When my free copy of Battle Hymn dropped onto our doormat last week, our nine year old grabbed it excitedly. He loves books. “That’s a bit of an aggressive title!” he declared before handing it over to me. My husband who spends large amounts of his life counselling young adults scarred by tiger parenting rolled his eyes and asked if we could put it in “the box”. The box is full of books weighing down our Christmas tree so that our tiger kittens don’t pull it over when they’re swinging on it like a pair of demented gremlins.
“No,” I said, firmly. “I said I would give it a fair reading and I am.”
No-one can doubt the fervour and determination of Katharine Birbalsingh as she outlines her battle to set up Michaela, named in honour of a teacher she knew. The combative title is nothing compared to the language of war she bandies about in her introduction. Lakoff and Johnson would have a field day. But however irksome the language, her vision and determination, I think, are admirable. She set out to do something and she did it. You have to admire a doer who acts from a point of principled belief, even if you don’t share the beliefs.
Birbalsingh dismissed detractors of Michaela as being anti-free school and I have no doubt that some of the objections to Michaela came from these quarters. Yet Peter Hyman at School21 did the same without much opposition at all. I wonder whether some of the criticisms of Michaela are not really about the free school agenda and are more about tone, attitude and values. Much of the disgruntlement I hear about Michaela is not that it’s a free school, but comes more from a general distaste around bragging and self promotion. It was important then, as I read the book, that I engaged with the information and arguments and not the self congratulatory tone that pervades it.
What comes through loud and clear as you read this book is that these teachers care. They care about the children, they care about education and they firmly and fervently believe that this is the very best they can offer. To portray them as heartless monsters is grossly unfair. But having read the first half of it, there are some significant unanswered questions and concerns.
Knowledge, Memory and Testing, written by Joe Kirby, summarises well some of the research into cognitive science around memory and testing. He begins with the tired claim that schools in England don’t value knowledge. It’s the kind of statement that has teachers rolling their eyes, but as far as English Language goes, he does have a point. I too battled with an empty skills based GCSE curriculum as an English teacher sickened by and bored with acronyms like PEE. I understand the frustration. But other subjects I taught were packed with facts. This personal experience, coupled with a distaste for Ofsted, colours the chapter. Joe has, in a former blog, made the error of thinking that because knowledge sits at the bottom of the Bloom’s taxonomy triangle, that we all assume it is of “lower order” and importance and this error flavours the chapter. It is not. It is the foundation without which all the other kinds of thinking would crumble. It is what we build on. His dismissal of picture books ignores the deep levels of interpretation and comprehension we need to engage with sophisticated texts such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. While I understand some of Joe’s frustration – the exaggerated claims he makes – that classrooms have become “fact free zones”, along with the somewhat mocking tone which suggests that nothing in the primary curriculum has ever been taught -undermines the importance of his message; that knowledge matters.
He is right to point out, however, that unzipping knowledge from skills rarely works. Ok, maybe some sporting or artistic skills don’t need knowledge, just practice, but in general, skills are best contextualised within a knowledge framework. I agree and he argues this point well. But the key point here is in his Willingham quote that “thinking well requires knowing facts.” It’s absolutely spot on. But here’s the thing. I can’t find any evidence in this chapter or in others, that Michaela moves on beyond the fact stage into the thinking well stage. There’s no point in having a jump off point, if you don’t jump off.
There is a strong argument for cultural experiences – theatre visits, concerts, museums and so on, but no evidence of trips being a significant part of the educational experience (of course, I needn’t go into how much easier it is for a school in London with free transport for children to access these things). Joe doesn’t once mention a trip. He mentions relentless drilling of knowledge. And while I don’t doubt at all that the teachers make this rich Western knowledge based curriculum exciting for children, I wonder how you can claim to “help children to understand the world” when the knowledge they are exploring does not extend beyond Europe.
Joe explains very well the research behind memory and the testing of knowledge so that it sticks. He ignores the research into the impact of intrinsic motivation and how that creates even more powerful memory. In terms of Vallerard’s table of motivation, Michaela seem happy for pupils to sit at the compliant, extrinsically motivated end of engagement, which requires a good deal of repetition and testing in order to make up for the lack of involvement.
Drill and Didactic Teaching Work Best, by Olivia Dyer, repeats much of what Joe sets out in his opening chapter – there is a lot of repetition in the book – all singing from the same hymn sheet but in canon. Olivia’s defence of drill and didactic teaching seems to be that it is fun. And I’ve seen some very enthusiastic drill sessions such as Times Table Rock Stars work really well. Children like chanting – rhythm is soothing to the mind and helps to make learning more memorable, leading to automatic recall – we use it to learn songs of course, and how many of us repeat a number rhythmically that we have to remember until we can write it down? So what she says makes sense. If you want to remember facts. But there’s nothing in the drill script offered that suggests the knowledge is applied. I get that the facts go in and they they could pretty accurately be regurgitated on a test paper. But how do those children go from knowing some scientific facts to thinking in scientific ways – how do they see, as Feynman said that “science is the culture of doubt?” It’s a question I’d really like answered when I visit.
She goes on to challenge some of what she views as “progressive ideas” arguing that if children are given the algorithm to solve a Rubik’s cube, they can do it in seconds, rather than struggling with it for hours. She seems to miss the point here – that working something out for yourself can be deeply satisfying. She points out that Hattie suggests that discovery based learning has limited impact, but fails to mention that he is equally dismissive of the IRE approach she has scripted. Almost all her examples from chess to chicken sexing fail to mention the importance of experience and trial and error. Another idea she challenges is the idea that teachers should talk less. The flip side of this of course, is that when teachers talk more, children talk less and the importance of the role of speaking and articulacy are well researched and documented by scientists such as Resnick as well as academics such as Alexander and Mercer. None of this research is mentioned. And as in the last chapter, silly examples are given as proof of the foolishness of progressive thinking, like baking biscuits in order to understand native American Indian culture. This is not progressive. It’s just a bad idea. But it is an example of how spurious claims are confidently made throughout, with scant regard for facts. I know – ironic. Take this statement – “teacher training institutions…indoctrinate unqualified teachers with their one sided progressive values.” There is not one single example of this offered, yet it ignores the hours I spent as an ITT tutor teaching my undergraduates grammar and phonics. It’s the kind of arrogant dismissal that leads to such strong reactions against Michaela and masks some of the good thinking and practice that could be taking place there.
How Reluctant Readers Learn to Love Reading, by Katie Ashford focuses on Michaela’s commitment to get children reading. Of all the things they do, this is the one I find myself most in agreement with. The importance of getting children reading well and regularly cannot be underestimated. It is just as important as getting them to speak well and regularly along a continuum of formality. Katie is absolutely right to suggest that for some children who have fallen behind in reading, a secondary phonics programme can be vital. And in this chapter at least, she avoids pointing a finger of blame for this. The time to do this is stolen from French and she is right to point out that there is little point learning one language if there is difficulty in English. Phonics can help children to tune into sounds and differences in pronunciation and this will only help them when they return to French. So far, so good. But then we part company.
While I fervently agree that getting children to read for pleasure is vital, the sentiment is blurred by assumption and arrogance. She argues that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have few life experiences. They actually have more life experiences that most of us would care to imagine. Many of the children at Michaela are from migrant families – they have lived in other countries, speak another language. To ignore that knowledge is neglectful. And when she says would you rather your 11 year old read The Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Wuthering Heights, I’d go for the former. An 11 year old cannot access the adult experiences and passions writ large in Wuthering Heights. Why do we think a novel written expressly for adults about adult emotions should be appropriate for an 11 year old, just because it is hard? There are plenty of challenging texts that are more appropriate for that age group – it’s not a choice between Wimpy Kid and Wuthering Heights. What about Michelle Paver or Philip Pullman? And elsewhere she mentions that children have read Gone Girl. I’m really not sure that’s age appropriate to be honest, at the risk of sounding like a complete prude. Having said all of this, the commitment to reading together in class as well as the intervention programmes that clearly have an impact are impressive and replicable in secondary schools and it clear that Head of English, Jo Facer, has done an impressive job in developing a reading culture across the school.
Marking is Futile by Jo Facer begins with a sentence that would make any teacher’s heart soar “we don’t mark books at Michaela.” Oh imagine the hours of your life reclaimed if that were true everywhere! She describes well the mad marking policies that spiralled out of the simple shift in emphasis from Ofsted from progress in lessons to progress over time. She asks instead, “what is the impact of marking?” and makes a very powerful case against it. But then I hit a contradiction. In one sentence she argues that the case that marking is a sign of respect for the effort that a child has made, is countered with the assertion that children are not “equals” but “novices” and that teachers are the “experts”. Therefore no respect is due. But later, she argues that “we actually hold children back when we mark, because in marking we make the effort to spot the mistake for them.” Now if we are the experts and they are the novices, surely it is our job to ‘spot the mistake’ – after all, the whole ethos of Michaela is that children cannot learn for themselves. I’m confused. But I still want to believe because if true, this is a major step forward in reducing teacher workload. So I read on.
It turns out that Jo reads the children’s books and writes notes on common errors rather than marking each one individually. She does this in her two free periods per day. Two free periods per day. Two free periods per day. Two…
Sorry. Then, having identified common errors, there is whole class verbal feedback including spelling drills. I’m not uncomfortable with that. Spelling was a bit of a bugbear of mine and I used to do similar things. It’s not time consuming and can be effective. I’m less comfortable with the public merit/demerit session. Pupils are praised or shamed for their perceived effort in writing. In my experience, you have to be a careful in shaming a child for a ‘lack of effort’ which could be down to a number of reasons from a bad headache to severe worry. But hey, no excuses right – so public shaming it is. Better is the example of modelling group writing to craft great sentences. It’s a technique commonly used in primary schools and allows many children to combine their ideas to create a strong model for writing as is the use of the visualiser. In fact what Jo is describing is the kind of good practice in terms of feedback that I see in many schools. And I’m not sure that reading pupils’ work and then writing your own notes in your own book so you can use that for planning your next lesson, is that dissimilar or less time consuming than marking them. But I hope I’ll see that for myself when I visit. I also wonder what will happen when these children hit KS4 and the need for individual examination feedback kicks in. We shall see.
Homework as Revision by Joe Kirby begins with the habit of choral chanting of key classical speeches by children at Michaela. This idea makes some qualm. But I like it. Of course I do – I’m a drama teacher. I’ve been getting children to memorise speeches all my teaching life. I might question the macho choices of text, but there is something empowering in being able to recite a speech or poem. And there’s something moving and powerful in children coming together to recite in unison. A beauty. I guess we just differ on aim.
Joe then goes on to outline the problems with homework, especially for children with no quiet space at home. He argues that homework, where given, should matter and have impact. As a parent who has been pulling her hair out at the prospect of helping her child build a model Anderson air raid shelter, I sing Hallelujah. And he points out that in a school that has reduced the number of subjects that the children study, while simultaneously extending the school day so they spend more time on the subjects that they do, there is not really any need for extensive homework.
With one eye fixed on the future GCSEs (currently there are only Yr7/8/9 pupils at Michaela), the school has instead decided they will focus on revision of facts in preparation for the regular tests for homework tasks through the creation of knowledge organisers by the teachers that are kept in the children’s books. The children then self quiz every day. It’s simple. And if the sole aim of your education system is the accumulated acquisition of facts, I imagine it’s effective. It also removes the need for marking – the teachers can quickly cast their eyes over the quiz – it is either right or wrong. Job Done. I’m drawn to it in the same way I’m drawn to the no marking idea. In the same way people will be drawn to the no excuses behaviour method. It would make my life SO much easier. It’s like a slimming pill. Swallow this and all will be well. But…. I wonder. How do children learn to find information for themselves? How are they learning to connect and apply? What opportunities are they getting to create rather than replicate? As an overworked professional, I might see a panacea. As a parent, I worry my child would become diminished. A child who has taught himself Japanese. A child who can sit at a piano aged 9 and compose simple songs. Where would he fit in at Michaela?
I also baulk at the section on reading for pleasure, which focuses on sanctions for children who are not reading for pleasure effectively enough. It doesn’t sound too pleasurable to be told you must read, then be tested on it and given a detention if you can’t recall enough of what you read. Between this and the choices of sexually charged texts such as Dracula, I’m starting to wonder what kind of masochistic views of pleasure these children will grow up with! There is already a huge emphasis on reading within school – the aim of 100 classical texts read by the time they leave. Why not let them choose something less demanding at home and not get too hung up on testing them on it? There’s a significant danger they’ll never want to pick up a book again if they associate the experience with punishment. Seriously.
I have absolutely no doubt that the carefully constructed knowledge organisers and regular self testing will result in children who have secure subject knowledge. And I understand why people might say “and what’s wrong with that?” But it seems that there is a huge, solid foundation being built here. A foundation that could hold the tallest building in the world. And yet there is not yet a building. Not a single brick laid. The application of knowledge in unfamiliar contexts is the aim of PISA tests. The ability to draw on your own ideas and wider reading as well as the knowledge acquired in school is inherent in A Level and IB examinations. And no-one gets through the door of Oxbridge without the capacity to think on their feet and look way beyond what they have been taught. How are pupils being prepared for this?
No Excuses Discipline Changes Lives by Jonathan Porter delves into Michaela’s controversial approach to discipline. He starts off with his love of Matilda, a book that sadly, most Michaela children are unlikely to be allowed to read as it’s simply not challenging enough. He uses it as a means by which to challenge what he sees as a pervading belief that children are inherently good and that this belief undermines many a good behaviour policy. It’s a red herring in my opinion. Good or bad, children are human beings and like all human beings need both boundaries and respect. Banging on about Rousseau is a bit of a waste of breath. Let’s cut to the chase.
I agree with Jonathan that discipline is not a dirty word. Words in themselves are neither clean nor dirty – it’s the actions and things they represent that carry the value. Teachers I saw hitting children on the head with knotted ropes in Kakuma claimed the word discipline. Teachers I see in UK schools kindly but firmly giving sanctions for poor behaviour claim the word discipline – you can’t compare the two, even though the word is the same. We are agreed that discipline matters – ideally self discipline. It’s how we get there that forms the bone of contention. While Jonathan seeks to exaggerate the idea that in schools across the UK, behaviour is completely out of control, he does make a valid point that it is a cause of significant concern for many teachers. I all too clearly remember the frustration of ineffective and burdensome behaviour policies in my last school. By the time I’d written all the notes in planners I was supposed to do, I was fifteen minutes late for my next lesson. There weren’t enough days in the week for all the detentions I had to supervise and chase up. Hours and hours wasted with little consequence – and by consequence I mean help rather than punishment, because the sanctions had no impact at all.
If you know a child is troubled, get them counselling, not more hours of detention. Right? But I also know about the exemplary behaviour of the majority of pupils, especially in primary schools. I know that most kids, are indeed good. And that the ones who act up do so for a variety of reasons – some of them valid and some of them not. So I naturally recoil from the idea that you treat everyone equally but not fairly or equitably.
I also take issue with the statement that behaviour is “probably” worse in schools where the pupils are poor. The worst behaviour I ever saw was in a middle class school where the parents had high expectations of the teachers coupled with low respect. Where “he can’t come to detention because he has a piano/fencing/maths/orchestra class” were rife. Or where a Judge came and sat in front of our head to complain about her son’s punishment with absolutely no sense of irony. It’s not just the poor.
And yet, there are some good elements of practice that I don’t take issue with. I too agree that children hate ambiguity. If you want silence you have to explicitly say so – “be quiet” can mean a number of levels of volume. When I was teaching 135 children in Hong Kong last week, they knew that when I said “you do this in silence” that that meant silence. Similarly, it’s harder to argue with a “you must have your equipment” rule when the school has provided the equipment for every child in the first place. Presumably they also replace them when they wear out? But here’s a thing “when Tom loses one of these items…he has to learn that losing these items will cost him money and will be inconvenient.” It sounds simple. The school has a stationery shop and it is cheap – it’s not that inconvenient. But if Tom’s had his pencil case stolen and his parents have no money, it’s not as straight forward is it? I’m minded of the child whose addict mother sold his uniform and the equipment provided for him, for drugs money. I don’t think Tom or that child should be punished for this. Michaela do. They claim that if they don’t punish Tom, he’ll never learn to value his possessions. Believe me, poor children value their possessions. Even when they don’t get to keep them for long.
Elsewhere I don’t disagree with the habit of catching and praising good practice. Lots of primary teachers do this expertly. But I strongly disagree that it would be “profoundly wrong” to have “different standards for different pupils.” Let me be clear. People are different. We do not hesitate to accept that a person who cannot walk, needs a wheelchair. Why can we not accept that a person struggling with all kinds of hormonal imbalances or cognitive difficulties does not need some assistance? Children living under high levels of stress have higher levels of cortisol in their brains. There is a biological difference for these children. That cortisol will affect them differently. It impacts on memory (and so, actually, regular testing can help this). It impacts on health. And in boys in particular, it impacts on empathy, making them less likely to respond to the reasoned explanations offered about the importance of thinking about others. Adrenaline produced under threat, coupled with cortisol, creates a powerful, instinctive fight or flight response. This child is significantly different to the “can’t be arsed so I’ll muck around” child. Why would you treat them the same? They are not the same. I agree that teachers should be able to get on with teaching. But throwing children out of school is not the answer. And I’m not suggesting Michaela does this – as far as I know there has only been one expulsion so far. It is far harder to know, however, how many children have been encouraged to “choose” to leave – the headteacher is clear that she makes it clear that parents have the “choice” to go to another school – a statement that skates precariously along the lines of the law on coercion to exclude.
The no excuses culture at Michaela exists on an entirely extrinsic system of compliance. These can be foundations from which self reliance and regulation can be built – Jonathan gives a neat example of how firm expectations and consistency have helped Tom with getting to the point where he can comply and achieve – but there is no sign of those bridges being created through giving children autonomy and responsibility for their learning. As such, I wonder how they are being prepared for university or adult life. No, I accept that they are not yet adults. But they won’t wake up one day and suddenly say “I can self regulate without external control” – this needs to have been modelled and practised. Where is that practice at Michaela?
Jonathan points to the worrying research in the US where zero tolerance policies have resulted in high levels of exclusion and powerful rebellion from pupils. He reassures us that the UK version is lighter and based on strong relationships and firm expectations. No-one would argue with that. It’s just that most of us wouldn’t call it ‘no-excuses’. We’d call it good behaviour management.
He speaks of the importance of pupils learning to bring equipment, to pay attention, to be polite. But he doesn’t mention that pupils can be given detentions for not tracking the teacher with their eyes at all times. Not does he mention that they can be given detentions for their parents not paying their dinner money on time. All these more worrying things are oddly absent from the book.
Bootcamp Breaks Bad Habits by Joe Kirby outlines the policy that in Year 7, all pupils are inducted into the school culture through a bootcamp. It’s actually an idea I really like. I too used to start the school year with a fairly rigid training programme that made the rest of the year easier. For example, I had five common settings for classroom layout – groups, rows, horseshoe, circle and empty. By the end of my bootcamp, the kids could set out the room in 30 seconds and be ready to go. So I see the value in routine so that you can get on quickly and easily with what you want to do. I disagree with their routines, but I think it’s a brilliant idea to have Year 7 in for a week getting used to the culture and expectations of your school. So what if everyone else gets a longer holiday?
Putting aside the derisory dismissal of local primaries, who it would seem produce pupils “who cannot read a word” or “do single digit addition sums” – a claim that local SATs results would dispute – it’s a good idea to bring children together in Year 7 to orientate themselves around school, get to know their teachers and practice the routines they’ll be expected to adhere to. I’m not even averse to the idea of practising getting books out quickly and expediently. But tracking? Really? I’m yet to find any evidence that keeping your eyes on a speaker at all times helps learning. I can find research to suggest that doodling helps attention and listening. I can’t find any for tracking. So why, if you claim to have a single minded focus on the impact of learning, insist on unproven techniques? It makes no sense. Unless that aim is not learning, but compliance. Doing things just because someone tells you to do it, even though is makes no sense. That’s where I think we shift into dangerous territory as anyone working in safeguarding will tell you.
What is lovely is the attention paid to explicitly telling the children about the ways they learn. While I think that Michaela are selective in this respect, it is important that we share our knowledge of pedagogy, psychology and neuroscience with children. They need to know. The children get a sense that they can grow as they are introduced to the idea of a growth mindset – that they can achieve. I don’t think anyone could argue with the value of this and I don’t know why more people don’t share this knowledge with children right at the start. I also think it’s lovely hat the week ends with a shared, performative outcome – the recital of two poems. It’s a great way to bond as a group and to speak out the values of the community that you are now a part of. I don’t, personally think children should be taught to chant their gratitude to the teachers – a bit worshippy that for me. But the communal sharing of a learned outcome is something to be celebrated.
Authority in Action by Lucy Newman extends the Porter chapter and explores the idea of adult authority and the strong belief that at Michaela all children should follow the instructions of an adult first time without question. This is fine if the instruction is “sit down” (though what if your chair is wet or broken – do you do it anyway?). What if the instruction is “don’t tell anyone about this?” Of course, the teachers at Michaela wouldn’t abuse their authority. But we know of many adults in positions of authority who have. How are children learning that sometimes you say no to an adult?
Lucy cites research that children are unhappier in schools in England than in almost any other (European) country. Yet most European countries are far more child centred than us. It seems odd that she uses this as a basis upon which to argue for more adult authority, especially when you delve into the reasons given by children for their unhappiness.
At this point I’m questioning the intended meaning of authority. It seems to me that what she is arguing for is the need for a safe and orderly environment for children to be in. That’s not about authority, it’s about structure, protection, communal respect and routines. She speaks of purpose, kindness and explanation. I like the referee analogy where she says to children “I may make mistakes but my decision at the end of the day stands.” It’s a strong message – I am human, I am fallible, but I am charged with decision making and this is how it is. It’s a far cry from “you’ll do this because I say so” which is how much authoritarianism is depicted. Lucy is offering a more nuanced view. It’s a view, that in my experience, is inherently present in the best schools I see. It’s not a Michaela patent.
You’d think that two chapters on discipline would be enough, but there’s a third Why Don’t We Respect Teachers by Hin-Tai_Ting. It focuses on why children in China respect their teachers while children in the UK do not. By respect, he really means comply. My kids respect me. But they also challenge me – the two are not mutually exclusive. I respect Joe Kirby – I’m not afraid to challenge him and vice versa.
Hin-Tai describes the behaviour of Chinese children as rosy. I must admit, I found it quite difficult. Questions other than those simply requiring factual recall were often met with blank expressions, silence and sometimes disturbance. Some of the Chinese teachers I talked to expressed concern about the lack of creative and developed thinking they sometimes encountered. I didn’t feel I was met with respect. I felt I was met with indifference and sometimes anxiety around the fear of making a mistake. But maybe that’s just me.
What Hin-Tai then goes on to explore is not about respect at all, it’s about clarity of language. “Can you please…” rather than “Do this.” For some basic, organisational tasks, as simple instruction is enough. We don’t need to plead with people to open their books any more than we need to say “please can I step on your bus” to the driver. If we want a child to do us a favour, then please is perfectly polite. “Would you please take (this) here for me so that I can do (that)?” is reasonable. We don’t need to argue about respect and authority. We need to focus in on what language works – when and why, and how we use our bodies and voices to make children believe that they are in an environment in which they can learn, be safe and be valued for their contributions. I fear that all three chapters here on behaviour have ignored the possibility that you don’t need “no excuses” to have good systems in place.
Nevertheless, the idea of respect for teachers is an interesting one. He finishes his chapter with a consideration of society’s broader lack of respect for teachers and here’s an interesting tension for us. While I agree that having a culture that respects the work that teachers do is good, I don’t see how that respect is enhanced by a school that consistently criticises other teachers and the way they do things. That’s not remotely respectful. I wonder if some of the ideas Michaela shares would be much better received if they were not framed in the criticism of other schools and colleagues.
And so ends Part 1. Part 2 is here.