pre established rules and procedures. Well-structured problems require finding and applying the correct algorithm for a successful solution rather than decision-making using epistemic cognition and their value or perception about problems (Churchman, 1971). Therefore, solvers do not need to consider alternative arguments, finding new evidence or evaluating the collected information for successful solution of well-structured problems (Kitchener, 1983)….In contrast to well-structured problems, ill-structured problems have multiple potential valid solutions which can be effectively determined by using a particular decision making procedure. Solvers must use their epistemic cognition, values, attitude, belief, motivation and emotion in order to make decisions in novel real life problem situations.”

While Hong would disagree with me, it is my contention that students essentially follow this same process for solving all types of problems. The only significant difference seems to be that well-structured problems can only have one correct answer whereas ill-structured problems could have many justifiable answers. While that may be true, I think that calling the problem “open” or “closed” would be more accurate because you can follow the same steps to solve either, it’s just that one has a clear path to a solution and the other has no clear path.
Take addition as an example that very clearly falls in the well-structured domain.

Addition Word Problem

Susie has thirteen apples and her friend Mark gives her nine more. How many apples does Susie have now?

  1. Recognizing that there is a problem
    1. To solve this problem, the student must recognize it as asking a question. “I have to find the numbers of apples Susie has”.
  2. Finding out what the problem is
    1. The student must recognize it as an addition problem, thus limiting the problem space to the realm of addition. “Mark gave her ‘more’ apples, so I should use addition to solve this problem.”
  3. Searching and selecting some information about it
    1. The student must select the given numbers and add them together, further defining the problem space. “Ok, so thirteen ‘more’ nine…”
    2. This would hold true even if the example was not a word problem. 13+9, the student must still select the numbers and use the proper symbol. This step must happen even in a well-structured problem, even if the problem “gives” this step to the student, the student must accurately select it. A common selection error in this example would be reading ‘more’ to mean subtraction and placing a ‘-’ sign into their equation.
  4. Developing justification by identifying alternative perspectives
    1. For this example, there are no other valid perspectives (hopefully the student will realize this quickly). The student would just check and justify their actions. “Yes, ‘more’ means addition, not a minus or multiply, so I must add the numbers together.”
  5. Organizing obtained information to fit a new problem situation
    1. The student must convert the word problem into a traditional number problem. “Thirteen is 13 and nine is 9. So I have 13+9=Total # of apples.”
  6. Generating some possible solutions
    1. This problem only has one possible solution. However, the student must still generate an accurate answer that takes the problem domain into account. “13+9=22. Susie has 22 apples.”
  7. Deciding on the best solution by the solvers perception of problem constraints
    1. In a “well-structured” problem, this step is combined with step 6 because there is only one reasonable answer.
  8. Implementing the solution and evaluating it by developing arguments and articulating personal belief or value
    1. In this example, simply following the addition algorithm expresses a developed argument and the student’s trust in the algorithm.

My purpose in this example is to show how you can apply the “ill-structured problem” process to well-structured problems with no negative effects. I believe this shows there to be a false dichotomy and, think, like Simon, that “there is no real boundary between well and ill-structured problems.”

It is undoubtedly true that there are problems with more and less structure and that changes the difficulty level of those problems, however, it appears that we can use the same general process to solve both types of problems. Problems with less structure may require more time, background knowledge of the domain and problem structure (conceptual knowledge), along with the knowledge about the problem’s particular context than well-structured problems but, again, the process of solving either type remains the same.


For teachers, the implications are relatively straightforward. If there are no true boundaries between well and ill-structured problems as Simon said, then…

  1. We should recognize that problems classified as ill-structured often require more scaffolding and pre-teaching because answering them will force students to draw upon a wealth of information and concepts whereas a well-structured problem will often be relatively straightforward.
    1. We can reduce these challenges by explicitly teaching students and modeling and explaining each step with a similar example problem after. (for both well/ill structured problems)
  2. We must take a student’s prior learning into account and realize that the solution to an “ill-structured” problems will often build upon the solutions of multiple “well-structured” problems.
  3. We should teach students how to justify their answers with data.
    1. This is especially important for problems that have been traditionally identified as ill-structured because these problems, by their very nature are more difficult and cognitively demanding, often with multiple possible answers, thus requiring a justification for why they chose their answer. (Well-structured problems also require justification. It is just that their justification is often more straightforward. The justification for the above example is the standard algorithm, 13+9=22.)

Note: Follow this link to the PhD dissertation I primarily used for this article. While I disagree with the author’s finding that well-structured and ill-structured problems utilize different processes there is a wealth of great, applicable information inside (Especially in the Lit Review).


Effective Inquiry in Science Class

Science, as a discipline is intrinsically inquiry based. This is not up for debate. After all, the only way to discover something new is to ask new questions and seek new answers, to inquire. The scientific method, which provides the intellectual framework of science is also a method of inquiry.

Real scientists use inquiry, but they all, always rely on a wealth of background knowledge to make their inquiry productive. So when we as teachers have our students think like scientists we need to be very careful because our students are not scientists and therefor they do not have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from.

While inquiry will always be an important part of science, I believe we have deified it. Think about it. Scientists will often go to conferences or seminars to be lectured at. Why? To learn. To save time. Why take the time to rediscover what your colleagues at another school already discovered? Just listen to them explain it. So, even though scientists are experts in their fields, they still rely heavily on traditional methods (being told).

To be clear, I firmly believe that there should be room for inquiry in all science classrooms and that teaching students how to use inquiry based strategies like the scientific method is of paramount importance. However, I also believe that if we spend less time on inquiry based instruction, and more time on explicit instruction then our students will benefit because they will have developed more background knowledge to apply in novel situations. One way this benefit will be made manifest is in higher rates of success when we do an inquiry based activity.

When should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • Towards the end of a unit

How should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • To encourage students to make, recall, and extend connections between facts/topics/concepts they have already learned

Teachers should regularly use inquiry based instruction especially towards the end of a unit. This can be done in a way that encourages students to make connections between the various topics they have been learning about. For example, in a Biology course a student may learn about life-cycles, nutrient transfer and environmental conditions. The teacher could create an inquiry based activity with algae that requires students to make connections between the above topics.

The students would need to create and test a hypothesis (inquiry) applying what they have already learned through the teacher’s explicit instruction.

The teacher could just tell students these connections and save a lot of time but the purpose of allowing students to form and test their hypothesis is two-fold.

Benefit one: It gets the students using the scientific method.

Benefit two: It forces them to retrieve previously learned information and elaborate on it. The act of retrieval and elaboration help to strengthen and organizer student knowledge, which is the first step towards making knowledge flexible (applicable to varying contexts).

Note: Teachers should be making the relationships between various facts/topics/concepts clear throughout the course of a unit. So, most labs will, in a sense, simply be a test on if students can retrieve and apply previously learned information to a novel context.

So put this into practice. When you use inquiry in your science class, make it productive.

Be Clear. Be Concise.

Teachers need to be clear in all forms of instruction. Saying this much is obvious, but how to actually be clear is less so. We must first take our audience into account, our students. How old are they? Are they native speakers? How much do they already know?

Once we have a working knowledge of this, we have the hope of being clear.

Planning brings clarity.

Plan out your instructions/procedures beforehand. Do not plan the activity and neglect to plan the how-to.

Routines bring clarity.

Develop routines for daily tasks. Routines are especially helpful during transition times. When routines are established, students can instantly know what to do just by observing a teacher’s hand motion.

Teachers must be concise. Being concise helps to bring clarity because it is easier for students to remember a short set of instructions than a long set.

Editing brings conciseness. Look over your plan, cut out what you do not need. Remember, to base your cuts on your students’ background knowledge.

Start with clear and detailed explanations and then fade the explanations out over time to help your students master the content. “To tie an overhand knot we will first…then…and finally…”

Overhand Knot Tying Example
Novice Expert
Image result for overhand knot

(with teacher demonstrations and assistance)

  1. Tie an overhand knot.

For concise explanations, start with the goal. “We will tie an overhand knot.”

This helps your students follow the instructions because they know the end/goal at the beginning.

Cut what you say. Do you like, um, you know, use filler words? Be cognizant of how you speak and actively work to reduce how often you use unneeded words.

The meaning of clarity and conciseness is obvious, but actually being clear and concise is difficult. You should intentionally work at it.

Teachers and Workload

Teaching is a tough job, but we can make it harder than necessary. Hopefully your school is actively working to reduce your workload by reducing the amount of data drops and by reviewing its marking policies. However, even if you are stuck in a school with many data drops and onerous marking policies, you can work to reduce your own workload.

One way is to simply grade less! It sounds too good to be true, but it is. Grading student work is not a particularly valuable form of feedback. Instead, you can look into whole class marking. This will drastically cut down the time you spend grading, and, as an added bonus you will be giving actionable feedback to your students.

If you are saying you cannot do this because your school’s policy, you likely still have work arounds. Grade formative assessments on completion. Have more in class assignments. If you have book scrutinies and every student needs to have correct answers, don’t include your harder more summative assessments in it. Instead, choose easy ones that will look good to your school so you can get the paperwork done quickly and spend more time focusing on what matters.

If the school policies and enforcement are so strict that these work arounds will not work, I’d suggest looking for another job elsewhere. It is not worth the stress.

Another way to reduce your workload is to set a firm leaving time. I will leave work at X o’clock and be home for dinner. Setting this as a firm personal deadline can be immensely powerful. It will also help you realize that the work can wait, it will be there tomorrow. And generally, even if it doesn’t get done, you and your students will be ok.

Teaching is a profoundly important job. We change students’ lives. And we should celebrate that. However, it is important that we do not burn ourselves out in our drive to be good teachers and help students succeed. Remember, if we quit teaching, we will no longer have the same impact. Find ways to reduce your workload to increase your sanity.

Teaching and Truth

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Finally, something that is not controversial. Students should learn the truth in school, as far as is possible. As far as is possible is the key phrase because not all subjects are concerned with truth per-say. English class would be the most obvious example. Students will read books of fiction and write opinion pieces. In history and science, moral dilemmas come up.

In these cases, the teacher’s role is to build their students knowledge of the world through the subject. You cannot prove Shakespeare’s work to be more true or accurate than Brontë’s. However, you can analyze the strategies each author uses, the genre of writing, along with the history and culture surrounding the author. When a moral dilemma comes up in history or science you can educate your students on the actors’ thought processes, the stakes, their level of knowledge, and worldview. You are also able to take advantage of hindsight (Even with hindsight, the right decisions are often not obvious).

This process of showing students the truth enables students to get the bigger picture and puts the content into a meaningful context. This gives students a more accurate view of the world and provides them with the fundamental tools of critical thinking: background knowledge and various procedures.

Every Learner is the Same

This is the third article in a series of 5 where I work to develop my philosophy of education. What follows should not be taken as gospel, yet, I believe it should be taken seriously.

A philosophy of education in 5 steps.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Everyone learns the same, roughly. This is controversial, like other aspects of my teaching philosophy. Yet, I believe it to be true, in a broad sense. No matter your views of education’s purpose, or how we measure it, learning is ultimately about knowing and doing. Educators differ over which is more important, yet few argue that only one is important.

Cognitive science has shown that, at a fundamental level learning is about the connections neurons make. When neurons fire in the same or similar patterns, learning is strengthened regardless of whether the idea generated by the firing neurons is actually true. For example, if a child practices 2+2=9, the more these neurons fire in that particular pattern, the more ingrained this learning will be.

As educators we can take advantage of this by using retrieval practice and spaced repetition. When students use retrieval practice, they are recalling the facts and or concepts, thus, strengthening that memory. When students use spaced repetition, we are taking advantage of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve as they recall the information again and again over time. Another effective strategy is to combine retrieval practice and spaced repetition with elaboration. Elaboration is when students make connections (identify relationships) between different facts and concepts.

The result is that the neurons responsible for the practiced knowledge/skill fire more and more in the same and similar patterns. And the memory gets strengthened.

As far as I am aware, what I wrote above is essentially a universal truth. I do not believe there are any exceptions to this rule. Different people may learn at different rates and have different limitations due to cognitive abilities/disabilities, background knowledge, and motivation, but the process of learning will be the same for all and all can benefit from instruction based on sound research.