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Reel Them In – Do lesson hooks still have a place in teaching?

How do you grab your class’ attention? Hooks and ‘gimmicks’ can do this but are they always for the best?

The early 2000’s were a wonderful time in teaching. It was a time of turning away from the didactic lesson, passive learning and mindless repetition of facts. This was the golden age of active learning. Of using Brain Gym before anyone even called it that. But education continues to change and it’s important that as an educator you stay at the forefront of it.

“Gimmicks” have long been used to deliver a lesson. Everything from setting up a crime scene at the back of your lesson to teach forensics or wearing fancy dress to teach about less engaging topics. Those of us who trained back then felt like we’d been given free rein to shower our classes with our enthusiasm and creativity, looking for every opportunity to relate even the dullest topic to something more exciting. Some video clip, some song maybe even some smell.

The unfortunate truth was that these experiential lessons often failed both us and our students in two ways: if students didn’t connect with the lesson we felt we failed ourselves by wasting all that preparation time, but even more importantly, if they did connect with the lesson they would remember the activity more than the actual learning behind it.

I was surprised by the feedback of one of my first lesson observations when I moved to the UK: I didn’t get an outstanding. My lesson had all the bells and whistles as well as smiling students the whole way through. On reflection, I realized I had to find the balance between the hook and the sinker.

Embracing this fishing analogy I thought I’d better do some research?  A hook is self-explanatory, it’s the mechanism that connects with the fish and allows you to reel it in. But a hook by itself would be useless. You need the sinker, you need that soft lead weight attached to the line to carry the bait down in the water. Can you see where we’re headed here?

There’s nothing wrong with a ‘gimmicky’ hook, but keep it relevant and don’t make it the whole lesson. You need the weighty substance of explaining and exploring that new concept. Just like there’s more than one type of sinker, there’s more than one way to present new information and demonstrate learning. There’s independent research, collaborative learning, performing a play, creating a piece of music, writing and essay. These solid, meaty activities ensure the learning worms its way down into their memories and allow you to reel them in along the line of your topic.

A good hook should serve the purpose of connecting the students with their learning. With this in mind it’s important that the hook not be too distracting. Music, scents and definitely costumes can set students off from the word go. You’ve lost a whole lesson because the class keeps equating the smell of sandalwood to faeces. We all know that scent memory is the strongest of all and can be the last to go in our old age, but a 14 year old is not aware of that research and will ruin your lesson.  Incense is unlikely to be as appreciated as you expect it to be – I speak from experience!

With all of this in mind, and returning to the fishing analogy, this is where it comes down to routine. When fishing, you go to the same spot, in the same way with the same gear but they have learnt through trial, error and mentorship how to do this. They know what works and what doesn’t. Their tackle has a few rods and a few reels depending on the weather and the conditions; and we as teachers need to do the same. Over time you develop your ‘teacher toolkit’ of not only resources, but also mannerisms and ways of setting out a lesson to ensure that students are utilizing their metacognition and thinking about what they are learning and how they are learning it. But this comes with time and practice. For those of us who are more established we know that those routines make students feel safe and supported to learn.

Think about your lessons, is there anything you do that may seem like a good idea but is actually causing students to be off task? Could they use a go to carpet time activity like the Britannica School Foundation Homepage? Could you use some solid articles, poetry or speeches for students to research and develop like those found in Britannica original sources?
Or are they so complacent it’s time to give them a hook and reel them in again? You could use a Kahoot! Quiz to learning objectives. You could use images of Charles Darwin and have the students guess who he is to spark their interest in natural selection, or perhaps encourage them to watch a short video?

Outstanding teaching is all about variety, and as educators we need to ensure that we keep our students engaged at every level, in every lesson, and that they we are preparing them for the future.

If you’d like more ideas and lesson tips from Nina, you can join us for our next training session by clicking here  or contacting

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The author

Karenina Mackay has over a decade of experience in the education sector. Starting with training in one of the toughest schools in Brisbane, Australia and moving to the UK two years later to continue her career. She has had roles ranging from form tutor to second in department for science; now she has joined Britannica as a valued Curriculum Specialist. With experience from a multitude of schools and the challenges and skills that come with that, Karenina now brings her wealth of experience and passion for education to Britannica – helping to support educators all around the globe.

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