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Under Pressure

I’ve had two interesting conversations this year with some of our weakest pupils.

Fadekah is in Year 8. For all of Year 7 we despaired if she would even be able to pick and microwave her own meals, or complete routine tasks to earn a wage. She was a seriously spaced-out kid, if very sweet. She never did her homework, and would wear a dopey expression of “I’m cute and helpless and can’t do anything” when her form tutor chastised her for this. Sometimes she giggled if she was being told off. Everything seemed to pass her by. She struggled with the simplest of abstract concepts and didn’t know any times tables. She didn’t know the number before 1000 and seemed unable to remember it no matter how many times I told her. In lessons she did little work, grinning in a far-away manner if given a consequence for not working or not listening. I didn’t see how she could get a G, let alone a C, in Y11. I didn’t see how she could have a good future.

At the start of this year, I had her class again. On the first day she was the star of the lesson. That night she did her homework. And the next night, and the next. She came after school frequently to ask questions about what was learned and took copious notes recording explanations and tips I gave in lessons. Her test results are now typical of the class, despite finding the material difficult to grasp and often feeling confused by the work (Year 8 is mostly algebra). She never needs to be corrected in lessons for not listening or not trying; she is frequently pointed out as a role model. Her questions are insightful and thoughtful. Her homework is always early, she often does extra.

I asked at the end of September what had happened; why had she changed?

“I decided I wanted to do well. So I decided I would do my homework and do work in class.”

That was it. She had nothing to add to it. She just decided, and then she did it.

A colleague had a similar conversation with a similarly transformed pupil. His answer was simple “I decided I should try working instead of daydreaming and the work seems really easy now.”

Another girl in the same class, Jana, had appalling results in maths, and every other subject. She struggled to answer the most basic questions (How do you get home? What’s 4+10?). I assumed she must have a very low processing speed and a very limited working memory. Even an instruction like “pick up your whiteboard pens” seemed to be received on delay. I decided in November that being helpful and understanding wasn’t the right approach; she was getting less than 10% in year group exams where the average always exceeded 70%. I tried being tough. In lessons, if I asked a simple question which she couldn’t answer, and then told her the answer and asked again and she still couldn’t answer (i.e. hadn’t listened), she’d get a demerit. In many lessons she would get two demerits this way, meaning a detention. I was worrying that I was punishing a child who maybe had a fundamental problem.

At the start of this half term, she was different. She was answering everything. She was slightly slow, but her working was always clear and always led to good quality solutions. Her errors made sense and were typical of a Year 8 (i.e. she was doing as well as everyone else, making mistakes that reflected thought). Her hand was always up, provided there was thinking time. She asked good questions. She got lots of merits. I asked her what had changed.

“I realised that if I listen then I get it.”

I couldn’t tell if that delighted me or made me furious. But she has maintained the change, and has stopped looking worried and lost in lessons. She seems to enjoy maths and feel proud of what she produces. I suspect she won’t turn back.

These experiences underline for me how much of pupils’ underachievement, even where they seem like cognitive or social outliers, has a simple explanation. They are not listening properly, they’re not really thinking, and they’re hoping they can fly under the radar with minimal cognitive effort. They are not disrupting, but they are not learning. Their precious time at school is being squandered.

Few normal (i.e. non ‘bright’) pupils get good results, or have good life chances, if they stay stuck in this rut. Teachers need to motivate and inspire these pupils, but we also need to keep them under constant pressure to listen carefully, think deeply and feel accountable for their work, both on the page and in their brains. These are the strategies that we have come up with in the maths department (with lots of input from Olivia Dyer, the head of science).

Strategies for pushing more accountability onto the pupils

  1. After an explanation or example, posing questions that put the onus on the pupils to seek more help or clarification:
    • “Who needs me to explain that more?”
    • “Who would like to see another example?”
    • “Who needs me to say it in a different way?”
    • “Who needs me to ask them a question?”

2. No Opt Out (described in Teach Like a Champion). This comes into play when a pupil doesn’t know an answer to a question. Lemov describes well the why and the how. In summary:

a. Pupil A doesn’t know the answer

b. Tell them you will come back to them (eventually this can be dropped)

c. The answer/explanation is supplied

d. Go back to them

e. If correct: well done, you went from not knowing and answer to being able to say it (I know this is a shallow description of ‘knowing!’. It is the first of many steps…). If incorrect: give consequence for not listening / opting out

Levelling up: Narrate why it is important to listen carefully and be ready for the teacher to return to them. Encourage pupils to remind you to come back to them (by putting hands up politely), thanking them for reminding you and taking responsibility for being held accountable. Praise it as behaviour that shows they really want to learn.

  1. If a pupil looks a little spaced out, or often is a poor listener, saying “I am about to ask three/five questions. You’ll be picked for one of them.”
  2. Everybody answers: before you accept answers to a question, every pupil writes their answer down. This gives more thinking time to the slower thinkers. It also holds them accountable, as it is visible if a pupil is writing or not. This is common in maths with the use of whiteboards (provided there is a good routine in place for pupils to write the work in a secretive fashion and show it simultaneously, so that pupils can’t copy each other).
  3. Describe – and enforce – the body language you expect to see when you ask a question. These are the ones I typically expect and insist upon:

a. Looking at the question on the board, with an expression that shows ‘thinking’ (no vacant expressions). This is usually a focused or intense face. Some pupils faces really screw up their expression when they’re thinking, some look quite calm. This depends on you knowing your pupils, but the absence of focused thought is generally quite obvious.

b. Looking at the question on the page, with a thoughtful expression (as above).

c. Doing working on the sheet / whiteboard. In maths this is typically jottings for a calculation, or other things to relieve the burden on working memory.

d. Hand up, waiting to answer.

With some classes, I’ve said “If you stare vacantly at me once I’ve asked the question, instead of looking at the diagram, I will know you are wasting thinking time. That means we’ll have to wait for you, and is stealing time from the people who started thinking straight away.” I’ve moved to giving a demerit if they persist in it after the warning. That might seem harsh, but the explanation of why I do it means the pupils seem to find it very fair (it’s always palpable when pupils think something is unjust!) and the quality and pace of responses has jumped up. I wished I’d moved to this sooner.

6. Give more thinking time for questions. We all think we do it. We all know we don’t! A colleague pointed out that, for our many EAL pupils, they must hear the question, translate to their home language, think about it, decide an answer, translate back to English and THEN put their hand up. It also puts positive pressure on both teacher and pupils:

a. If more and more hands are gradually creeping up, the coasting pupils think “Yikes! Better think of an answer” as their non-participation is becoming obvious. If you really want to keep them on their toes, you can ask the 1-2 without hands up to tell you what the question was. If they know, but can’t answer, that’s fine. If they don’t know…make clear this means they are throwing away a chance to learn and to test themselves.

b. If the number of hands going up stops, you know the problem is probably you: you need to tell them again, and make it clearer. You also might need to improve the question, so it is also clearer.

7. Pause before asking for hands up. Give the thinking time, then say ‘hands up.’ This means many more hands go up at once (giving the message “It is normal to participate in this classroom” “It is normal to be eager to answer”) and slower pupils aren’t dispirited by their neighbour who has an answer before the teacher has finished speaking.

8. Show almost all of the question, but leave out the final element. This means no one can put hands up until you are ready, but they can begin thinking. For example, you could give this simplification: 4a3 x 5b? and leave the question mark blank for 5 seconds, allowing them to plan their answer for the rest of the question. This gives the slower thinkers time to catch up, and creates a slight element of drama when the number under the question mark is revealed.

9. For recaps when pupils seem unsure, give word starts:

“What is the name for a triangle with two equal lengths and two equal angles?”

[few hands]

“It begins with i…..”

[many hands] [take an answer]

Ask the question again

To be  clear, the strategy above isn’t helping them connect ‘isosceles triangle’ to the definition. It is probably only helping them to remember the name of a triangle that begins with i. But, it can be a good way for pupils to see they know more than they realise, and to build up their confidence. It also helps you see if the problem is remembering a word at all, or connecting it to a definition.

10. Reverse the question. If you’ve asked a question, like the isosceles one above, you can reverse it straight away: “Tell me two special features of an isosceles triangle.” Assuming you made sure that everyone listened to the first answer, it is now not acceptable to not know the answer. This makes clear to pupils that they need to really listen to your questions, not just jump to answers.

11. Interleave questions. If pupils are struggling to match together a word or procedure and its definition or process, or to explain a concept, you need to ask it several times. However, repeatedly asking the same question means pupils quickly start to parrot back sounds, rather than strengthen the connection between words and ideas. Interleaving the important question with other low-stakes facts that they know forces them to listen more carefully and to do more recall (rather than repetition). For example, if the key question is how to find the sum of angles in a polygon, you might mix it in with easier questions like “What does n stand for in the formula?” and “Which polygon has an angle sum of 180?” and “What is the formula for the area of a triangle?” This forces more thinking and practise of contrasting the new answer (the formula) with other faces that seem similar.

Make them accountable for helping you to check their understanding

The main challenge with pupils who are struggling is that they can be adept at disguising it. Many options for ‘whole-class AFL’ are technology heavy, or fiddly in one way or another. We like the following:

  1. Heads down, fingers up: if the groundwork is done, this can be a very quick way to check understanding. It works best for questions with two options (yes/no or true/false) but can be also for ‘answer 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.’

a. Pose a question (typically focused on misconceptions)

b. Give time to think and decide secretly on an answer

c. “Heads down!” Pupils put their heads down in the crook of their arms (to avoid a ‘thunk’ and bruised forehead!) and one hand resting on top of their head

d. The teacher calls each of the options and pupils raise their hand up a small amount (so the movement is imperceptible to their neighbours). It is important the teacher gives the same amount of time for each possible option, so as not to give away the answer. Counting to 4 in your head can help.

e. “Heads up!” …give them a few seconds to readjust to the light… Having their heads in the crook of their arms means they don’t get as zoned out as having it straight on the desk, which is also helpful!

2. Routines for whiteboards that keep answers secret from each other (described above). You must narrate why it is not only important not to look at others’ boards, but also why keeping one’s own board secret it essential. Narrate how it might seem kind to let someone see your answer, but it is in fact unkind as it stops them from getting the help they need.

3/ When answers are given on whiteboards, praise good-quality written explanation. For example, I will pick out and praise the clearest workings, showing them to the rest of the class and praising how it let me understand what they were thinking. A colleague encourages his pupils by intoning, in a very funny way “…let me see your brains.”

Levelling up: I have recently moved to giving pupils demerits if they show me the wrong answer with no working. This has made a huge difference in two ways: it means that children who are quick thinkers are forced to slow down, so the others aren’t intimidated or disheartened when they need more time. It also means I don’t waste time trying to guess where they went wrong. Full working allows me to quickly identify the point of error and give better feedback. Because this was narrated and ‘trialled’ for a lesson, the pupils who had demerits for this weren’t upset when they got a consequence and, more importantly, have changed their ways.

4. If you are faced with the problem of a big split between how many get it and how many don’t, and you feel bad for the ones ‘waiting around’ for the rest, you can try:

a. Writing up the exercise they will do once you judge they understand it

b. Posing a question to check competency/understanding, telling them to wipe their board quickly and start the exercise if you tell them they’re correct.

c. As you see each correct answer, saying simply ‘correct/well done/correct’ and letting them get on with it.

d. Get a show of hands of who has not started the exercise, then tell those pupils they are going to see more examples and be asked more oral questions. I find that, once I start on the re-teaching, many pupils then say “Oh! I get it now” and then they join in the written exercise, quickly narrowing down how many I am trying to help.

Laying the ground for purposeful written work

Strategies that I’ve tried and seen others use to good effect are:

  1. For short-form questions (i.e. those requiring only 1-2 steps), go through it first as an oral drill, cold calling pupils. Then, use it as a written exercise. There are several benefits: every pupil has had a chance to ask for clarification on questions where they don’t understand why that was the answer, or to note down hints to help them start it on their own; pupils can begin work quickly and in earnest, knowing that it is something they can do with more confidence; you get twice as much ‘bang for your buck’ with an exercise. This works best for things that are highly procedural, but I think it also works well for questions where the ‘way in’ must be found. If a good chunk of the exercise has been done orally, the written attempt will still require them to recall and decide how to begin.
  2. Drill on step 1: If the exercise is focused on decision-making (e.g. an exercise mixing all fraction operations, where the main challenge is that pupils muddle which procedure goes with different questions), it can be done as an oral drill just for step 1. For example, “For question a, what will you need to do? Find the LCD. Question b? Find the reciprocal and multiply.” This can be a lower-stakes version of the exercise to allow you to check how ready they are before embarking on the more extended task of completing the calculations.
  3. Before starting exercises, particularly more extended ones, or quite visual ones (e.g. an angle chase), give the pupils 30-60 seconds to scan for any that they think they don’t know how to start. Then, give hints and tips for those (depending on the pupils, you might model a very similar one on the board for them to look at when they get to it). This prevents you from running around from pupil to pupil as they encounter the problem, and gives them confidence when they get to it…and no excuse for just sitting there waiting instead of attempting it!
  4. If several pupils are struggling with the same thing, or asking the same question, or making the same mistake: STOP THE WORK! Make them all listen to the additional instruction, explanation or example. This prevents you from creating lots of low-level noise as you help others, and gives help straight away to them all.

Culture of Thinking: do I understand this?

The ideal situation is that pupils themselves are thinking deeply about what is being taught. This usually can be observed when they ask question in the form:

  • Did ____ happen because _____?
  • Is ____ like this because _______ is like that?
  • If that is the case, does that mean that ____ is the case?
  • Is this similar to the way that _____?
  • I thought that because _______ we couldn’t ________?
  • What happens if you try it with 0 / 1 / 2 / a negative number / a non-integer / a power?
  • I think there is a pattern in this. Is it __________?
  • Will the answer always be positive/negative/an integer/a multiple of __?
  • I have an idea to help remember it: ___________.

Praise such contributions! Narrate that this is the sort of thinking that makes someone good at your subject, and makes it stick as they are forming connections with other ideas. Their memories of the ideas will be richer and more powerful. You can also narrate how this is beneficial to the other pupils, and to you as a teacher, and express gratitude.

Culture of Thinking: What do I need if I want to succeed?

A good place to get to is if the pupils themselves identify what they need, and flag it up. This is usually seen with questions like “Could we try one first on whiteboards?” or “Could you show another example, please?” or “Could we do another question together before we begin writing?” This means they are really thinking about if they understand something (or, can complete a procedure) and aren’t relying on teacher validation. Things that can help to bring this about:

  • Narrating why you show examples
  • Narrating what you want them to think about when you explain things, or show examples
  • Narrating what they should annotate and why
  • Narrating why you are asking questions
  • Narrating what should be happening in their minds when they think about something

As above, narrate how this is beneficial to the other pupils. You can even say “Who is glad that ____ asked that? Next time you can be the person who everyone else is thanking, by being alert and giving me helpful advice.”

Miscellaneous suggestions

  1. Choral response is nice to deploy to help practice new and difficult pronunciations (combustibility, hypotenuse, consecutive, and so on). It is utterly pointless otherwise, unless it is being used to make pupils think. Choral response is great for an oral drill for questions like,
    1. a1 = ?
    2. a0 = ?
    3. 1a = ?
    4. 0a = ?

…but is pointless if they are simply repeating sounds. It needs to help them put ideas together, or be a low-stakes way to practise recall of facts or saying tricky words.

2. Use as many memory aids and links as you can. They more ways that pupils can recall something and know that they are remembering correctly, the better. There is no use in a pupil correctly recalling the process to find the median if they doubt they have it correct. That is nearly as bad as not remembering at all, as it will feel futile to proceed. Even the weirdest memory aids can be valuable: my Y9s suggested remembering median with two prompts: (1) think of it as medIaN, because it is IN the middle, and (b) it sounds like medium, and medium is the middle size. These are not sophisticated, but it allows them two have two ways to recall the process, and two ways to feel they are on the right path.

3. Set a goal for the lesson. Our deputy head described this as being what a learning objective was meant to be (as opposed to exercise in the time-wasting that can be seen – and enforced – in many classrooms today). I sometimes start the lesson by silently modelling an example of the kind of question I hope they’ll be able to do by the end, then putting a very similar question right by it. This will be on the left of the whiteboard. Then I use the remainder of the whiteboard during the lesson. Often I can be only 15 minutes into the lesson before (some) pupils’ hands shoot up, thinking they know how to answer the ‘goal question.’ This puts positive pressure on the others, as it gives the message “We’ve been taught enough to be able to do this! You need to keep up!” and lets pupils feel smart, and feel intellectually rewarded, for paying careful attention.

4. Have a set of stock phrases to denote things that REALLY matter and make them feel motivated to push themselves mentally. Olivia, our head of science, uses phrases such as

“I’ll bet my bottom dollar this will be on your GCSEs”

“This is the sort of question that only pupils who get an A* can do”

“Pupils who master this always find A level much easier”

I hope these strategies are useful to you. We are trying everything we can to get 100% of our pupils to do well in their GCSEs (and generally, be smart and confident people), so would love to hear about other approaches. These strategies are, of course, in the context of a school culture that celebrates curiosity, a love of learning and the belief that hard work is the path to success. This post focused on some behaviourist strategies, which we believe are the most efficient and effective approach, but in the bigger picture we focus on goals for the future and the instrinsic motivation of being an educated and confident person.

If you find it exciting to think about strategies to motivate and challenge children who often fall behind, consider joining us. Our ad is on the TES, or you can visit our website. You can also email me on dquinn [at] mcsbrent.co.uk if you want to know more.

Scaling Mount Improbable: King’s Wimbledon

What can we learn from a top private school?

kcs

King’s College School Wimbledon is one of the most academically successful schools in the world. 96% of pupils achieve A*-A at GCSE, and 41 pupils gained A*s in every one of their exams. 25% of their pupils achieved 45 in the International Baccalaureate, which put them in the top 1% globally. 56 pupils won places at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In October, I went to visit.

On a bus on the way just before 8am, I overheard a conversation between two King’s boys. They were practising speaking in Russian for a test. They were learning this as an extra-curricular language and preparing for a trip to Moscow at Easter.

Mount Improbable

It would be easy to dismiss Kings’ results as impossible for us in the state sector to replicate: their expensive fees, high funding, lucrative facilities, academic selection, high-achieving-only intake, highly invested parents. They own a cricket pavilion, expansive playing fields, a swimming pool and even a boathouse on the Thames that they share with Cambridge University. State schools will never have the money, intake or facilities that they have.

Eiger.png

Nevertheless, there is so much that can be learned from Kings, and other private schools, if we approach them in the spirit of an abundance mentality. Their success need not detract from our own in the state sector, but can contribute if we seek out ideas that could help us improve. Here are some of the ideas that I learned from my visit.

  1. Rigorous academic and cultural curriculum

At Kings, pupils study complex Maths and Science from a young age, challenging literature, sweeping narrative history, theology through scripture, Latin, philosophy, fine art, classical music and theatre written by the greatest dramatists the world has ever seen. The rigour is sky-high. Offering the International Baccalaureate at sixth form forces pupils to study a broad academic curriculum: you cannot give up Maths, English, Science, Humanities or a Language until 18. Michael Merrick puts it beautifully in his post about a year growing up in a private school:

‘We were not only exposed to high culture, but completely immersed in it, day after day, as the backdrop and foreground within which our development took place. Here, aesthetics was not a cerebral pursuit for ageing dons – it permeated everything, and infused us with a sense of awe and humility that forced the eyes, even the soul, to look upwards in its educational pursuits. We were encouraged to reach for the stars, not future salary scales. This exposure to high culture [showed] an instinctive commitment to and formation within a higher aesthetic.This is uneasy and unfamiliar territory for many (but by no means all) of us in the state sector.

  1. Simple traditional instruction

Teachers teach didactically and unashamedly from the front, and lessons are heavily teacher-led; pupils sit in rows facing the front; textbooks, exercise books and pens are the default technology, even up to sixth form; simplicity is the watchword: in English, the main resource is simply class texts. The tasks tackle extended subject practice with limited variety: reading, writing, comparing examples, noting, discussing and summarising. For many veteran teachers at King’s, this seemed to be straightforward, no-nonsense common sense.

  1. Culture of hard graft

The message that hard work is the only way to succeed is everywhere: in every assembly, pupils give a musical performance, and then explain how hard they had to work to practice, persevere and resist the temptation to give up; in every lesson, the focus is on thinking hard about the subject and maximising pupil cognitive work on tasks; every evening, pupils and parents are clear that they are expected to produce two hours of homework. Hard graft is celebrated and admired.

  1. Writing guidance

Teaching writing is heavily guided, even up to sixth form. In History, for instance, starting point sentences are shared for each paragraph of complex essays on new material. Extensive written guidance is shared with pupils. Sub-questions within each paragraph and numerous facts are also shared.

  1. Examples as feedback

Excellent examples are continually shared as feedback. In English, the best essay is photocopied, handed out and meticulously annotated so that others begin to internalise the mental models of success. Exemplars, combined with redrafting, are the simplest way for teachers to give guidance on how to improve.

  1. Thesis statements

Introductions are the vehicle of choice for improving essay writing. One-sentence thesis statements are set out to frontload and signpost the essay, and this is taught from Year 9. They are very easy to share and compare. A bank of exemplar thesis statements can therefore be built up, with teachers collecting lots of excellent pupil examples.

  1. Homework

Extensive homework is set at two hours a night in Year 9. In History and English, extensive written homework is set, collected, marked and returned. Over the holidays, two 2-page essays were expected of Year 10 over the week-long half-term. It was simply scored out of the same denominator (i.e. always out of 25) for comparability. Massive amounts of rigorous, independent subject practice are being done by King’s pupils, which sets them up to achieve A*s.

  1. Competitions

Pupils frequently enter national subject competitions such as Oxbridge essay prizes. There are sports fixtures, choir and orchestra performances, music concerts, drama performances and debating contests organised throughout the year. 

  1. Kindness

Form tutors go over King’s kindness commitment every term, and it is in every pupil planner. A culture of kindness is seen as a collective responsibility.

 KingsKindness.png 

  1. Pupil Leadership

Sixth formers mentor and teach youngsters in Key Stage 3. Sixth former had set up their own drama club, for instance, and produced and performed their own plays. Captains are appointed for sports, debating and general knowledge teams. Prefects are also appointed to take on leadership roles in the school.

When I was there, I asked several pupils what they most liked about the school. All said similar things: ‘the atmosphere: everyone gets on here’, and variations on that theme.

None of these things is irreplicable for a state school; they do not rely on extensive funding or a selective intake. Any school in the state sector can learn from these ambitious, common-sense practices that could help us improve the education we give to our pupils. The challenge for us is to show that scaling Mount Improbable is not impossible.

Posted on January 14, 2017 by Jo Facer

Second Year (or: desperate for a scholarship)

The summer after first year was filled with work – paid work, and library work. I was surviving on five or six hours of sleep a night and spending the day in the university library. I spent the summer in Dublin so I could keep up my job and my library schedule intact. I read for my courses, and I read for my soul. I read all of Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I still loved reading. My first year results were good. I didn’t get a first, but neither did anyone else on my course for that year, so I felt like I had done well. I won a prize for one of my courses, but when I went to collect it they said that it had already been issued and they couldn’t give it to me again. It had been book tokens. They re-printed the certificate, though, which I kept as a reminder that I was not, contrary to how I felt, stupid.

I had worked all summer so that I would not have to work during the first part of the year. The scholarship exams were in April, and term started in October. I had seven months to win the scholarship, and €100 a week to get me there, after rent. For lunch in my first year, I had bought a cup of boiling water (€0.35) and mixed a packet of powder soup into it. This year, I could buy a scone with jam (€1) for lunch. Life was good.

But studying for the scholarship exams was tough. You had to re-learn everything from the first year, including things I hadn’t especially understood the first time around, plus everything in the second year, including courses that hadn’t yet been taught. I went about it the only way I knew how. I read everything, learned quotes for everything, read critics’ essays and learned quotes from them. Somewhere along the way, I had lost any idea of having a critical thought myself.

While I ploughed the bibliographical furrows most the day, the lectures were increasingly disconnected from anything I had ever thought about literature, and the seminars left me feeling more and more out of my depth. I could not have spent more time in the library, but my ideas were all wrong. I had to give a presentation in one seminar. About halfway through my five pages of painstakingly prepared notes, the seminar leader interrupted me, shaking her head and saying, ‘no, no, no! You have got it all wrong. You haven’t thought about it at all.

I had read all the books, but couldn’t understand a thing. It was the intellectual equivalent of ‘all the gear, no idea.’

That said, I felt confident when the exams came around. I couldn’t help but feel confident. No-one else had spent the whole summer in the library. Some people had only started putting serious library time in from January. But I had always been in the library, and, like the slow and steady tortoise, I thought that would work. More than that – it had to work. I had to win the scholarship, and be free from financial stress; be able to eat lunch with my friends who I would surely make and keep when I could go out with them occasionally or buy them a coffee in return for the ones they had bought me. I went into that exam hall – huge and daunting, decked with immense portraits. I had my exam rituals and my lucky pens. I had read everything.

Immediately after the scholarship exams ended, I contracted the worst illness I’ve ever had. My body completely collapsed. But I had to work. With high fever, I worked two jobs under a ‘trial’ basis, only able to keep my tips. I collapsed and was sent home from one, and I stayed in bed and didn’t show up to the other one, which I had forgotten I had.

The day of the announcement came, and I had never been more nervous. I had managed to get a new job, and skilfully managed to get the day off. I silently hoped I would not return to the job, but would spend out my ‘emergency fund’ the rest of the year, safe in the knowledge my rent was paid for the following two years, and more if I did a PhD as I dreamed I would. I remember hanging around the English department with another hopeful before the ceremony started. The Head of English came out, and stopped. He looked at my friend. ‘You’re Tom,’ said the Head of English. ‘I am,’ he replied. The Head of English nodded and continued walking. He hadn’t said anything to me. That’s when I first thought: maybe I haven’t won it.

As it turned out, neither of us had. The long list of names was read out, and I stood with the others at the back of the hall, increasingly despondent. Afterwards, we crowded to the board to see our results. All the English hopefuls, five of us, had got 2.1s – enough to not have to take the summer exams that year. But none of us had reached the magic first – the 70% needed to secure a scholarship. The Head of English sidled up to us. ‘No Scholars in English this year,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a real shame.’ Given that he had marked the papers, we felt his expressing this sentiment was a little inconsiderate.

In the two months after finding out I hadn’t won a scholarship and was exempt from all exams, I both worked and slacked. I did not go to lectures. I did not go to seminars. I did not go to the library. I did, however, go to the university newspaper. I met some people and started to write. I hung around and hoped I could find a place there.

Next week, I will write about my third year at university.

You can read about my first year at university here.

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.

 

***

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.