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Leadership Issues, System Change, Uncategorized

The Michaela Way

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-23-30-24

Images of Michaela via google.

Last week,  I joined the growing number of people who have visited Michaela Community School to see it action.   I’ve read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers and numerous blogs and articles about the school from its teachers and visitors – so it was great to see what it is really like to put the commentary into perspective.  I had some preconceptions and lots of questions but, as I’ve often said, it’s a big mistake to judge a school you’ve never been to. I was prepared to react in lots of different ways.

My overriding impression was that Michaela is a lovely, lively, happy school, led by highly committed, driven people on a mission; people doing some ground-breaking work in shaping a knowledge-driven curriculum that inner city teenagers can access at a rate and depth that seems remarkable – all supported by an ethos with life-changing potential.  It would take pages to give a full blow-by-blow account so here are some of the more note-worthy aspects of my visit:

My tour guides were very polite and gave extended explanations of what they’re learning without prompting. This suggested that they are explicitly taught manners and to string sentences together. My Y7 guide was very sweet and enthusiastic – and was having to think consciously about how to express herself fluently whereas her Y9 partner spoke effortlessly. It’s part of their learning – something that, through practice, they’ll get really good at.  The explicit teaching of manners was evident at multiple points in the day.

In lessons the behaviour was impeccable.  The  ‘1,2,3, SLANT’  instruction and response was impressive – not unnatural or oppressive in any way, just absolutely consistent. My guides couldn’t even remember what the acronym stands for exactly – it’s already a habit.  In fact lessons felt quite relaxed because everyone is so used to the expectations. Students really are fully focused the whole time and their work is constructed to be pretty intense . However, because lessons are punctuated with lots of choral repetition, appreciations and so on,  it’s not all stuffy silence -far from it.  For example the Mexican wave of whooping to mark success on a maths exercise was joyful – lovely.

The centralised curriculum planning and associated work books and knowledge organisers are all very interesting and impressive.  It’s totally clear what needs to be learned and the expectations are built-in from the beginning – a sharp contract to schools where teachers are planning lessons from day-to-day, scrabbling to pull resources together by themselves to varying degrees of success. Students were really clear about how their learning was supported by the process of self-quizzing – for homework and other parts for the day.

This whole process of teaching very specific elements of knowledge very directly, with the use of choral repetition and daily quizzing is fascinating. Katharine explained that, in her view, the mistake new teachers make most often is asking students questions they don’t or can’t know the answer to.  The ‘just tell’em‘ philosophy is very strong; it’s palpable in lessons. However, once told, students are meant to learn and remember. This is done systematically and rigorously – eg a demerit for not checking all self-quizzing correctly. But the students say it just makes them do it and they’re really learning – across the curriculum.  Year 9s are getting a more varied diet of homework with more extended tasks beyond the quizzing. I’m interested in where this all leads and what other types of learning might be built on this later as all this knowledge gets put to use in wider contexts.

The curriculum model is interesting.  Six one-hour lessons a day and a stripped down curriculum mean that the subjects all have lots of time given to them. At KS4 they will all do History and French plus RE in Y10 and the core subjects.  Art vs Triple Science is the only option I think. It’s a bold model, nicely simple.  Do we over-do the whole concept of choice and of trying to fit every subject into an impossibly crowded curriculum?

The Year 7/8 art work is amazing. It seems to build explicitly on learning from artists and making reproductions using scaling grids for accuracy before students do their own drawings – but, wow, the portraits students had drawn were wonderful; it’s impressive stuff.

The maths teaching I saw was great. Students worked at a pace through pre-planned sets of practice questions which were then checked at speed by a teacher modelling the answers using a visualiser. I loved the tall visualiser stands – which made this very easy for the teacher to use repeatedly.  The tasks included going back to easier problem sets like doubling (x by 2). This was done at speed which students really enjoyed. The emphasis was on building confidence which seemed to be working.

Behaviour around the school was also impeccable but also seemed quite relaxed and normal.  It wasn’t overly oppressive; there is a busy dynamic feel as students move quickly from a lesson to lunch or lesson to lesson; there’s a staff presence but everyone is just saying hello and smiling and the children say ‘Good afternoon Sir’ as they go by. People tend to associate strict behaviour with sternness and people being told off a lot – I didn’t see anything remotely like that.

The family lunch is great; a powerful element in creating the school culture.  The space allows staff to address students at multiple points in the half-hour starting with some choral recitation of a poem and a bit of Shakespeare (I’m too ignorant to know which bits they were -but my dining partners knew very well when I asked).  During the recitation I saw a Y9 girl who clearly knew the soliloquy very well, almost dancing in the rhythm of the lines as she said the words – this was spontaneous enthusiasm; she loved doing it. I spoke to her later – a very happy, engaged student.

The eating part is all very civilised and efficient – you can’t hang about! Our table felt very relaxed; students spoke openly about how they view the school -there was some playful off-message irreverence as well as genuine pride.  There was some direction about a discussion topic – something to do with empathy in literature but on my table they weren’t too keen to follow; they viewed it as optional.  Fair enough – I may have put them off; they were normal kids. The appreciations after eating were interesting.  They were expected to explain the reason for the appreciation in a big loud voice – with appropriate affirmation/feedback from the lunch-leader. Some appreciations felt more authentic and personal than others but I saw that as part of the learning process; students are learning to appreciate others and that their community values it.  At the end, all those with detentions were called up to go. It was a largish number – 40 or so?  This is part of the routine of their world, a consequence they accept, not something they fear. It keeps the standards high – two demerits= a detention – but it felt light-touch, not heavy-handed.  All sanctions are narrated – students have rules and expectations reinforced all the time. It’s a powerful culture.

The reading system is massively impressive.  The texts are all pre-planned and printed in numbered lines in the booklets with key words in bold to prompt instruction and annotation.  Students hold their guiding ruler with two hands moving down the page stopping to annotate as required. It all happens at quite a pace.  The expectations here are sky-high; intense reading of sophisticated texts with lots of modelling from the teacher as well as students reading aloud. So, this is how you do reading! There’s so much to learn from this.

The French lessons I saw were fabulous.  We were treated to a bit of a flourish at the end of Mr Smith’s Year 9 lesson.  The loud, enthusiastic call and response, (his English and their French), was dazzling. Accents were stunning. However, it’s not a mystery.  It came straight from the Year 7 knowledge organiser: À mon avis, apprendre une langue étrangère c’est très utile main évidemment ce n’est pas toujours facile quand même.  Also, Il faut que je fasse mes devoirs. This isn’t like any language learning I’ve seen before. The theory appears to be  that if you amass a repertoire of complex phrases through direct instruction and recall methods, you gain huge confidence on which to develop fluency later.  It’s a world away from the more typical process of learning lots of vocab about everyday life and gingerly introducing verbs – without really expecting/demanding total recall of what has been learned along the way.  Here, students learn to say the phrases before they fully understand the underlying structures – too often we over analyse language at an early stage which inhibits the learning.

Something I was looking to check was that Michaela has students who might present as challenging elsewhere.  I certainly did find a range of students.  It turned out that my playfully off-message lunch partner needs lots of support and has had some difficulties at previous schools.  I encountered him later in a withdrawal group for Maths where two students were being taught by a teacher.  He’s definitely doing way better than he would be in a lot of schools.  Elsewhere I saw students who were just like a lot of the characters I’ve met at the more challenging end of the spectrum at other schools.  I don’t know the proportions but certainly Michaela does cater for students who are not simply pre-programmed to passively work within the boundaries of a discipline system. They have to be shown and supported even though the expectations remain firmly the same for everyone.  For sure, it would be hard to impose this culture in an existing school; you need very strong majority buy-in to a culture that the odd more challenging students assimilate into without them creating their own.

The main under-represented group are middle class children.  This was something I discussed during my visit – whether the Michaela way could extend to a more socially mixed cohort, where students have stronger home learning environments, more involved parents, mature self-discipline and, more importantly, students with a lot more prior knowledge and cultural capital.  The school isn’t really set up with those students in mind but it’s interesting to explore what might transfer to different contexts and what one might change in terms of the curriculum and some of the routines.  It will be interesting to see if Michaela matures into a school that staff send their own children to – always the acid test. That’s not meant as a criticism; it’s a genuine question about different social cultures and the interface between what parents express what they want for their children and what a school provides.

Finally, I was struck by the expectations of staff supervision. Teachers teach most periods in the week and then, between lessons, there they are at their stations on the stairwells by the toilets and there they are again taking part in the family lunch, swapping places to supervise the half-hour of free time in the yard. It’s a full-on day.  That’s the deal. The trade-off is that teaching materials are pre-prepared and marking is minimal and overall, staff do report that they find it easier working there than in their previous schools.  However, the expectations of contact time are a world apart – it’s all part of that sense of mission that is so strongly shared by the staff.

Ok – this has ended being much longer than planned but there’s a lot to say. Thank you to Katharine for hosting the visit and to all the Michaela staff and students who made me so welcome. Congratulations on creating such a great school and for giving us all so much to think about.  There’s no doubt whatsoever that, when the time comes, Michaela students will knock those accountability measures out of the park.

 

Discussion

33 thoughts on “The Michaela Way

  1. Absolutely amazing. I too would love to see how a more ‘middle class ‘ cohort would respond. This is just so life affirming as someone who has always worked in challenging environments.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Mel | February 26, 2017, 2:33 pm
  2. Hi Tom. Thanks for this post!
    To answer your question: speaking as a Michaela teacher, for the record: I grew up in a firmly middle-class part of Lincolnshire and have a middle-class family; I attended a very middle-class Lincolnshire selective-grammar school; my wife attended a top private boarding school in the UK too. We would love to send our (future) children to Michaela!

    Glad you enjoyed the Mexican waves too!

    Like

    Posted by Hin-Tai | February 26, 2017, 4:11 pm
  3. Interesting. As I feared about Michaela and possibly other schools, no Geography offered at GCSE.

    Like

    Posted by Jenny B | February 26, 2017, 5:05 pm
    • They’re keeping it simple. But yes, that’s going to be a challenging decision for lots of people.

      Like

      Posted by Tom Sherrington | February 26, 2017, 6:13 pm
    • What’s their reasoning behind this?

      Like

      Posted by Tom G | February 26, 2017, 7:53 pm
      • Early stages – want to focus on common curriculum. Geography is slightly less aligned to knowledge curriculum philosophy than History?

        Like

        Posted by Tom Sherrington | February 26, 2017, 8:08 pm
      • It smacks of intellectual snobbery to me. History is no more aligned to a knowledge curriculum philosophy than Geography. Both subjects are rigorous and academic.

        Like

        Posted by Tom G | February 26, 2017, 8:20 pm
      • They wouldn’t argue. They do it at KS3. But most schools only ask children to do History OR Geography. It’s a fair call to just do one or the other for everyone if you’re keeping things tight.

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        Posted by Tom Sherrington | February 26, 2017, 8:37 pm
      • It really narrows their curriculum – geog is such a broad subject. Anyway, they’re obviously entitled to do what they want, it’s just surprising and disappointing – it would be good to have such a high profile school flying the flag for traditional geography. Cheers for this write up, and for your other blog posts.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by Tom G | February 26, 2017, 8:46 pm
  4. So, on balance, which were you more impressed with? Michaela or School 21?! Or is there room for both?!

    Like

    Posted by fish64 | February 26, 2017, 7:04 pm
  5. I have 2 questions for you Tom:
    A) how much social engineering do you think is going on?
    B) does the school reflect British culture and if so what is this?

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Nick von Behr | February 26, 2017, 7:58 pm
    • Socialisation and social engineering are two very different things. Having visited myself I would say the former is happening unlike the schools where I taught and which progressives promote, favour the latter approach.

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      Posted by teachwell | February 27, 2017, 9:51 am
      • Socialisation depends on the type of society you aspire to. Social engineering is trying to change your current society to meet your aspiration. I’d say a bit of both?

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        Posted by Nick von Behr | March 5, 2017, 11:42 am
      • Actually socialisation is fitting into the current society while social engineering is political and aspirational. However, the latter is a problem when teachers who are not democratically elected or representative of the population decide to do so without the consent of society. I don’t really care how “enlightened” they may consider themselves, it is an abuse of the trust placed in teachers to have done what they have over the course of the last 50 years.

        Like

        Posted by teachwell | March 5, 2017, 3:42 pm
  6. Very inspiring reading. What is in place sounds exciting, challenging and successful. I am interested to know what Michaela schools offer in the way of music, drama, dance and sport (you mentioned Art but no other arts)?

    Like

    Posted by Helen Brookes | February 27, 2017, 10:18 am
  7. Are you looking for a job or just networking?

    Like

    Posted by Sinbadthesailor | February 27, 2017, 1:50 pm
  8. Thanks, Tom. Have read so many different things about Michaela, this helps with balance.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by jillberry102 | February 28, 2017, 7:20 pm
  9. Hi Tom,

    Thanks fro writing this. I can’t really comment as I haven’t been, but could I just point out this:

    It’s a world away from the more typical process of learning lots of vocab about everyday life and gingerly introducing verbs – without really expecting/demanding total recall of what has been learned along the way.

    As an experienced language teacher and former head of modern languages, I wonder what makes you think that other teachers/schools/methods don’t expect/demand total recall of what has been learned along the way?

    It’s strikes me as defining the problem so that it fits the MCS Brent solution? Is that good science?

    Like

    Posted by José Picardo (@josepicardoSHS) | March 2, 2017, 9:10 am
    • What makes me think it is the experience of working in schools for a long time. At Michaela, ‘demand total recall’ really means that. The self-quizzing process on very specific words and phrases means that students really do retain the learning and build up an impressive repertoire. I’ve never seen this happen elsewhere I’ve worked or where my children went to school that the phrase-level recall was required and checked systematically. Often lots of vocab is explored but the recall expectations are not nearly as intense or rigorous. It’s not ‘try to learn these words and see who well you do’ – it’s ‘you must all absolutely learn these words and be able to recall them by X date’. And they do. That’s the difference.

      Like

      Posted by Tom Sherrington | March 2, 2017, 9:22 am
      • Do you think that phrase level recall demonstrates a good grasp of the language? It’s undoubtedly impressive, but, having tried many methods throughout my career, parroting answers from a prelearnt script without understanding the underlying grammatical structures does not language learning make. They’re learning stuff, undoubtedly. But they are not learning to speak or otherwise manipulate the language in order to be able to express themselves, which is arguably the whole point of foreign language learning. You may think this is an oversimplification on my part and that this is not what happens at schools like MCS Brent, but since your case is built on one, I thought I’d use the same strategy! 😉

        Like

        Posted by José Picardo (@josepicardoSHS) | March 2, 2017, 11:04 am
      • They are learning to manipulate it too – it’s not merely parroted; that’s just the foundation of it. They can express themselves. I think you should go and see and talk to the students – I know MFL teachers who have been and been impressed. I honestly don’t think it’s worth offering a critique until you’ve seen it. You may find that your school delivers well too – certainly Michaela is not the only school that teaches languages really well. But compared to your average state comprehensive school, their approach is very very different in terms of expectations.

        Like

        Posted by Tom Sherrington | March 2, 2017, 11:12 am
  10. The whole you haven’t-been-so-you-can’t-criticise is really grating. I have your explanation. I have their blogs. I have the views of MFL specialist who have been and thought there were good things and bad things. I am a languages teacher, and can give an opinion based on the available information.

    Like

    Posted by José Picardo | March 2, 2017, 11:29 am
    • Ok – but you’re making an assumption about what they do that I don’t think is quite right. It’s quite different to how I imagined in lots of ways; it might grate but it might also be true that you can’t really judge from afar. I can tell you that, without any doubt, their kids are streets ahead of most state comprehensive students with similar starting points. What’s not to like about that?

      Like

      Posted by Tom Sherrington | March 2, 2017, 11:37 am
      • I hope you are right. All I can say is: based on what you’ve said, what they’ve said and what I know about language learning and teaching, outlined above would be my concerns.

        Also, I would like to see on what evidence the two major assumptions in this assertion are based:

        Here, students learn to say the phrases before they fully understand the underlying structures – too often we over analyse language at an early stage which inhibits the learning.

        Like

        Posted by José Picardo (@josepicardoSHS) | March 2, 2017, 1:12 pm
      • This is the subject of a good discussion. I’ve been a language learner myself many times – always struggled. My kids ‘know’ the languages they’ve learned – enough for A* at GCSE – but they can’t really speak them with any confidence. I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly – students inhibited by fear of inaccuracy because they’ve be taught an array of rules to cover various possibilities without really being confident in them. For example, at school I learnt and can still remember to say “Je me suis rendu compte que j’avais perdu mes amis” as part of a story. I knew it off by heart. The ‘rendu compte’ and the ‘j’avais’ were just words I believed to be correct in the context of that phrase and I remember using it in my oral exam. But I didn’t fully understand the structures at that point. I do now. I tried learning Russian and German but was defeated by the whole case issue – nominative, dative etc – It never made sense to me and it felt as if everything I said was wrong, pretty much every time. I’d have killed for a bit more phrase book rote learning just to have something to hang everything else on. It’s that kind of thing. When I lived in Indonesia I picked up lots of phrases and could chat to people in shops at a certain level – it was all based on word and phrase-level copying, not a proper grammatical approach. Worth discussing? It’s experiential evidence – not a full blown study!

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by Tom Sherrington | March 2, 2017, 2:51 pm
    • I fear that the deficiency of such a model is not reserved for MFL teaching. Parroting information isn’t learning is it? Doesn’t it inhibit students from transferring knowledge into new contexts. Isn’t it counterintuitive to independent learning? Anyone can robotically produce information, especially when the constant threat of punishment looms. Is that really where things are at: force fed = gushing adoration? The comment about middle class uptake is pertinent. The answer is no. I would never allow my child to be so stifled. The assertion that knowledge is needed to empower independent learning is becoming so tedious, as it lacks imagination. There are other ( and ironically more powerful) ways to implant knowledge compared with force, and for a thriving progressive society, certainly more useful epistemologies.

      Like

      Posted by paulgmoss | March 4, 2017, 4:43 pm
    • I fear that the deficiency of such a model is not reserved for MFL teaching. Parroting information isn’t learning is it? Doesn’t it inhibit students from transferring knowledge into new contexts. Isn’t it counterintuitive to independent learning? Anyone can robotically produce information, especially when the constant threat of punishment looms. Is that really where things are at: force fed = gushing adoration? The comment about middle class uptake is pertinent. The answer is no. I would never allow my child to be so stifled. The assertion that knowledge is needed to empower independent learning is becoming so tedious, as it lacks imagination. There are other ( and ironically more powerful) ways to implant knowledge compared with force, and for a thriving progressive society, certainly more useful epistemologies.

      Like

      Posted by paulgmoss | March 4, 2017, 4:43 pm
  11. I am fascinated by the complete omission of any reference to science lessons in your post. Given your own sci ed background this surprises me. I would be really interested to know what science lessons were like at Michaela. Did you see any during your visit?

    Like

    Posted by Elizabeth Coppard | March 4, 2017, 1:45 pm

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