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Michaela’s Blog

Vertical vocabulary

One of the great things about working at Michaela is the symbiosis that happens between colleagues. Inevitably for me, this exchange of ideas is most keenly felt between the Humanities and English Departments and, specifically, between the essays that our pupils write in English and history. As Katie has written here, she and the English Department have developed the ‘show sentence’ in order to combat the problem of what happens after the classic sentence starter ‘This demonstrates that…’
A similar problem afflicts history teachers. We can drill pupils all we like on significant dates, people and places, but that does not, on its own, give our pupils the vocabulary to express what these dates, events and people mean. Unless history is to become ‘just one damn thing after another’ we need our pupils to be able to know what I call ‘vertical’ as well as ‘horizontal’ vocabulary. If the names of dates, people and places help our pupils to describe the ‘horizontal’ narrative of history, our ‘vertical’ vocabulary expresses the themes that link seemingly disparate periods of history together. This is the vocabulary that we need to express change and continuity, cause and consequence, conflict, power, economy and ideas. Crucially, this vertical vocabulary is always domain specific: the causes of the First World War and the causes of the Enlightenment will require different explanatory toolkits. An how are our pupils expected to master this vocabulary if we are not the ones to give it to them?

The big mistake that I made when I first started teaching was to presume that this ‘vertical’ vocabulary would just be discovered over time. I think there are many of the ‘enquiry’ bent who still think that this is something that just appears via osmosis. But I now see that this is as much as a nonsense as presuming that pupils will discover any other form of knowledge. Words like ‘tension’, ‘consolidated, ‘exacerbated’ which express historical ‘analysis’ are as much a form of knowledge as ‘King John’, ‘1215’ and ‘Runneymede’. Pupils must be explicitly taught such vertical vocabulary (and even occasionally make mistakes with it as they use it in different contexts) so that an initially inflexible concept bends and flexes over time.

Over the last two years, we’ve toyed around with various different ways to teach our pupils what a good paragraph looks like, each time desperately trying to get away from the straightjacket of PEEL and towards an understanding of paragraph formation that actually concentrates on what it is that the pupils find most difficult. As the English department have found, ‘this demonstrates…’ is not the part of the paragraph that pupils find the most challenging; it’s what comes next. The challenge for history teachers is not just making sure that our pupils remember the ‘horizontal’ vocabulary of dates, people and places, but to remember the ‘vertical’ vocabulary, too. This is exceptionally difficult, not least because the vertical vocabulary pupils need to express themselves with sophistication changes between periods of history and therefore from unit to unit.

What we’ve tried to do is break down paragraph construction into its component parts:

Point: What is your answer to the question?

Information: What dates, people and places have you remembered (we use this term deliberately) that support your point?

Explanation: Why are these dates, people and places significant? As my colleague, Mike, puts it – ‘So what?’

So if we were preparing our pupils for a question on the causes of the English Civil War, we would use an example show them the sort of structure and vocabulary that we’d expect to see in a good paragraph. We broke this essay down for our weakest pupils so they had to write an essay which included paragraphs on religion, power and finance as well as a conclusion. Have we had to over-simplify it as a consequence? Yes, of course. That is the price we have to pay to give them the foundational knowledge that they will critique as they learn more. I haven’t here got into the debate about long and short-term causes, although colleagues teaching more able pupils certainly would.

Here’s how we structured one of the model paragraphs on the religious causes of the Civil War for our weakest group in Year 8 (bottom quartile). The vocabulary that I’ve emboldened has been written into the booklets we use in class so that, by the time I get to the lesson, they should already be familiar with it. We need to be as confident that our pupils know the vertical vocabulary before an assessment as we are that they know the horizontal.

Question: Why did the English Civil War break out in 1642?

The English Civil War broke out in 1642 because of religious tension/enmity/division/animosity/hostility between the Puritan Parliament and the Arminian Crown.

In 1625, Charles I married the Catholic French Princess Henrietta Maria. This was important because the Parliament was predominantly Puritan and it increased suspicion that Charles was a secret papist.

In 1633, Charles appointed William Laud, an Arminian, Archbishop of Canterbury. This created further division because Laud attacked Puritans and banned their books.

Finally, in 1639, this tension escalated into violence after Charles attempted to impose his English prayer book on Scotland. It was this final act that led to a Scottish rebellion which forced Charles to recall Parliament and sparked off the civil war.

These events show/illustrate/demonstrate/reveal/emphasise that war broke out in 1642 because of increasing religious tension between the Arminian Crown and the Puritan Parliament

How is this different to how I used to teach paragraph construction?

  1. We’re not presuming that pupils will just discover words to express ‘tension’ and the changing relationship between Parliament and the Crown in the period – we’re explicitly giving them to the pupils. We create drills so that the vocabulary they need to express this changing relationship is automatized.
  2. We’re deliberately structured the evidence which supports the point in chronological order to help them remember the examples and to encourage them to think about how this relationship changes leading up to 1642.
  3. Each time they use an example, it’s followed by one sentence of explanation. When we’re constructing this paragraph on the whiteboard we’re saying ‘Yes, but why is it significant that Charles appointed Laud as Archbishop? How does that support your point? SO WHAT?!’

This essay was completed by a pupil in our weakest group in Year 8 at the end of last year (from memory). The pencil mark in the corner is the mark 15/25. What I was most pleased to see was the inclusion of the ‘vertical’ vocabulary that we’d be teaching in the lessons preceding the assessment. We’ve still got a long way to go on this, but I think it shows we’ve made a start.

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Visiting Michaela: an update

Michaela had always been open to anyone who wanted to visit, and we would actively encourage all kinds of people to visit us. We were so proud of what we did, and we naively thought that if only those who disagreed with us could see it in action – see how happy the children were, and see how much they were learning – they would have to concede that what we were doing was right for them.

Unfortunately, our trust in teachers to do the right thing regardless of their preconceptions and biases was broken. Our guides began to report some guests being rude towards them and the school. Some guests were asking inappropriate questions of our guides, who were feeling increasingly anxious about dealing with these kinds of teachers. In December, we had to close our doors to visitors following a serious safeguarding concern. It has taken us some time to look into this concern, and to alter our policy on visitors to ensure our pupils are kept safe.

Since publishing that blog, we have been inundated with emails, Tweets, and direct messages from those who expressed sympathy that we had to take such action; supporters of what we are doing who had really wanted to visit our school. We knew we had to put something in place to ensure that those people would have a chance to come in.

Our pupil guides are incredible, but they are also children. Their confidence and articulate explanations can make even their teachers forget that sometimes, but they are still only children. When you visit our school, we are placing a huge amount of trust in you: to treat our children with kindness and respect, and to never forget that they are only kids – age 11, 12, 13 or 14.

We are also placing a huge amount of trust in our guests to abide by our rules. I wrote before about some inappropriate behaviour of guests. Some people visit our school to soak up every piece of information they can, to find out more, to see what they can take back and implement at their own school. Some people visit with different motivations – to steal resources, or because someone has made them come when they would rather be taking ‘important’ phone calls while their pupil guides wait patiently for them.

It takes a huge amount of time to organise the visits, to complete the logistics, and to train and support the pupil guides. We are happy to take this time if it is to benefit those who are visiting with the right motivation. So, what we need to do is to work out how to tell whether someone is visiting our school because they want to learn something, or whether they are visiting our school because they want to undermine what we are doing.

When people visit our school with a motivation to undermine, not only do they write inaccurate and, frankly, untrue, things about what we do online (my favourite so far has been that teachers do not eat lunch with children – something every single teacher at Michaela does every single day) that damage other people’s perception of our school, but, far, far more importantly, that they put our children at risk. When people come, desperate to prove that what we do doesn’t work, in the face of the evidence in front of their eyes, they put our children at risk. We were hugely naïve to not recognise this sooner.

All staff at Michaela, including our Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, visit all kinds of schools all around the country. Our visits have massively impacted on what we do. We often cite King Solomon Academy, Mossbourne, and Dixons Trinity as influencing some of our central ideas and policies, but we have learned something from every school we have visited – even School 21, which many consider our polar opposite, has taught us lots. Because we go to these schools with the mindset to learn. 

So we have now established an application process for visiting Michaela. If you email info@mcsbrent.co.uk, we will ask you to fill out a short form, which will be reviewed by Katharine Birbalsingh or a member of the Senior Team to decide whether the motivation is right. Those who have been kind to us or about us, those who are interested and want to learn from what we do, are welcome to come in. Those who have been rude to us or about us, those who are motivated by the wrong things, are no longer welcome to visit. Any visitor acting in a way deemed inappropriate will immediately be asked to leave. Some schools charge up to £50 per person per visit. We are happy for visitors to come in for free, as long as those visitors are supportive and will not put our children at risk.

Our children are our top priority. Some of our guides are lower ability, and they have been genuinely upset by people visiting who do not like the school, who tell them that the school is bad, and that they are wrong to be happy at Michaela. We hope, desperately hope, that this new policy will be enough to allow those who wish to learn to come in, and to keep our most precious priority, our children, safe and happy.

If you are interested in learning from what we do, please email info@mcsbrent.co.uk for an application to visit Michaela.

First Year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

In a recent conversation about university, I remarked off-hand that ‘I hated university.’ Given that I spent five years there, this is, one would hope, a melodramatic piece of hyperbole. I’m going to write about university in a series of posts, partly to make peace with my time there, and partly to consider some of the pitfalls of the experience which I hope we will be able to prepare our children for in the future. These posts are personal, and I don’t intend for them to be representative of anything other than my own subjective experiences.

 

First year (or: why I didn’t drop out in the end)

Why did I choose to go to university in Dublin? Looking back, it seems like a bizarre choice. My first year of university occurred before the ravages of top-up fees set in, and I was eligible for a full student loan at any UK university. Why travel to another country, with a different currency and, as a foreigner, have no access to student finance? I think the choice was a combination of arrogance and ignorance, not uncommon in 18-year-olds. Arrogance, because I had spent my life surrounded by loving family and wonderful friends, and I assumed I was completely content in and of myself and had no need of these pillars of support; ignorance, because I didn’t recognise quite how hard university would be – intellectually, socially, or financially.

My whole life, I had saved up to go to university, but I was not well-off. I had won an assisted place to a private school, and my fairly posh accent belied my actual circumstances. The long summer after A-levels, I worked two jobs – one five days a week, and the other the two remaining days of the week. I signed up for as many shifts as possible. I remember two things about my jobs that summer: one was walking home at midnight through the eerily silent small town as fast as possible to maximise sleeping hours; one was doing ‘split shifts’ (where you work the lunch shift, have three hours off and then work the dinner shift) and coming home in the three hour break and sleeping. I saved everything. I used to go to the bank and deposit hundreds of pounds worth of tips in pound coins and small change into my account weekly. (They hated me at the bank.)

As a result, I paid for the first term of accommodation and had enough money to not work for my first term at university – if I could live on just under €70 a week. I wanted to focus on reading English and really understanding English Literature at university level. My understanding of what university would be like was formed by Kingsley Amis and Vera Brittain, and was hopelessly out of date. I envisioned evenings spent reading in a common room with hot chocolate, debating the vicissitudes of Victorian literature with equally eager scholars. The reality was somewhat different.

One anecdote perhaps sums up this first year at university. I clearly remember Freshers’ Week because I was reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement. This may well differ from many people’s Freshers’ Week experiences. I shared a room with another girl, and I remember her getting ready to go out. A swarm of other first years came into the room, where I was tucked up in bed in pyjamas, merrily reading. They valiantly attempted to persuade me to join them on their clubbing adventure. I had not been to a club before (I did go clubbing a grand total of five times in my career as a student. I hated it each time) and adored my book. I stayed home and read.

I attended every lecture, even the 9am ones. I queued for the library at ten to 9 every morning. I read everything on the reading list, and I read around each book. I sat at the front in lecture theatres. But I was also horribly out of my depth. I didn’t know what ‘dichotomy’ meant, and this turned out to be quite a pivotal word. Derrida and Fanon absolutely boggled me. I had literally no idea what Foucault was saying. I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, stupid. Stupid, alone, and very far from home.

A few months in, I plucked up the courage to say this to a fellow first year. To my shock, he said: ‘me too.’ I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like everyone else was having a brilliant time; but the reality was, I wasn’t alone. That conversation gave me the courage to go to my ‘mentor’ – the lecturer assigned to first years to be your helper. She was extremely kind, and said we could look into a transfer to a university closer to home if I was really homesick. But I explained that I wasn’t actually homesick. I was just sick of being broke. By term two, I was working long and unsociable hours – 6pm to 3am Thursday, Friday and Saturday – in a bar. The wages would just about cover my rent, and I lived off the tips. That meant I had between €50 and €120 a week to live on, depending on how busy we had been. Enough to live, and enough to eat; and for that I was very grateful. But closer to home I could get a loan.

The lecturer gave me some advice – if it was money I was worried about, I should stay put. The university offered an extraordinary scholarship programme – free accommodation, including a free evening meal, plus the annual ‘student charge’ (around €750 at that time) paid until the end of your degree, including your postgraduate, and all your postgraduate fees. It seemed too good to be true. All I had to do was pass the scholarship exams in the second year.

The hubris of youth burning bright within me, I decided to stay. I threw myself even more into my studies and stopped resenting work. I had a new goal: win a scholarship and stay in university.

 

Next week, I will outline my experiences in the second year of university.

 The Blogosphere in 2016: Roaring Tigers, Hidden Dragons

The Signal Sharpens

If felt like in 2016 the signal sharpened. The education blogosphere improved its curation of quality posts. This is mainly thanks to Andrew Old’s work on the Echo Chamber. In 2015, 6,000 blogposts were published (over 100 a week), far too many to possibly keep up with. In 2016, this was slimmed down to 2,000, a much more manageable 40 or so a week. What I most like about reading education blogs is how they push our thinking forward.

 

Thought-provoking blogposts of 2016

Visuals from Oliver Caviglioli

Oliver’s work pushes our thinking forward on how we can best organise knowledge, especially using visuals, hierarchical categorization and graphic organisers. His work with Learning Scientists simplifies, clarifies and amplifies over 100 years of research evidence from cognitive science. Oliver’s media on twitter is a treasure trove.

 

Comparative Judgment from Daisy Christodoulou

Daisy’s work pushes our thinking forward on how we can improve assessment by tapping into teachers’ tacit knowledge, saving time while improving accuracy.

 

Struggle & Success from David Didau

David’s work pushes our thinking forward on how we think about learning, especially on the thorny questions of transfer and in his three-step model of success, internalisation and challenge.

 

Note-Taking from Toby French

Toby’s work pushes our thinking forward on how we can improve our pupils’ ability to take useful notes, and how straightforward excellent teaching can be.

 

Handwriting automaticity from Sarah Barker

Sarah’s work pushes our thinking forward on an often-neglected component of learning: handwriting, and how to automate it for weaker writers.

 

Here are other blogposts that had me thinking hard in 2016:

Brutal honesty & the right questions by Steve O’Callaghan

Disciplined enquiry by Phil Stock

Language learning; why doesn’t teacher training stick? By Harry Fletcher Wood

Instruction, immersion, habit; teaching interpretations explicitly by Andy Tharby

Three fixes for edtech by Greg Ashman

Genericism by Michael Fordham

Neomania by Steve Adcock

Instruction by Kris Boulton

Assessment by Ben Newmark

The Luke Effect on workload by Antony Radice

Overcomplicating teaching by Jo Facer

Simplifying assessment by Stuart Lock

GCSE results by Tom Boulton

 

Roaring Tigers: Michaela teachers’ blogs

Jo Facer: Starting at Michaela, Term 1 & In Review

Katie Ashford: Show sentence & Beyond

Jonny Porter: Sample & domain

Katharine Birbalsingh: Teachers

Cassie Cheng: No powerpoint

Olivia Dyer: Drill

Mike Taylor: A Michaela lesson

HinTai Ting: Starting at Michaela in Maths

Lia Martin: The art of narration

Dani Quinn: Textbooks; Memorising; What matters most in maths; Examples

 

Roaring on the Tigers: Blogs About Michaela

(thanks to Naureen for her brilliant collation!)

Doug Lemov Rethinking Workload and Marking; The Power of Gratitude

David Didau Route One Schooling and My Return to Michaela

Kelly Leonard: The importance of Debating Michaela

Stephen Tierney: Michaela is Marmite

Toby French: An Afternoon At Michaela

Tom Bennett: Sympathy for the Devil: My Day at Michaela

Tarjinder Gill: Love, Actually

Naureen Khalid: Come work at this School

Steve Adcock: Three things I learned from Michaela

Chris Guerin: So I Went to Michaela…

Freya Odell: I bloomin’ love Michaela!

 

Top blogposts posted in 2016 on this blog

Moral Psychology

Battle Hymn

Bootcamp

Discipline

No Excuses

Drill

Mnemonics

 

Most viewed blogposts of 2016 on this blog

Why don’t students remember what they’ve learned?

Knowledge Organisers

Hornets and Butterflies: how to reduce workload

A 5 year revision plan

Marking is a hornet

 

16 Top books of 2016

  1. The Path (reviewed by Jo Facer)
  2. Cleverlands (reviewed by Jo Facer)
  3. Hillbilly Elegy (reviewed by Jo Facer)
  4. The Happiness Hypothesis
  5. Mnemonology
  6. Bury The Chains
  7. Silk Roads
  8. Prisoners of Geography
  9. Fools, Frauds & Firebrands
  10. Metaphors We Live By
  11. The Bible for Grown Ups
  12. Why Evolution is True
  13. The Great Degeneration
  14. The Third Reich Trilogy
  15. Dictator
  16. Dynasty

 

Highlights of 2016

 

Highlight #1. Debating Michaela (April 2016)

Schools should not do whatever it takes

No excuses discipline works

Performance Related Pay is damaging

Personalised learning harms children

Project-based learning doesn’t work best

Here is an excellent review of the debates by the brilliant Kelly Leonard.

Here are two brilliant 1-page visuals of the talks by Oliver Caviglioli:

NotWhateveritTakes OC.jpg  PRPisdamaging.jpg

 

Highlight #2: ResearchEd (September 2016)

Daisy Christodoulou on Comparative Judgment

Rob Coe on Assessment

Tim Oates on Curriculum

Katie Ashford on Mental Health

Jon Brunskill: A remarkable demo of discovery vs didacticism in primary

Jo Facer: We’ve Overcomplicated Teaching

 

Highlight #3: Publishing Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers: over 4,000 copies sold in 1 month

Bootcamp & Homework as Revision Chapters as visuals, by the awe-inspiring Oliver Caviglioli:

 BootcampOC.png     HWRevisionOC.png

 

Highlight #3: The Battle Hymn Book Launch (November)

Ripping up the Rulebook: a 1 page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

Michaela as a new teacher: a 1 page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

CPD: Question Everything: a 1 page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

Didactic Teaching: a 1 page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

No Nonsense, No Burnout: a 1 page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

No Excuses: a 1-page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

Bootcamp: a 1-page visual by Oliver Cavilglioli

Reluctant Readers: a 1-page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

Sex, Lies & Learning Styles: a 1-page visual by Oliver Caviglioli

 

Highlight #4: ResearchEd Christmas Debate: what is the question on assessment? (December)

 

Doug Lemov visiting and filming at Michaela was a great highlight of 2016. Visiting my old school was another highlight!

 

3 Trends in Education Blogosphere in 2016

Trend #1: Education debate intensifies: Dragon Slayers

All year, the traditional-progressive debate raged on. The dragon reared its head: high-profile educational leaders announced that the debate was ‘boring’ or pointless. Dragon slayers Toby French, Horatio Speaks, Andrew Old, James Theobald, Antony Radice, Rory Gribell and Phil Stock struck back with some superb blogposts, comprehensively routing those who are desperately, unsuccessfully, trying to silence the debate.

Why Progressives Can’t Make Progress by Antony Radice

Progressive education patronises the poor by Tarjinder Gill

Dangerous Conjectures by Horatio Speaks

Boredom & The Divide by Toby French

Varieties of Boredom by David Didau

Denying the Debate between Progressive and Traditional Education (1) by Andrew Old

Denying the Debate between Progressive and Traditional Education (2) by Andrew Old

Denying the Debate between Progressive and Traditional Education (3) by Andrew Old

Denying the Debate between Progressive and Traditional Education (4) by Andrew Old

Trendiest Arguments for Progressive Education by Andrew Old

10 Years On: how the education debate has changed by Andrew Old

The unexamined life by Phil Stock

Shutting Down Debate by Rory Gribell

Tradition and Progress: A Real Dichotomy by Martin Robinson

Why we shouldn’t close down the debate

A Defence of The Debate by James Theobald

 

Trend #2: Teachers start to replace marking with whole-class feedback… and OFSTED cut marking!

Jo Facer

Toby French

Ben Newmark: this is changing everything for us

Louis Everett

All over twitter new shoots are springing up: teachers using whole-class feedback.

Ofsted even started to close the yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality:

Ofsted’s National Director of Education urged inspectors not to report on marking from the TES.

It’s official: your school’s marking policy is probably wrong in The Guardian

 

Trend #3: Great minds like a think: teachers with the courage to change their minds

The trend is unmistakable: there are an increasing number of teachers with the courage to state publically that they changed their minds on progressive thinking.

I was a teenage progressive: James Theobald

I changed my mind @heymisssmith

From a similar defector: I changed my mind by Mike Stuchberry

Others who have tweeted on this include Eric Kalenze, Optimist Prime, Greg Ashman, Whatonomy, Summer Turner, Chris Hildew, Phil Stock, DebsF, Emma Davies, David Didau, Sarah Ledger, Shaun Allison, Tom Boulter, Mr Chadwick, Aaron Kerrigan and others too numerous to mention.

 

3 Hopes for 2017

Subject-Specific Echo Chambers

With a new Chief Inspector, OFSTED stop grading teaching

Dragon-slayers: teachers increasingly challenge the hydra-like orthodoxies in schools in England

Top reads of 2016

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Education reads:

Doug Lemov: Reading Reconsidered

I wrote at length about Lemov’s book – safe to say, it will revolutionise your teaching. Everyone should read this – not just English teachers. Lemov deeply considers the best way to read with classes, but also how to blend fiction and non-fiction for optimal understanding.

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I also wrote at length about Chua’s book, which we now all read at Michaela for our staff CPD. Chua’s book is wildly funny, but also exposes a totally different paradigm for thinking about kids and discipline.

Roger Scruton: Culture Counts

My whole way through university, I thought I was stupid. I didn’t ‘get’ post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Foucault or Derrida. It turns out, there is an alternative way of viewing culture. Reading Scruton felt like a warm blanket. For others, this book might feel like more of a scratchy towel in its challenge. Whatever your values, this is a must-read for anyone interested in curriculum.

Michael Puett: The Path

This book is eminently useful for the way it showcases the Eastern paradigm. I stole an example from it in my speech at the Michaela book launch, with the toddler who says ‘thank you’ mindlessly, growing into the adult who can use the word with thought and understanding, to challenge the idea that explicitly teaching children (knowledge or behaviour) does not lead to adults who flail without the structures of a school.

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Vance’s tome details his life and upbringing, and interweaves through this narrative some fascinating statistics. It gives educators pause for thought on what is really needed to ensure poor kids succeed, and triumph against not only poverty, but the ideas and values that keep poor kids poor.

E.D. Hirsch: Why Knowledge Matters

This is the best of Hirsch’s books yet – a lucid and compelling case for knowledge. It is the number one book to read if you’re interested in the knowledge debate, or if you’re still not sure that teaching knowledge is the best way to raise academic standards for all children.

 

Other non-fiction:

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

If you love the Romantics, and you especially love the Romantic ladies, this is a must-read. An eye-opening lens on Shelley’s life and her mother’s influence on it, with the male poets an intriguing sub-plot (for once).

Howard C. Cutler: The Art of Happiness

This was the year I decided to try to calm my mind and quell my anxiety. Spoiler: I have not succeeded (yet). But this was one of the most helpful books in providing a different perspective on happiness, with some genuinely excellent advice to be mindful of in a modern world obsessed with acquisition and status.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed

I read this book in the summer (and if you know anything about Michaela you probably don’t need me to explain why) and found it both hilarious (in its tone and humorous examples) and troubling. Why do we feel like we can hurl insults at people on the internet in a way we never would in real life? Anyone interested in this should also watch the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Undeniably the most fascinating royal family in the history of the world, Montefiore’s tome explores the very beginning of their dynasty right through to the bloody and harrowing ending. This historian’s gift is to render those of the past in a convincingly human light, with details and insights from correspondence carefully chosen to humanise the fated monarchs. 

Fiction:

Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Drabble’s central character in this little book defies every expectation of her society. A virgin when everyone around her is experimenting, then rapidly reversing to become an unwed mother who keeps her child against all the advice. The heroine will fill you with hope and admiration at her calm perseverance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

This book deftly interweaves ideas about race, class, history and geopolitics. The central character’s experience of moving from Nigeria to America and back again, with all the cross-cultural difficulties anyone who has lived overseas can empathise with, is intertwined with a quite beautiful love story. The shifting lens of the story is beautifully crafted, as we follow the heroine, who tells much of her lengthy tale to us at the salon, revealing her hopes, dreams, and fears in the most beautiful prose I read all year.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

This is the first of a long series of novels that document the lives and loves of a family living just before the Second World War. The cast of characters is large, but through different chapters you slowly begin to sense them knitting together, as they negotiate the start of the greatest upheaval of modern times.

 Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April

I bought this book on an absolute whim, loving the idea of four strangers on holiday in a castle in Italy. A wonderful period piece, the whimsical nature of the chief perspective lends a childish delight and joy to all she sees. A life-affirming read. 

Zadie Smith: NW

This is my favourite of Smith’s novels yet. I loved the setting – near my school, I felt this gave an insight on the area I’m starting to get to know – and the relationships between the characters. At the centre is a strange relationship between two schoolgirls who have grown into very different adults, and surrounding them a cast of eternally intriguing others.

Joanne Harris: Different Class

This is a fantastically fun read, with a twist mid-way through that led me to frantically re-reading the first half of the novel to work out how I could have possibly missed it. Set in a traditional private school with a relentlessly modernising Headteacher, this novel also contains pertinent insights on education! 

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Despite my shameless love of murder mysteries, I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before this year. A summer holiday to Devon changed all that. (Prior to reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ my other choice for this slot was ‘Gone Girl,’ which is great by the way.) Christie is the absolute master of this genre. I’m now totally addicted to her novels. 

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve spent a lot of this year working on (and teaching) nineteenth century fiction, and I’ve come to enjoy it more than I could have possibly anticipated. Anne Bronte is the lesser read of the sisters, and this novel is disconcertingly modern: dealing with a painful, disastrous marriage, and forbidden love, you quickly forget that this is a novel not set in our own time. I would only caution do not read the blurb of the book which will absolutely ruin the plot twist. 

William Boyd: Any Human Heart

The wonderful Liz Cowley gave me this book, and it is now one of my all-time favourites. We follow the central protagonist through his journals, experiencing his life and all its adventures, longings, desires, failures. Deeply moving.

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Remember like an elephant

I’ve always loved mnemonics. One of the first ones I learned was for the points of the compass, clockwise: Naughty Elephants Squirt Water. Why does it work so well to help young children remember? I think it’s because it’s simple, not overloading, but rather chunking four pieces of information into one unit of meaning, a meaningful sentence, which is also a vivid, memorable mental image; it is also sequential, with the order of letters and words reflecting the order of compass points, helping us remember the difference between East and West, which are often and easily confused by children.

 

A demo

I saw my colleague Jess Lund teaching a lesson on psychology recently. She shared a demonstration on memory. Try this simplified version of it. There are three buckets of words to remember. Take 60 seconds to try to revise each one, ready to reproduce them within 60 seconds:

Bucket 1: tree market happiness box window apple love road book hat

Bucket 2: fox hen burger steak love conflict bed pillow computer phone

Bucket 3: arrow ball crow dice effort fall gate hero injustice jumper

Which buckets were easier to remember? Once we see the pattern of bucket 2, pairs, or the pattern of bucket 3, alphabetical order, these give us ways to recall remembered information: cues. The reasons that bucket 2 is easier than bucket 1 is because of organisation, and that bucket 3 tends to be easiest is because of unique cues (first letters sequenced in alphabetical order).

What we can learn from this demo is that if we want our pupils to remember what they’re learning, it might be advantageous if we can organise subject material and give them distinctive cues for recall.

 

Acrostic Mnemonics

Some of my favourite type of mnemonics are acrostic mnemonics. Naughty Elephants Squirt Water is just one example. Here are 20 or more others that are useful for learning subjects, some of which I still remember being taught in school to this day, for remembering tricky subject knowledge:

1. Living Organisms

Mrs Gren: move, respire, sense, grow, reproduce, excrete and require nutrition.

2. Trigonometry

SohCahToa: sine opposite hypotenuse; cosine adjacent hypotenuse; tan opposite adjacent

3. Mathematical order of operations

BIDMAS: brackets indices division multiplication addition subtraction

4. Long Division in Mathematics

Does Macdonalds sell burgers? Divide, multiply, subtract, bring down (via Philip Roddy)

5. Seven continents

Always Eat An Apple, Says Aunt Nora: Asia Europe Africa Australasia South America Antarctica North America

6. Order of Planets

My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto

7. Colours of a Rainbow

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet

8. Scientific Classification

King Phillip Can Order Five Good Soups: Kingdom Phylla Class Order Family Genus Species

9. Five Kinds of Vertebrates

FARM B: Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, Birds

10. Scientific Conversion

Oil Rig: oxidation is losing electrons, reduction is gaining electrons

11. Natural Selection in Biology

VC Baspog: variation, competition, best adapted survive, pass on genes (via Damian Benney)

12. Coordinating Conjunctions in Grammar

Fanboys: for and nor but or yet so

13. Order of Greek Philosophers

Spa: Socrates Plato Aristotle

14. Five Pillars of Islam

French People Can’t Forget Paris: Fasting Prayer Charity Faith Pilgrimage

15. Five Prophets

I just love every day: Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations Ezekiel Daniel

16. First Five Old Testament Books

God’s Eternal Love Never Dies: Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy

17. Musical Notation

Every Girl Born Deserves Freedom: EGBDF keys

18. French past tense verbs conjugated with etre not avoir

Dr Mrs Vandertramp:

devenir, revenir

monter, rester, sortir,

venir, aller, naitre, descendre, entrer, rentrer, tomber, retourner, arriver, mourir, partir

19. Tricky Spellings

Beautiful: big elephants are under trees in forests until light

Rhythm: rhythm helps your two hips move

Mnemonics: Mnemonics Now Erase Mankind’s Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage!

20. Psychology: Four Lobes of the Brain

Freud Tells Parents Off: Frontal, Temporal, Parietal, Occipital. (via Kate Barry)

21. Medicine: Twelve Cranial Nerves

On Old Olympus’ Towering Tops, A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops: optic, olfactory, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, and hypoglossal nerves.

22. Historical Dates: Rhyme Mnemonics

There are also rhyme mnemonics for historical dates, such as:

In 1492, Columbus sailed the oceans blue.

 

What can we learn from these 20+ mnemonics? How exactly do they help us remember? They are simple; they chunk down complex, overloading or forgettable knowledge and they make it memorable, cheating the limitations of our working memories; they give us a way of self-checking that we have remembered all the content, and in the right order.

In almost every area of human knowledge, mnemonics are useful – from mathematics, science, geography, music, religion, history, literature, philosophy and languages, including complex processes like trigonometry, to spelling, grammar, and medicine, as the examples above show – because they work with the human cognitive architecture that we all have in common.

 

So, if we want to make our own mnemonics, useful our own subjects, here are some ways we could start.

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Example of Making a New Mnemonic: Seven Deadly Sins

Here is an example of a mnemonic we have created in our English department. We were trying to come up with ways for our pupils to remember what all the 7 deadly sins from Medieval England were. The number is just beyond the limits of working memory, so both children and teachers were finding it hard to remember all seven reliably. I came up with the faintly ludicrous mnemonic GP WEASL (Gluttony Pride Wrath Envy Avarice Sloth Lust): imagine an eccentric Austrian doctor, perhaps! My colleague Sarah went one better and came up with a more easily memorable image:

Wasp Leg: Wrath Avarice Sloth Pride; Lust Envy Gluttony.

We really liked it because it’s a vivid image, chunked into one meaningful phrase. It has helped both teachers and pupils to recall what the 7 deadly sins are, which is useful when reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the morality plays like Everyman and much subsequent English literature.

 

Another simple one we came up with in Science was a way to remember the answer to the question: why wasn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection accepted after the 1859 publication of ‘On The Origin Of Species’?

GEM: God (19th century Victorians believed in divine, biblical creation); Evidence (there was insufficient evidence through fossils); Mechanism (genetics as a science didn’t yet exist).

 

I’m an English teacher, and so from here on I’m going to stick to English examples. But you could apply this process for making mnemonics to any subject.

 

Spelling Mnemonics

In English, two of the areas that mnemonics hold most potential in are spellings and quotations. Spellings in English are often irregular and tricky to remember.

How to remember that responsible (unlike accountable) ends with –ible not –able? Words like appear, necessary, tomorrow, repetition and successful have tricky, forgettable combinations. I still have to write rhyme slowly in case I misspell it and confuse it with rhythm! Here are 10 mnemonics that help kids remember how to spell 10 frequently misspelled words:

 

  1. fascinating: science is fascinating
  2. repetition: repeated letters are ETI in r-Ep-ETITI-on.
  3. suspense: suspense has 3 ‘s’ letters, like the dot dot dot of a cliffhanger . . .
  4. responsible: I am responsIble for my fate.
  5. rhyme: rhyme helps your mate educate.
  6. appear: Peter Pan appears, then disappears.
  7. necessary: it’s necessary for a shirt to have 1 collar, 2 sleeves: 1 c, then 2 s’s
  8. tomorrow: will we go with Tom or Row tomorrow?
  9. successful: Cheryl Cole and Steven Spielberg are both successful.
  10. embarrassing: It’s embarrassing when we blush ruby red and feel like an ass.

 

What these mnemonics have in common is encoding a memorable way to remember the trickiest part of difficult spellings. Building up a bank of spelling mnemonics and teaching them explicitly is something we are embarking on at Michaela.

 

Quotation Mnemonics

We also want to prepare our pupils for GCSE literature exams and English essays where the questions are unseen before the assessment. They need to know many quotations off by heart in order to succeed. Mnemonics are a great way of remembering trigger words for quotations. For instance, we want pupils (and teachers!) to remember these quotations from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, starting with the main character.

  1. “Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  2. “He’s here in double trust; first, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed.”
  3. “Vaulting ambition only overleaps itself.”
  4. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
  5. “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons you to heaven or to hell.”
  6. “A voice cried ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’”
  7. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
  8. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
  9. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow
  10. “I bear a charmed life, which will not yield to one of woman born.”

An approach we’ve found successful is to choose a striking ‘trigger word’ that can be remembered in order of the plot of the play. For instance:

  1. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
  2. “He’s here in double trust; first, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed.”
  3. “Vaulting ambition only overleaps itself.”
  4. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
  5. Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons you to heaven or to hell.”
  6. “A voice cried ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!’”
  7. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
  8. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
  9. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow
  10. “I bear a charmed life, which will not yield to one of woman born.”

10 Trigger Cues for Macbeth Quotations

Stars, trust, ambition, dagger, hear, sleep, neptune, blood, candle, charmed.

Ten words are easier to remember than ten quotations! It is then easy to set practice tasks such as: write out the 10 trigger words for your Macbeth quotations from memory, and pupils write: stars, trust, ambition, dagger, hear, sleep, neptune, blood, candle, charmed. We could go one step further and link them into a vivid phrase: “Stars trust ambitious daggers, hearing sleepy nightmares of bloody candle charms.” Ten quotations into one chunk in long-term memory. Practice exercises to recall the quotations using the mnemonic is then what is required for pupils to remember them during the essay. Some wrote ‘s t a d h s n b c c’ in the margin of their essays to aid recall under time pressure, mid-flow!

We plan to use these mnemonics for GCSE English Literature across the 3 texts (a Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel and a modern text), so that our pupils have the strongest foundation for answering any essay question that could come up.

In our curriculum, our pupils now have this shared memory bank across subjects that they can draw on, which helps them to remember the mnemonics we are collectively learning.

Mnemonics are fantastically useful and versatile in teaching. Given what we know about how memory works, through encoding, storage and retrieval, and the interaction between limited working memory and almost unlimited long-term memory, the main limit to making mnemonics useful is our own imagination as teachers.

 

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For those who are interested, there is a sound foundation of over 60 years of scientific research into mnemonics:

Miller, 1956: Limits on our capacity for processing information

“Recoding is an extremely powerful weapon for increasing the amount of information that we can deal with. In one form or another we use recoding constantly in our daily behaviour.”

Bellezza, 1996: Mnemonic Methods to Enhance Storage and Retrieval

“The study of mnemonic devices can make important contributions to the study of human memory and learning. Teachers must learn how to activate appropriate information in the memories of their students by using specially designed mnemonics to develop useful knowledge structures. Current research provides reasons to be optimistic.” 

Levin, 2004: Mnemonics boost recall

“In all experiments, mnemonic keyword students (whether individual, paired, or small group) outperformed their counterparts.”

Worthen, 2010: Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st century

Encoding Processes are Fundamental to Mnemonic Success

“Research has established that the joint operation of organisation and elaboration, herein referred to as distinctive processing, enhances memory retention beyond the operation of either alone.”

Ornstein at al, 2010: Teachers’ Mnemonic Instruction and Children’s Memory Skills

In longitudinal classroom research, researchers found that although memory demands in school are high, explicit instruction in specific strategies for remembering is low. Students taught by high mnemonic teachers outperformed those taught by low mnemonic teachers over one year and two year periods.

Visiting Michaela

When I first visited Michaela, it was in July of 2015. What I saw on that day changed my view of education forever. I left the school in a daze, both dazzled by what was possible. Many of our recent recruits tell a similar story. Some applied for a post on a whim, not really sure what our school was about. The visit changed everything. Reading about our school is great. Seeing it in action is something else.

My visit proved the catalyst for my involvement with the Michaela project. Today, I still feel a little starstruck when I walk into Katharine’s office, or watch Olivia Dyer teaching, or hear Katie Ashford speaking. I feel so lucky and so proud to work at Michaela.

At our event in November to launch our book, people had come to us from so far away. Their joy was palpable, as they came up to various Michaela teachers. ‘We’ve been up since 5am! We’ve read so much! We’re so excited to be here!’ was something I heard so often, I had to pinch myself. I am so lucky to work at Michaela.

On Twitter we have said to people: ‘don’t believe us? Come and visit!’

And they do. We’ve had to organise new systems to deal with the massive influx of visitors. And we didn’t mind that, because so many people came, saw, and took back ideas and methods to use in their own schools. Countless visitors sent us glowing letters of thanks, praising our lovely school and, in particular, our lovely children. We framed the letters, and read them out in assemblies. The children glowed with pride: they felt so lucky, and so proud, of our school. And we were happy to spend the time to spread the ‘good word.’ Our pupils were so proud to show guests around, and explain everything they knew about their school.

Now, not all visitors were respectful. We’ve had visitors cancel at the last minute – the day before, or on the day, causing untold difficulties with the administration at our end. We’ve had visitors turn up with seven of their colleagues unannounced, expecting it wouldn’t matter how many of them there were. We’ve had visitors make dietary requests at lunch, as if we were a restaurant and not a school. We’ve had visitors become annoyed because their specified date or time was not available. We’ve had visitors email on Sundays, following up their Saturday email, asking why no one has got back to them yet, as if we were a business, and an eternally open one at that. We’ve had visitors demand to speak to various Heads of Department or Deputy Heads, as if those people didn’t have a school to run.

None of these demands are quite as disrespectful as what some visitors to our school have done. We have had visitors take away lesson materials, even out of pupils’ books. We have had visitors rifle around a teacher’s desk; even her drawers. Visitors have frequently interrupted a teacher while they are teaching, sometimes only to ask where the toilets are. We have had visitors filming our lessons without permission, or taking photographs of our children. We have had guests asking children what set they are in, even after being explicitly told to not mention setting to our pupils as we do not share this information with them. We have had visitors talk loudly to pupils who are desperately trying to concentrate on their silent practice, or their teacher’s instruction. We have had visitors hide in the toilets, making long phone calls, while their guides stood waiting for them, unsure of what to do when the guest asked for an extension on their thirty minute tour afterwards. We have had visitors talk to each other, loudly, in the back of the classroom, disturbing the learning of our children.

 So we have had to chase visitors down to delete images or wrestle our materials from them, and start reminding people before they visit of the etiquette of a school, and begin emailing out our prospective visitors with guidelines of how to behave, and what to do and what not to do.

And then there was worse. Much worse.

More recently, we have had hostile visitors. People who have come to our lovely school, only to look for what is wrong with it. Some have written blogs and Tweets, deliberately misrepresenting our school, and containing factual inaccuracies of things they have not understood, but have not bothered to ask for more information about. Visitors who have come with an agenda to destroy, not caring about who they are hurting in the process: the children.

We have had guests aggressively questioning the children taking them around – year 7, year 8, year 9 pupils. People, teachers, who have bombarded our children with leading questions, perplexing them and upsetting them: ‘aren’t the lessons boring? Do you hate this school? Do you think your teachers are too controlling? Do you feel oppressed? Isn’t this school much too strict?’ One visitor told a pupil over lunch: ‘your teachers aren’t teaching you Science properly. There is a much better way to do it,’ and proceeded to explain he could teach him science using football.

This week, over lunch, one of our pupils in our lowest attaining group, who is also a guide for visitors, sat with our Headmistress. Deeply shaken, she said: ‘Miss. They say our school is bad. I don’t know what to say to them. I love our school.’ She did not want to be rude to the guests, but she did not know what to say. Katharine, who had before wanted to open our school to those who wished to learn, began to question the wisdom of our approach.

Our concerns reached their apex this week, when one visitor, a non-teacher, raised a safeguarding concern with our Headmistress about the aggression the pupil guides were enduring from another visitor, a teacher, who was on the same tour. And of course, we take safeguarding concerns very seriously.

So it is with great sadness that we are closing our doors to guests for the moment. Although parents of pupils attending our school are always welcome at any time, we need to protect our children. We need to focus on educating them, and keeping them safe. We opened our doors to guests so we could share the love and the joy of what is happening here. Instead, our children have been compromised by the political blindness of some of our guests, who haven’t come to have their minds opened, but have instead come seeking confirmation of their prejudices, and have put vulnerable children at risk in order to do this.

We will still share through blogs, through Twitter, through images and videos we take, what we are doing at Michaela. And in the meantime, we will try to find a way that we can have visitors in without putting our children at risk. We do want to keep our doors open to teachers who are genuinely interested in what we are doing. The difficulty is distinguishing between those guests, and those who are putting our children at risk. We hope to have found a solution to this in early 2017.

You Turn Me Right Round

This is just about some ideas for angles we’ve been using in the department.

Polygons: angles as turn

We’ve been trying to demonstrate to the pupils what it actually means to say the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees. On a straight line it is easy to demonstrate the half-turn, and remain faithful to the idea that angles are a measure of turn.

I find that the activity of tearing the corners from a triangle and arranging them on a line doesn’t seem to stick. I suspect it also reinforces the idea of a line more than the idea of a half-turn.

Using a board pen or, in my case, a small toy bird, we’ve tried this instead. Because it is small-scale, I’ve used an anthropomorphised key…

It starts facing forward. At each vertex, it turns. Upon returning to its original position, it is facing the opposite direction. It has completed a half turn🙂

It then extends nicely to quadrilaterals (it is facing the same way), then pentagons (a turn and a half – facing backwards) and so on. It allows the pupils to see that not only does the number of triangles increase (the standard and much-loved way of showing progression in polygons), but also that each time they increase by a half-turn.

Vertically opposite angles

We were finding it tricky to help pupils spot vertically opposite angle when there were more than two intersecting lines. One pupil* suggested that they position their rulers to rotate around the point of intersection, turning to hide the one being focused on. The one that is revealed has the same turn, so must be equal. They are the vertically opposite angles. Here are two examples of her suggestion:

It is obviously easier if a finger is placed at the point of intersection, as it is easier for the ruler to rotate. The limits of one-handed camera phone filming!

Lastly, another pupil had a good suggestion to help with spotting vertically opposite angles. If each separate line segment is highlighted (and there are no non-straight lines!), then the ones ‘trapped’ between the same colour-pair will be vertically opposite to each other:

vertically-opposite-highlighting

This works better than just giving highlighters, as the additional rule of ‘trapped between the same colours’ gives them a little more to hang onto!

If you have tips to make it easier to spot alternate angles than ‘a Z shape’…please tell me!

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(I’ve partly made a fuss of this way of modelling because the pupil is a solid fourth quartile kid. It’s been really exciting to hear her come up with her own ideas for demonstrating what she understands. I plan on showing her this video tomorrow)

 

 

No Excuses: High Standards, High Support

highstanardshighsupport

Our school, Michaela, has very, very high standards. We expect every pupil to arrive at school on time every day, and we expect 100% attendance. We expect every pupil to arrive in school fully equipped for learning. We expect every pupil to have completed all their homework, and to a high quality, every single evening. We expect every pupil to behave politely, responsibly and kindly around school, in lessons, breaks, lunch and outside school. We expect every pupil to move swiftly and in single file lines between lessons, so that children are hardly ever late to lessons. We expect every pupil to greet teachers and guests with eye contact and a polite, cheerful, ‘morning, sir!’ ‘afternoon, miss!’

 

We also have a culture of full responsibility for choices, mistakes, setbacks and habits, with no excuses. We believe responsibility is incredibly empowering, and that excuses are disempowering. When pupils try to come up with excuses and deflect responsibility for not bringing their equipment, for not bringing their homework, for distracting others in lessons or for reacting negatively to their teachers, they inhibit themselves from improving. When they take the tough choice to ask – ‘what could I have done differently?’ – they improve faster and feel happier. It also reduces other pupils’ time in lessons being taken up on teachers handing out pens to those who have forgotten them, or on confrontations about one individual’s behaviour when the other 31 pupils in the class would be better focused on learning than on watching an argument.

 

We set detentions for lots of reasons: for arriving 1 minute late to school or more; for not bringing in the daily homework; for homework that is incomplete, badly inaccurate or dreadfully scrappy; for not having the right equipment (for example, not having a library book; not having a pen; not having a pencil case; not having a ruler [because we read in almost every lesson using rulers for visible accountability]); for reacting badly to a teacher’s instruction or demerit, such as sulking, tutting or rolling eyes. We would give a detention for persistently turning round in class after a teacher has reminded the pupil not to do so.

 

Detentions aren’t barbaric. Ours are 20 minutes during lunchbreak or after school, and pupils do not write out lines repeatedly or copy out reflection letters, but instead self-quiz using their knowledge organisers in a subject and topic of their choice to revise what they’re learning in lessons.

 

Detentions are clear consequences and helpful reminders to improve. They signal to kids what the school and wider society values: responsibility, punctuality, politeness. Their certainty and consistency is far more important than their severity. It is absolutely certain in our kids’ minds that if they are late, lazy or rude, they lose the privilege of playing tabletennis or basketball in lunchbreak, or going home with their friends at 4pm. The instantaneity of lunch and afterschool detentions means that pupils can more easily remember why they incurred the detention, so that they haven’t forgotten the reason for it the next day some 24 hours (or more) later. It is kinder to give pupils the clear message through a detention that rudeness is not permitted, that respectful interactions are expected, than to permit and thereby promote rudeness or slackness that may damage their chances in life in the future.

 

No excuses does not mean no legitimate reasons given, ever. We minimise unnecessary exceptions so as not to create moral hazard and norm contagion: if there are inconsistencies between teachers or too many exceptions being offered, more and more pupils begin to wonder why they should have to arrive prepared or work hard in lessons or at school if others do not. If a school is too permissive, allowing too many exceptions, it risks creating helplessness, selfishness or dependence in its pupils rather than responsibility, consideration and agency. If a school reduces its standards for poorer pupils because of their poverty or difficult home life, it does them a disservice; frankly, it doesn’t believe in them enough. Schools in the responsibility paradigm empower every child, even the most disadvantaged, even those with the most traumatic pasts, to overcome their difficulties and change their life chances.

 

It is vital to distinguish between excuses and reasons. For instance, at Michaela, if a parent writes a note to explain that their child was in A&E for the entire evening, but has managed to attend school, we see that as a legitimate reason, and we do not give them a detention for incomplete homework. Otherwise parents may not have them attend at all that day, and they’d miss 8 hours of school! Other examples of humane decisions (that are the same for all children in these circumstances) are:

 

A child has broken his or her leg or has some other severe physical injury, and cannot walk swiftly in the corridors – they are of course allowed to leave the lesson five minutes early and take the lift.

 

A child has lost their bag on the way to school – instead of incurring several detentions, they are provided with a pencil case and equipment for the day. This has happened once in two and a half years, partly because it has become a collective norm to arrive prepared, and partly because we have taught pupils to check and double-check their belongings when they leave the house and leave the bus or train.

 

A child has lost a loved one and attend the funeral instead of school – instead of expecting homework from that evening, we do not set detentions. However, although it is difficult, we expect homework to be completed from then on, whilst offering emotional support, listening, guidance and stoical and Tibetan philosophy to help them overcome their grief and bereavement. We also preempt this by teaching them Eastern wisdom about mortality before they encounter the bereavements we all inevitably encounter in our lives.

 

A child is visiting a parent who is very ill in hospital – instead of expecting homework from that evening, we do not set detentions. However, we would support the child through this difficult time and ensure that just because they are undergoing family troubles, we do not lower our standards for them – that they must get back on track as soon as possible.

 

These are not excuses; they are legitimate reasons. How do we distinguish? The above list is not at all exhaustive. We use a few rules of thumb: how fully was the choice within the child’s control? to what extent could they have chosen differently, and chosen better? Clear, strong guidance from the school is useful feedback to children about what society values: responsibility over irresponsibility, politeness over rudeness, self-discipline over laziness. Very, very occasionally, when there is almost nothing the kid could have done differently, we accept the explanation. Most often, mistakes and setbacks are opportunities to learn for next time. To err is human; to fully acknowledge (rather than to excuse) our weaker choices is the route to improving our lives.

 

As a school, we understand that such high standards without high support would be punitive. So we focus on how we can preemptively support and nurture our kids. We spend seven days in Year 7 induction teaching our children exactly how to meet our standards. Of course, we are still evaluating, improving and evolving these support mechanisms – and we are open to suggestions and ideas to strengthen the support that enables agency without risking dependency or learned helplessness.

 

High Support on Equipment

  • Provide pupils with a fully-stocked pencil case on their arrival in Year 7
  • Give pupils responsibility for replenishing the pencil cases as pens run out or ruler break, etc
  • Provide pupils and parents with checklists of all required equipment
  • Offer pupils with £10-£20 back-up packs that provide 1-3 years worth of supplies of all necessary equipment so they can restock at home without
  • Provide a school shop open before school every day, where all necessary equipment can be bought by children, at slightly subsidised prices as it can be bought in bulk by the school
  • Display equipment checklists on large, clear posters in every form room so that every pupil is crystal clear on precisely what equipment is necessary to bring in every day and there is no ambiguity
  • Simplify equipment requirements by having one simple, standard pencil case, to prevent expensive, competitive brand-war escalations between pupils and to reduce costs for all parents and children
  • Run equipment checks three times a week (or more) in morning form time to help pupils keep on top of their equipment
  • Send frequent letters home to parents with the required equipment checklist and reminders of the opportunity of back-up packs
  • Spend an entire lesson in induction on the expectations, consequences for equipment at the school, as well as tips for always being prepared and making optimal choices: packing bags the night before, self-checking and double-checking the night before, triple-checking in the morning using the home support checklist.
  • Ask elder siblings of those pupils with a few equipment detentions to support them to improve their habits of self-checking and double-checking the night before and in the morning
  • Remind pupils regularly in break and before school about their duty to arrive on time and well prepared to school

 

The reason why we expect no excuses at all for not bringing equipment is because we are always seeking to maximise support, responsibility and automatic habits for our pupils.

 

As a result, 99% of pupils bring in all equipment on an average day. Out of our 360 pupils, we have fewer than three 20-minute equipment detentions a day. Given that there are at least 10 pieces of equipment checked in our equipment check, that means that just 3 pieces on an average day are forgotten out of 3600: 99.9% pieces of equipment get brought in by pupils at Michaela every day, thanks to our high support for pupil habits.

 

High Support on Homework

  • provide a 7 day induction for Y7 with multiple opportunities to practise completing homework in school with plenty of feedback so pupils can meet our standards
  • dedicate a 60-minute lesson to explaining the exact expectations, consequences and top tips for completing homework
  • provide model examples of near misses that result in detentions for parents and pupils, so they know exactly how to avoid them
  • dedicate several practice sessions in the first week of school to completing homework at school so that all pupils are crystal clear on exactly what is required
  • simplify homework in Year 7 and 8 into one, streamlined practice book for all subjects so that pupils only have one book and one strategy to focus on: self-quizzing
  • run afterschool provision supervised by teachers for 90 minutes to allow all pupils to complete their homework
  • run lunchtime, afterschool and before school library with quiet space for pupils to complete homework for 120 minutes in total each day
  • provide supervised computer rooms for all pupils who do not have internet access at home to complete online homework
  • run termly big picture sessions on the importance of homework as a revision opportunity not as a burden
  • daily conversations to support pupils who regularly incur detentions with tutors & co-tutors
  • conversations to support parents whose children regularly incur detentions with middle and senior leaders
  • compulsory homework club for those who repeatedly struggle to complete their homework adequately
  • assembly announcements twice a week to recognise and celebrate those who have put the most time and effort into homework in the previous evening and over the holidays

 

The reason why we expect no excuses at all for not bringing homework is because we are always seeking to maximise support, responsibility and automatic habits for our pupils.

 

As a result, quality homework completion is over 95% from KS3 Michaela pupils. There is still much, much more to do to get closer to 100%, and to support and ensure all pupils can overcome their struggles to meet these standards, but because so few pupils do not complete their homework, it is far easier for teachers and tutors to intervene to support them.

 

High Support on Behaviour

  • provide a 7 day induction for Y7 without Year 8 or 9 so pupils can adapt to our high standards with the full attention of many teachers
  • hold Parent meetings with the Head before September to go over the home-school agreement in detail
  • teach all pupils politeness with the STEPS acronym: speak in full sentences, say thank you, excuse me, please and smile!
  • Teach all pupils what demerits are for
  • Teach all pupils how to respond to demerits and detentions
  • Teach all pupils how to behave in detention to avoid failing them and having to redo them
  • Teach all pupils how to enter and exit classrooms
  • Teach all pupils of how to actively listen and focus in lessons
  • Give a daily sermon to reiterate these teachings before school
  • Give daily reminders and reiteration of these teachings during mid-morning break
  • Give daily reminders and reiteration of these teachings during family lunch discussions on topics like self-discipline and integrity
  • Give twice-weekly assemblies from the head or senior team always focused on the ethos of excellent behaviour
  • Teach six 1-hour lessons to start each half-term focused on the family culture & reasons why our school is so strict
  • Give merits for pupils who make consistent efforts to work hard in lessons & at home, and to be kind around school
  • Give demerits given to remind pupils of the standards we expect: no distracting or disrupting lessons; no rudeness or bad reactions
  • Log these online to help teachers encourage those who struggle the most
  • Share a daily display of merits earned throughout the day shared with the form at the end of each day in tutor time
  • Offer a Friday football and Friday table tennis reward for those pupils with the best merit balance every week
  • Give Friday Commendations from the Head, nominated by tutors for the most improved tutees for behaviour, positivity etc
  • Hold regular tutor conversations with those who at first struggle to meet the high standards
  • Offer parents access to cumulative merit balance on online behaviour system, encouraged to have daily conversations with their children about reducing demerits and increasing merits
  • Send Friday emails to parents with their child’s merit balance for the week, term and year sent weekly
  • Show 6 reward films a year, one at the end of each half-term, for the 95+% of pupils who have a positive merit balance (more merits than demerits)
  • Provide subject revision instead of the reward film to the 5% of pupils who do not have a positive balance, to remind them to keep raising their standards until they are behaving positively and professionally
  • Write daily postcards from teachers and tutors to pupils to encourage them to improve
  • Hold tutor-tutee 1:1 conversations to encourage pupils who are struggling with any aspect of school
  • Hold Deputy Head conversations to guide and encourage pupils who are struggling most with any aspect of school
  • Invite parents of children who struggle to provide structure and support for their child to conversations with the Headteacher
  • Invite parents of children who arrive late, to conversations with the Headteacher
  • Hold Deputy Head inductions of children who arrive late
  • Station teachers on duty outside of school before and after school to keep children safe

 

The reason why we expect no excuses at all for disrupting others’ learning or being impolite is because we want our pupils to get into the best possible habits that will most help them succeed in life. High standards combined with high support changes kids’ lives.

 

If your school uses other support mechanisms that aren’t mentioned in these non-exhaustive lists, I’d love to hear about them. We have lots to learn and improve, and schools have been thinking hard about how to support their children for decades. When considering whether to implement support mechanisms, we think hard about impact-to effort ratio, always keeping staff workload and pupil responsibility in mind.

 

No excuses is not uncaring; it is the most caring ethos a school can adopt, because it refuses to indulge irresponsibility, empowers pupils to continually improve their choices, and nurtures in children the personal agency and consideration of others to live the most fulfilling lives for their long-term future.

 

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands