Re-thinking starters: Initial Stimulus Material

Cocoa beans

Are you bored with your normal lesson starters? Does your repertoire only stretch as far as a recall of previous learning? Whilst recap quizzes may be tried and tested and useful in linking one lesson to another, there is a way to boost curiosity and enquiry in your classroom.

Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) ties in with the enquiry approach to learning geography (Roberts, 2013), and is a good way to create a ‘need to know’. ISM as a concept is relatively new to geography teaching but (and I’ll say this quietly) history have been doing it for a while. Coined by Phillips in 2001, ISM has three criteria, which I have altered to be applicable to geography teaching:

  1. Uses material to stimulate interest and curiosity
  2. Establishes of a line of geographical enquiry via key questions
  3. Outlines learning aims and objectives in a clever, meaningful way

ISM’s main purpose is to create an interest in what is being studied, not to recall or recap.  ISM is different to other lesson starters because it introduces an issue or topic in a ‘deliberately oblique manner’. It is more open-ended and encourages questions from pupils. It involves something concrete before moving on to conceptual ideas. The list of possible ‘material’ is endless: photographs, maps, music, objects, imagined Facebook posts/emails, films, fiction, food and drink.

For example, within a Natural Hazards GCSE topic, it is tempting to begin with the causes of earthquakes (highly conceptual), but this rarely arouses any curiosity. So, begin with a key event (concrete) instead. In my lesson, after having avoided telling students “today we are moving on to earthquakes”, I presented them with an image of a skyscraper slightly tilted after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Taiwan in March 2013 and asked “what can you see?” A guided discussion enabled pupils to create the learning objectives for the following set of lessons: ‘how did it happen?’ (cause) ‘what was the impact?’ (effect), and ‘can anything be done?’ (response).

This lesson starter fulfilled the three criteria for ISM:

  1. Pupils were curious to know how and why the earthquake happened and why the building had leaned over
  2. We formed a clear line of enquiry, through key questions, about the causes and effects of earthquakes
  3. Aims and objectives had been given to the pupils in an interesting way (through their own formed enquiry questions)

Another ISM starter I created for the topic of FairTrade and global development (available to download from Teachit Geography ) involves pupils deciding how to split fifty cocoa beans (each representing one penny) between the different groups of people who would benefit from the sale of a chocolate bar. The pupils had tangible material in front of them and they began to think about why some piles of beans were so small, what the impact of this was, and what can be done. This starter really gained pupils’ attention and interest.

Research has shown that ISM can develop conceptual understanding and speed up the acquisition of key terminology. When used correctly, ISM can establish a curiosity and love of learning in pupils, as well as a buzz of positivity and engagement in your classroom.

So, have any of you used ISM before? You may have employed similar ideas and teaching strategies already, without realizing that it had a specific name. If you’re intrigued and ready for more, my next blog post will cover more practical ideas for implementing ISM in your lessons.


Rebecca Priest photo

Rebecca Priest is a Geography Teacher at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. She is currently studying for a MA in Geography Education at the Institute of Education and presented a session on ISM at the GA’s 2015 Annual Conference.