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Team Mentality

Posted on November 19, 2016 by Jo Facer

 

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

Western society prioritises individual achievement. Many of us spend our lives in this paradigm, and Western society applauds us for doing so. We are focused on ourselves: what grades can I achieve in my exams? What kind of degree can I get? How impressive can my first job after University be?

And teachers are not immune to this. We are surrounded by people climbing the ladder, reaching for the stars; young headteachers are showcased by the media and applauded. We are programmed to aspire and to achieve.

I’ve written before about why I chose to join Michaela. Doing so meant stepping out of the ‘ladder’ mentality: I was an assistant headteacher in two schools prior to becoming a Head of Department here.

But it also meant stepping out of the ‘individual achievement’ paradigm. Before I began, I thought: ‘let’s see how fast I can be promoted.’ But when I started, I realised that I was in utterly the wrong paradigm. It wasn’t about me anymore. In fact, it had never been about me to begin with.

When weighing up the decision to join Michaela, Katharine gave me some honest options: ‘if you want to be a headteacher quickly, stay where you are. You’re not going to be a head fast if you come with us. In fact, it will slow you down.’ How badly did I want to be a headteacher? Really badly. But why? I wanted to change the lives of thousands, not hundreds, of children. But was that all? Or did I also want the ‘glory’? The responsibility, the excitement of being in charge?

I forced myself to face reality. Would I be ready to be a headteacher in five years? Or maybe even less? What kind of mistakes was I liable to make if I was promoted too quickly? How many people – adults, children – would suffer because of my ambition?

At Michaela, it’s not about me – it’s about the team. And that is, of course, how it is in other schools, for people who have left behind their ego, as I have learned to. I may not go fast, but it’s not about that. We, as a team, will go far. Together, we can accomplish what I could never do on my own. How could I make an extraordinary science curriculum, as Olivia Dyer has done? What do I know about Geography, History and Religion? Nothing compared to Jonny Porter. I took A-level French, but I don’t have a hope of teaching people to teach languages like Barry Smith and Jess Lund. And Maths? I can barely add up without using my fingers to count. Dani Quinn has a degree from Oxford. I don’t even know the first thing about how to teach grammar, and I’m an English teacher with a degree in English! I need Katie Ashford.

At Michaela, I’ve stopped focusing on what I can get, and started thinking about what I can give. When I have extra capacity, I ask Katharine what other parts of school life I can contribute to. That’s why I have had the opportunity to help to shape our CPD sequence, which I write about in our forthcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I’ve been able to do so much more in a school where everyone works as a team, and the impact on the kids is beyond belief. With all of us ‘rowing together,’ the boat gets a lot further.

Our book is a great example of this. Individually, the teachers at Michaela write a whole heap of brilliant blogs. But this book is more than one person’s perspective. Instead, it is the perspective of twenty people, who all contribute to make our wonderful school the happy, productive place it is. We are a team, and team beats individual every time.

 

Posted on July 9th, 2016 by Jo Facer

Review of the year


In September 2015, I did not envision where I would be by July 2016. I had just joined a big academy as an Assistant Head. I hoped I would have made some positive changes, changed some minds, and have settled into my job happily. In reality, I left that school after one short (but very happy) term, because I realised that if I missed the chance to join Michaela Community School in its early stages, I would massively regret it for the rest of my life.

Do I regret it? Not a jot. But when I think back on this year, the high points are very very different from what I thought they would be.

A major high-point has been reading. At Michaela, I get to read constantly. With my classes, I have read Romantic and Victorian poetry, The Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Medea,Macbeth, Frankenstein and Northanger Abbey since January, along with other non-fiction and short extracts. With my tutor group, I’ve read Dracula, Wonder, Gulliver’s Travels,Boy, The Three Musketeers (very much abridged!), and Gombrich’s A History of the World. Then with reading group, I’ve read The Secret Garden, Farenheit 451, Matilda, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Educating Rita, An Inspector Calls and Pride and Prejudice. I spend the last hour of my day reading with children. There is nothing better in the world. I’ve also found more and more time to read myself, in the evenings and on weekends. Gone are the weekends and evenings of frantic work. Some weekends, I have spent the whole time just reading novel after novel after novel – my idea of paradise!

My tutor group have been an absolute highlight. When I was first told I would have a one, I was secretly disappointed. I’d always found it hard to manage a group of children I saw for 15 minutes a day. But having tutor time for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, coupled with the reading programme, has meant that I have really been able to bond with mine, and after a half term or holiday, it is their faces I long to see on the first day back. They were in terrible habits when I picked them up (and at Michaela, that means they tended to look over their shoulders a lot and whisper when they thought I wasn’t looking – we are very strict!), but they have really settled into a lovely group of young people who can have a laugh and ‘Slant’ the next second (‘slant’ is our acronym to remind pupils to sit up straight and track the speaker).

I’ve improved my teaching immeasurably. I’ve had constant feedback throughout the year. We don’t have strict structures of feedback, so I’ve had feedback from deputy headteachers, other heads of department, teachers and teacher fellows. In a place of no egos, you take advice from everyone, and it makes everyone better at their jobs. I’ve not had a formal observation since joining Michaela, but I (along with every member of staff, including the kitchen and office staff) have had a sit down (with biscuits) with the Headmistress, Katharine, who spent much of the time asking me what she could do to better support me, and if I was happy.

I can’t express how amazing it has been to work with the best minds in our profession: I can’t begin to list the things I have learned from my colleagues, in particular Katharine, Katie, Joe, and Jonny. Our debate at City Hall created conversations and challenges, exactly as hoped. We are all writing a book together about the ideas of Michaela, and I’m so proud to be a part of that (do come to our event in November when we launch it!). What feels like hundreds of visitors have come into my classroom since January, some respected colleagues from Twitter, and hearing their comments and challenges has been really helpful for me in thinking over what we do and why. I’ve also had some brilliant exchanges with people on Twitter. Challenge allows me to clarify my thinking, and often to hone and improve what I do. It feels like it is an exciting time to be in education, and Michaela is an exciting place to be.

Of course, it has not all been rainbows and sunshine. I’ve lost out on being part of an exciting turn-around school, and I’ve let down the colleagues, and even friends, I made there. I can guarantee I will never be welcome to work for one particular academy chain again. The guilt of that decision has not yet begun to fade. But we can’t expect to make everyone happy when we make a difficult choice. There are new vistas, new horizons, before us, and we’re only at the very beginning.

Posted on June 4th, 2016 by Jo Facer

What can schools learn from successful communities?

Amy Chua (of ‘Tiger Mother’ fame) and Jed Rubenfeld have analysed outlier communities in the USA and distilled what they have learned into a readable tome called ‘Triple Package: what really determines success.’ The book provides a fascinating insight into what makes particular communities successful, but I think it can also lend its insights to schools. After all, every school is a community: how can we create the conditions within our schools to leverage the success in our community felt by those outlier groups in society?

The three conditions found across a variety of outlier groups are:

The three conditions found across a variety of outlier groups are:

  1. A superiority complex (‘a deeply internalised belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority’)
  2. Insecurity (‘The paradoxical premise of this book is that successful people tend to feel simultaneously inadequate and superior.’)
  3. Impulse control (or ‘the ability to resist temptation’)

One example group given are the Mormons: this group represent 1.7% of the US population, but are dominate in politics and business, with a few representatives breaking through in the creative arts (such as Stephanie Meyer of ‘Twilight’ fame). The roll call of successful Mormons is quite extraordinary, and Chua and Rubenfeld explain it in their possession of the ‘Triple Package’: while Mormons consider themselves a ‘chosen people’, they are also broadly rejected, ridiculed and side-lined by society (see: ‘The Book of Mormon’). Their church also inculcates a deeply ingrained work ethic, among other ways, by a two-year ‘mission’: ‘While other American eighteen-year-olds are enjoying the binge-drinking culture widespread on college campuses, Mormons are working six days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, dressed in white shirt and tie or neat skirt, knocking on doors, repeatedly being rejected and often ridiculed.’ Other successful groups explored in depth in the text include Indian, Iranian, Nigerian, Cuban and Lebanese immigrant groups.

Here are some ways schools could harness each ‘Triple Package’ element for the benefit of their pupils:

Superiority

Like Mormons, ‘Jewish children were raised hearing… that they were God’s chosen people’. Their ‘outsider’ status (of which more below) instils a ‘chip on the shoulder;’ an ‘I’ll show them’ mentality. Although ‘superiority complexes are hard to maintain… All the forces of assimilation work against it,’ nonetheless it is worth cultivating a superiority complex in our schools. How do we do this?

We could repeatedly tell our kids they are special; different. In every school I’ve worked at teachers give pupils this message in a variety of ways – the most successful schools get their pupils to feel a sense of huge pride that they wear their school’s uniform, and not, for example, the school across the road. In my first school there was always a sense that you were different to others in the community because you went to our school. It helped that the school was massively oversubscribed, Ofsted Outstanding, with amazing results at GCSE and A-level. Other schools may have to try different methods to achieve similar results. At Michaela, we overtly tell our pupils: ‘you are not normal. You are Michaela.’ We want them to feel like the chosen people: by virtue of the school they attend, they are different, and destined for greatness.

Insecurity

The tension of the ‘Triple Package’ comes in ensuring superiority and insecurity are present; for the Jews, the obvious motivator of centuries-old anti-Semitism comes into play massively, as Chua and Rubenfeld refer to the ‘fear for their survival’ playing into a drive to do well. Another wildly successful group of over-achievers are Asian Americans, who ‘regularly report low self-esteem despite their academic achievements. Indeed, across America, they report the lowest self-esteem of any racial group even as they rack up the highest grades’ (the authors share one anecdote that: ‘Conversations at the dinner table read like status updates of outstanding Asian kids our family know. So-and-so’s son just got into Stanford…’).

Conversely, ‘Children brought up in self-esteem centred schools and families are not taught to endure hardship or to persevere in the face of failure. They’re sheltered from disappointment and rejection by devoted, exhausted parents who monitor their every move, desperate to make their kids feel “special”.’

What, as a school community, can we do to mimic this insecurity? In some ways, this is an easier feat for schools who are not Ofsted Outstanding, or who do not have the results to back up their superiority message. Such schools are the ultimate underdogs, seeking entry to the mainstream with the proof of their results.

At Michaela, we remind pupils that they have a long way to go. We are honest with them: pupils at private schools have parents who are paying up to £30,000 a year for their education: you can bet they will come out with some terrific results, and statistically they do. If our pupils slack or misbehave, we remind them of the consequences; when they don’t do their homework we tell them about their boarding school peers who simply do not have an opportunity to not do homework. Even within class, we can drive pupil insecurity by pointing out the gap between their effort and their more successful peers. Pupils need to be afraid: someone, somewhere else, is doing better than them. They need to raise their game.

Impulse Control

Most educators are familiar with the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’: children are told they can eat the marshmallow now, or wait and be rewarded with two. The children who are patient, who have ‘impulse control’, ‘go on to get better grades; spend less time in prison; have fewer teenage pregnancies; get better jobs; and have higher incomes.’ Interestingly, this test was re-run in 2012, with an addition: some pupils experienced an unreliable interaction with an adult prior to the test; so an adult told them they would bring them crayons to play with but didn’t follow through. Those children were then much more likely to eat the marshmallow straight away, not trusting that the adult would follow through on their ‘two marshmallows’ promise.

This is of interest because our pupils from poorer backgrounds have come to distrust the system, and ‘if people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded – if they don’t think that people like them can really make it – they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfaction in hopes of future gain.’ In many schools, we are battling with an ingrained distrust of the values and possibilities we present to parents.

Yet we know from many studied that ‘willpower and grit prove to be better predictors of grades and future success than did IQ or SAT scores;’ and that ‘IQ is not a complete predictor of success. IQ without motivation lies fallow.’ The authors remind us that ‘impulse control is like stamina. If you ran five miles every few days for several months, you’d build up stamina, which would allow you not only to run farther, but to perform all sorts of unrelated physical tasks better than you could before… If people are made to do any impulse-controlling task – even as simple as getting themselves to sit up straight – on a regular basis for even a few weeks, their overall willpower increases.’

At Michaela, our pupils are instructed to sit up straight in every lesson, and can be issued with demerits for turning around or slouching in their seats. The impulse control ingrained through this one simple policy is extraordinary: visit our school, and you will see 100% of pupils sitting up straight for six solid hours a day, facing the front, rarely speaking, listening to their teachers and writing. Hands are raised to contribute to the lesson, but a pupil may speak only twice in an hour’s lesson; perhaps less in some (though much more in others). Despite this, pupils wait patiently with hands raised to speak, and calling out is prohibited. Homework and holiday homework is set through centralised systems which ensure very nearly 100% compliance and 100% of non-compliant children being issues with a sanction. Firm consequences reinforce positive habits and develop our pupils’ impulse control.

If we can harness each of these elements, superiority, insecurity and impulse control, we create pupils who know they are special, need to prove themselves, and develop the will-power and dedication to persevere despite difficulties. Such pupils, I believe, will become the outlier overachievers of our school system. But perhaps, after all, it is better to steer clear of the extremes set out in this survey, and rather focus on their calmer, simpler cousins: quiet confidence, humility and work ethic.

English – 14.05.2016 – Lean In

16 May 2016, Posted by admin in Michaela's Blog

Posted on May 14, 2016 by Jo Facer

Lean In

Here are some things I have been told over the past seven years, intended as well-meaning career advice from fellow women:

‘Get as high up the career ladder as fast as you can. Once you have children, that’s it. You’re not getting promoted.’

 

‘Have children before you’re thirty if you can. Or as close to thirty as possible. It’s so much harder after thirty.’

 

‘Everything changes when you have kids. Your priorities change. You won’t care as much about your career after.’

 

Since watching the Saudi Arabian film ‘Wadjda’ when first moving to London, I became interested in broadening my outlook. The film alerted me to the savage inequalities women face across the globe, and prompted me to read into the genre of ‘feminist literature.’ I learned that women are less likely to reach the top of their professions, are overwhelmingly saddled with domestic burdens, are judged by their looks, pressured to conform to a socially acceptable appearance, and then treated inappropriately when they did. The picture seemed bleak, and, like Katie Ashford argues, perhaps too much focus on the evils of patriarchy actually disempowers women.

For me, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ was a revelation. The focus of this book is not on the passive: ‘what is happening to women?’ but on the active: ‘what can we do to succeed against the odds?’ Here are the lessons I learned:

Be ambitious: there are not enough women leaders, and the solution is to become a female leader. Society might judge you for your ambition (how many women have experienced, as I have, leaving a job for a promotion to have the word ‘ambitious’ spat at you like it is a dirty word?); cultivate it anyway.

Be present: too many women suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.’ Be confident that you deserve to be a voice which is heard. Some of the best feedback I received after an unsuccessful interview was: ‘don’t be afraid to tell us what you really think. You’re asked a question, we want to hear your answer.’ Underlying my reticence was possibly the ‘why do they care what I think?’ Such an attitude holds us back.

Be likeable: unfortunately, successful women are not as liked. This is a horrifying truth: blind tests of the same CV with the name changed from ‘Howard’ to ‘Heidi’ showed that among subjects of both genders, the woman was considered less likeable than the man. Assertive women are ‘aggressive,’ ‘bossy.’ Mentioning previous successes in an interview actually makes you less likely to be hired, but only if you are a woman. This is awful, but perhaps we need to just be aware and play this game to our advantage: be likeable, get the job.

Be decisive: when Sandberg was offered a lower-level job at Google in the company’s early days, she took it, even though it was a demotion. She cites the CEO telling her: ‘if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.’ Rather than scrambling up the ladder, not looking around you, sometimes you take a different path: after all, in the rush to achieve we are not always contributing the most we can in the most innovative ventures.

Be honest: great communication is predicated on honesty. How often do we (not just women) side-step the truth because it is difficult? A culture of candour respects the truth of all parties, it looks to listen and understand, but not refrain from confronting hard truths on all sides. Sandberg writes: ‘“How can I do better?” What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?” These questions can lead to so many benefits,’ despite how painful it is to hear such truths.

Be committed: Sandberg cites examples of women who ‘leave before they leave,’ mentally committing to the family and children they, in some cases, do not even have; turning down promotions because they worry about balancing work and home. She sees this as one reason women choose to not return to work after having children: their jobs just were not challenging enough.

Be savvy: Or, in Sanberg’s words, ‘Make your partner a real partner’: choose to be with someone who supports you in your career. A partner who insists you do 100% of the chores and take 100% of the children’s sick days yourself and raise each child 100% alone is not someone who can support you to achieve your full potential. Choose wisely!

Work harder: Sandberg outlines just how hard it is to be a great mother and great in the office, and admits you will be unlikely to excel equally in both. For Sandberg, it becomes about ‘guilt management’ and understanding that, for a short time, you will always feel like you are failing in one or both spheres. But what can you do about that? Just keep working harder. And, presumably, accepting help!

Support each other: Women are too often each other’s worst critics. We need to champion each other, support each other, and celebrate each other’s successes. We need to team together, not cut each other down from the sidelines.

So, back to those questions which have haunted me:

‘Get as high up the career ladder as fast as you can. Once you have children, that’s it. You’re not getting promoted.’

 

‘Have children before you’re thirty if you can. Or as close to thirty as possible. It’s so much harder after thirty.’

 

‘Everything changes when you have kids. Your priorities change. You won’t care as much about your career after.’

Like men, I need to be in no rush to achieve. This self-focused approach will not allow me to learn the most or contribute the most in education. There is no rush, because children need to happen at the right time, not because the ‘thirty alarm’ has gone off. And perhaps everything will change, and perhaps I won’t care about my career. But that may be as much a societal construct as the expectation that I wear make-up and high heels and my male partner does not. Ultimately: none of these are comments a man would receive. None of these are worries a man would have. We need to reject these worries: gender should not be what defines us.

Posted on May 8, 2016 by Katie Ashford

CPD for Knowledge Fans

CPD has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares. At the end of a long day, the last thing I would choose to do is spend an hour sitting around discussing questioning strategies for closing the pupil premium gap, or messing about with Bloom’s Taxonomy card sorts, or worse– trawling through reams of data. Utterly soul-destroying stuff.

Since joining Michaela, I have not had to sit through anything close to this. In the English department, our CPD is focused around improving our subject knowledge. Under the guidance of our exceptional Head of English, Jo Facer, I have learned lots about the texts we teach, which has dramatically improved my teaching. Here are three things we do as a department to improve our subject knowledge.

Annotation

We meet each week for an hour to discuss our upcoming lessons (which have been planned and resourced in advance). We all arrive to the meeting with the lesson content (poems/ book chapters/ grammar exercises, etc.) pre-annotated so that we have lots to discuss. Jo leads the meeting, and she goes through a few key points that need to be drawn out, focused on or developed in the lesson. We then branch out into a discussion about some of the texts, sometimes driven by our particular specialisms or interests. The aim is to deepen our understanding of the content. We all add to our annotations as the discussion progresses, building on each other’s points. Another aim is to consider possible misconceptions and alert our attention to things that pupils may struggle with. For example, Jo might point out some ambiguous vocabulary, or clarify, ‘make sure they don’t get x confused with y here’. It’s really, really useful, and it means that every teacher in the department spends a lot of time thinking deeply about the content.

Memorisation

At Michaela, pupils carry out memorisation for homework every night. The aim of this is for every child to learn the most crucial knowledge to automaticity. Teachers at Michaela also work hard to memorise the same knowledge by heart. I’ve found this tremendously useful. If I find my class packed up, standing behind their chairs a few minutes before the bell, I can quickly quiz them on a few things without having to scramble around and look for a sheet of paper. It also means that I know what they know, down to the precise definition they have been taught for each concept. I have found that having a shared language for such things to be invaluable.

We also learn quotations and poetry off by heart. Again, it’s lovely to be able to refer to this shared language regularly with kids. For example, I often say things like ‘Come on, team, we need to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run!’ or ‘You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul! Don’t let yourself down!’

We sometimes have knowledge tests in our weekly English meetings, which is good because it holds me to account! When there are a million things to do, learning Macbeth quotes might slip down the priority list; knowing you’ll be tested on it in a week’s time is a good motivator!

Reading

Of course, relying on the above is not enough. Teachers should always be a long way ahead of their pupils in terms of subject knowledge. As a non-English graduate, I feel particularly paranoid about this from time to time. This is another area in which Jo Facer and Joe Kirby have been brilliantly supportive and helpful: they have recommended various books and articles for each unit we teach, and in some cases, have furnished us with helpful abridgements! All of this has really helped to enrich my understanding of the curriculum.

If you want teachers to teach knowledge, then shaping CPD around the content they will be teaching is a good place to start. Of course, this isn’t going to help teachers get better at managing behaviour, nor will it directly improve their pedagogy, but it does help to focus their minds on their subjects. Sadly, subject knowledge gets pushed to the sidelines in many schools, often because of pressures surrounding data or exams or moderation, etc., and whilst those things are important, they shouldn’t eclipse our subjects, because our subjects, after all, are what we are here to teach.

Posted on May 2, 2016 by Jonathan Porter

Michaela Summer Projects

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Michaela is a free school, which opened in September 2014. It is a mixed community secondary school in Brent for pupils aged 11-18 of all backgrounds. We believe that an elite education based upon traditional values should be within the reach of every child. Our school motto is ‘knowledge is power’. Pupils joining us promise to ‘work hard, be kind’. Lots of our teachers are bloggers and take an active interest in debating educational practice. Watch a video of the school or read some of our blogsto get a better sense of the things that we talk about.

What is the project?

This summer, we would like to offer teachers the opportunity to assist in the design of our innovative curriculum. The curriculum will recognise the central role of knowledge and memory for learning, and will draw on insights from cognitive science and educational research. In the project, you will help plan, create and evaluate lessons and resources for our key stage 3 curriculum. At the top of this page, you can see one of the booklets we’ve made to improve our pupils’ location knowledge. You will be working with our team to help make curriculum resources like this. We welcome applications from anyone with interests in maths, English, science, languages, history, geography, religion, philosophy and the arts.

What experience do I need for the role?

The ideal candidate for this role will:
-have experience of teaching in schools in challenging circumstances;
-believe that all pupils, regardless of prior attainment or socioeconomic background, can achieve excellence.
-be aware of the implications of the research around explicit instruction and memory on classroom practice
-be eager to find out more about Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge;
-be organised, detail-orientated and a clear communicator

How much will I be paid?

Unfortunately, we are not in a position to be able to pay people for their time, although we will cover reasonable travel expenses. The real benefit of the project, however, is the opportunity to work with like-minded teachers who believe in a knowledge-rich curriculum for all. Those who have completed a Summer Project with us are also guaranteed to get an interview if they later apply to teach at Michaela. This is an ideal opportunity to get to know the School and the staff in advance of an application.

When can I take part?

The projects run throughout the summer, although the first two weeks of the standard school holiday are preferred. Most teachers will be working at our school in Wembley, although some teachers may be able to work remotely.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in contact Katie Ashford: kashford@mcsbrent.co.uk, Tel: 07545274090

Posted on April 30, 2016 by Bodil Isaksen

Nature abhors a vacuum

Nature abhors a vacuum. Human nature abhors a power vacuum.

Idealistic teachers often propose a classroom set up where co-operation reigns over command and control. Whilst lovely in theory, in practice we end up with more of a dystopia than utopia.

A teacher’s decision not to assert their authority won’t result in a classroom of equals. There will be a leader. It just won’t be the adult.

Instead, it will be your most bolshy pupil.

It’s true of adults, too. Think of any group you’ve worked in. Everyone hates being over-managed. But a vacuum of leadership is worse. It sounds seductive, not being told what to do. But even in a group of well-intentioned, motivated adults, the frustrations of decision making by committee soon lead to collapse – unless, of course, a natural, unofficial leader emerges. Lack of certainty is uncomfortable, unsafe and unenjoyable.

So it’s no wonder it’s a calamity when applied to a group of children with less maturity, more competing motivations, and a more acute sense of peer approval.

Humans intrinsically seek belonging and will impress whomever necessary to make that a reality. Make that the most fearsome member of year 9 set 3, and the results are predictable.

Being a leader, telling children what to do, and keeping clear, tight boundaries is the kindest thing to do. It keeps our children safe and allows them to learn. Us teachers should never feel we have to apologise for being the one calling the shots. Anything else is an abdication of our responsibility to keep our children safe, happy, and learning.

Posted on April 30, 2016 by Katie Ashford

How to Overcome The Curse of Knowledge

On a recent trip to my Nan’s, I was asked once again to fix her iPad. She was unable to watch something on “that BBC button” and was quite distressed about it. In exchange for several cups of milky tea and a Tunnock’s Teacake, I did my best to solve the problem.

“Well what’s wrong wit’ bloody thing then?”

“Right. Looks like your wifi’s stopped working and the app hasn’t downloaded properly.”

Befuddlement ensued. I did my best to explain what ‘wifi’, ‘app’ and ‘downloaded’ meant before trying to explain what had gone wrong without using those terms. My Nan was still confused, so she just left me to it in a sort of “I don’t care as long as it’s fixed” way.

It struck me that I possess a lot of knowledge about the internet, apps, etc. that my Nan does not. It was very difficult for her to understand exactly what I meant, never mind attempt to resolve the issue herself, because she lacks the basic knowledge that I have.

This often happens in classrooms and is a phenomenon Steven Pinker terms ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. It means that experts often underestimate the amount of knowledge required to access new information. As has oft been said before, teachers can underestimate their own knowledge, and overestimate their pupils’ knowledge.

For example, when teaching something as seemingly straightforward as the humble apostrophe, we can underestimate the amount of knowledge required to really understand it. In order to use an apostrophe correctly, pupils need to understand five complex, overlapping rules:

  1. Singular and plural nouns not ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding apostrophe s.

E.g. Tom’s book, Ali’s table, the children’s room.

  1. Singular and plural nouns ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding an apostrophe (and sometimes an extra ‘s’ at the end).

E.g. Ross’s house, The foxes’ den, Elephants’ tusks. In order to understand this, pupils need to know the difference between singular and plural, and how to form plurals from singular nouns.

  1. Plural nouns that don’t possess anything do not require an apostrophe.

Sometimes pupils write things like this: ‘I have two apple’s’ because they have misunderstood the relationship between subjects, verbs and objects, and have formed a misconception about how possession works. This is something that needs to be addressed when teaching the apostrophe, either through teaching it correctly in the first place, or confronting embedded misconceptions.

  1. Pronouns of possession do not require an apostrophe.

Common mistakes with this one include: Our’s is really nice, I want her’s, the pencil is your’s. This happens because, again, pupils have formed a misconception about possession. This usually also indicates that they don’t really understand that pronouns replace nouns, but not always.

  1. Contracted verbs/nouns: show omission by adding an apostrophe in place of the missing letters.

E.g. I don’t know, we won’t go, they’re out ‘n’ about.

 

And don’t even get me started on the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’….!

 

The knowledge required to understand these rules is vast, and because experts are susceptible to the curse of their own knowledge, underestimating what they know and overestimating what pupils know, they sometimes fail to recognise just how hard it is to learn new, complex things. As a result, pupils end up confused and unable to understand and apply the thing you want them to learn.

Possible ways to overcome The Curse of Knowledge

At Michaela, we are working hard to overcome this. Here are some strategies for getting past the curse of our knowledge.

  1. Curriculum Sequencing

Joe Kirby’s post on curriculum design is well worth revisiting. A good curriculum takes knowledge into account, and prioritises teaching the concepts that pupils need to know in order to access new information. For example, it is far easier to learn how to subtract if you can count, so you wouldn’t teach subtraction before counting. The same applies for complex processes such as literary analysis. You can’t analyse a text unless you know things about it. You can’t write an essay until you know how to write a sentence, and so on.

  1. Knowledge Organisers

Looking at a unit as a whole, identify the 20% of content that will have 80% impact on pupils’ understanding. In an English literature unit on Shakespeare, for example, that might be key quotations, poetic and rhetorical techniques, plot, themes and a list of characters. If pupils learn this knowledge to automaticity, it will help them with more complex tasks later. Prioritise this knowledge at the start of the unit and refer back to it again and again until they have mastered it and are able to apply it flexibly.

 

  1. Drilling

Drilling the basics helps to free up space in working memory for more complex processes. For example, when writing an essay, pupils have got a lot to hold in their minds at once: grammar, spelling, punctuation, plot, themes, characters, quotations, links, paragraph structure, vocabulary, and so on. It’s overwhelming at the best of times, but helping pupils to automate many of the underpinning basics frees up thinking space. Experts can write grammatically accurate sentences without even thinking, weaving in interesting ideas and vocabulary with little thought. This is incredibly hard work for someone who has not automated the underpinning basics. At Michaela, we support pupils to automate the fundamentals by drilling them daily in quotations, grammar and knowledge. When it comes to essay writing time, they stand a much better chance of being able to get to grips with the complex ideas they want to express.

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If Michaela sounds like somewhere you’d like to work, get in touch! We are currently looking for teachers of History and Science. More information here:https://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

Posted on April 24, 2016 by Naveen Rizvi

Right is Right: Why it is very challenging?

Whilst teaching, I asked a question to my  class after delivering a worked example listing all the factors of a number. Specifically, I was demonstrating that the number of factors of a square number will be odd because we have a repeated root, and therefore that we don’t write it twice. For example, 16 has the following factors 1, 2, 4, 8 and 16, whilst 36 has the following factors 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18 and 36. Also mentioning a non-example such as 15 having an even number of factors, because it is not a square number with a repeated root, and so 15 has the following number of factors 1, 3, 5 and 15 etc.

After the worked examples were delivered and pupils had completed a selection of questions in the practice set, I posed the question to check if pupils had remembered the fact taught: “Why do 16, 36, 81 and 144 have an odd number of factors?”

Pupils were given 20 seconds thinking time, and I could see hands all going up in anticipation to answer the question. I selected a pupil and this was her response:

“When you square root a square number you get the root number twice, so the root number is repeated, and that is why a square number will always have an odd number of factors when you write a list of factors.”

I responded “Incorrect,” and all the pupils in the class looked at me stunned, not because I said Incorrect, but because they thought that what *Sally had said was correct. Now, I know what Sally meant but that is not what was said. I then corrected her: “Let’s clarify that when we find the square root of a square number we get one value which is the root number. Therefore, √16 = 4. What *Sally is trying to say is that when you list the factors of a square number, like 16, you get a repeated root because within that list of calculations we have 4 x 4, and because it is repeated we only state one 4 as one factor out of many.”

As written in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion:

Right is Right starts with a reflection that it’s our job to set a high standard for answers in our classrooms and that we should strive to only call ‘right’ or ‘correct’ that which is really and truly worth those terms.

Many readers may be thinking well actually that is pretty obvious. However, it has its challenges. If I said to Sally “Well, you are nearly there, or halfway” then I would be doing her a disservice. Why? Because what she said was incorrect. It was not mathematically accurate, and I know that if I let that misinterpretation hang around in the air then all pupils in the room will develop a misconception around it. As a teacher, children believe that everything we teach them is correct, and if I allow slightly incorrect answers to seem ok, even though I knew what Sally meant, then my standards of Sally and her peers would not be high enough. As Lemov states in his field notes, “teachers are not neutral observers of our own classrooms,”— it is simply the thought that I know what the pupil means when they say something inaccurately that resonates the most with me.

For example, whilst marking an assessment a pupil wrote the unit for a compound area question in cm2 instead of m2 where metres was the unit used in the question for each length: I marked her answer incorrect. There are many debates on this and I do understand that this is not a calculation error but maybe an error in reading the question, or in stating the correct units, but nonetheless she did not write the correct units for the question. It is not right. By holding pupils to account, you are striving to equate the term ‘right’ with ‘correct’.

As Lemov has stated in his field notes, there are many caveats posed in implementing the strategy of ‘Right is Right’ in the classroom. He mentions the problem of time. That to fix *Sally’s mistake I needed to spend more time than planned in my lesson to correct her, but this is an investment that will be appreciated later on when a question such as this arises in a high stake exam.

Secondly, pupils who are shy or timid may become discouraged in putting their hand ups ever again because they made a mistake. However, I think that comes down to the culture you have in your classroom. Lemov talks about having back pocket phrases for moments like this, and here is the one I use frequently: “Thank you Sally for letting us all learn from your contribution, because of you, you have learnt so much more and so has everybody else.” Then at Michaela, we would give an appreciation with two claps to follow for Sally.

Right is Right is a challenging strategy to implement in the classroom. However, I wholeheartedly believe that it enables pupils to raise the standards of what they can achieve, and, for teachers, it ensures that expectations of what pupils can achieve also remain high.

*The child who I am referring to has been referred to as Sally, and not by her real name.

 

Posted on April 24, 2016 by Jonathan Porter

No excuses discipline works

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People bandy around the term ‘no excuses discipline’ in a way that I think is often highly misleading and, ultimately, very unhelpful. ‘No excuses discipline’ is parodied as a cruel and heartless system administered by Gradgrindian monsters such as myself who clearly do not care about children at all. As I’m going show today, nothing could be further from the truth. If you truly care for your pupils ‘no excuses discipline’ is, in fact, the best option available to you.

‘No excuses discipline’ is like Ronseal: it does exactly what is says on the tin. It is a warm but unapologetically strict school-wide system, which sanctions pupils for poor behaviour. More than that, though, it says that as long as the school has set the expectations clearly, and supported the pupils to reach them, there can be ‘no excuses’. Pupils should all wear correct uniform, pupils should all turn up to school on time and pupils should all bring the correct equipment to lessons. Failure to do so will result in some form of sanction.

Now, I don’t for a second think that those who oppose ‘no excuses’ discipline dislike children or have anything but the best intentions. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some immensely diligent and caring teachers who I believe are nonetheless wrong on this particular question of school discipline.

And that is because I believe that the alternative to a ‘no excuses’ school is ‘some excuses’ school: where we accept different standards for different pupils. And I believe that that is profoundly wrong.

Context 

So let me start with a proposition that probably won’t be that controversial. The ambient level of behaviour in Britain’s schools is poor.

On one hand, you have what we might call the ‘big ticket’ behaviour. This is the really serious physical, verbal and emotional abuse which is much more common than many are prepared to admit. NASUWT who surveyed 5000 members in March found that nearly half of teachers had been subjected to some form of verbal abuse. More than 1 in 10 said a pupil had physically assaulted them. And, as ever, the thoughts and feelings of the invisible children in these classes, whose learning is consistently disrupted by such incidents, go unrecorded.

But it’s not just the ‘big ticket’ behaviour that we should be concerned about. For many teachers it’s the low-level disruption that really sticks in the craw: the shouting out, the answering back and now the constant fear that the next time you tell off little Jonny little Gemma will record you getting all hot and flustered and post it all over Facebook.

And behaviour is so bad even Ofsted can see it. In its report on low-level disruption in England it found that up to an hour of learning was being lost each day. That’s a staggering 38 days per pupil per year. It says that this is ‘deeply worrying… not because pupils’ safety is at risk where low-level disruption is prevalent, but because this has a detrimental impact on the life chances of too many pupils.’

And that’s the crux of it, right there at the end; ‘the life chances of too many pupils.’ It is why I maintain that this is a moral issue and one that should shame us much more than it does already.

This is because the effects of poor behaviour are particularly damaging on the margins of our society. In schools where the pupils are poor or are in care. These children always get the double-whammy: not only are they more likely to come from turbulent or unstable homes where consistency, routine or even high expectations may be in short supply. But they are often then served by teachers who will not preach what they would practise with their own children. Some teachers expect their own children to do their homework. They expect their own children to bring a pen to school. They expect their own children to put their hand up before speaking in class. But hold other people’schildren to different standards. They believe in different standards for different pupils.

This is the specific context in which ‘no excuses’ discipline must be situated:

  1. A system where the ambient level of behaviour is poor.
  2. A system where poor behaviour disproportionately damages those pupils on the margins of our society.

I think it is a shameful state of affairs and one that I believe it is in our power to change. With that in mind, I have two propositions.

Proposition 1: No excuses discipline means all teachers can teach.

It will have escaped nobody in this room that there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching. There reasons for this are complex. But one thing that drives teachers away from schools, and particularly schools in the most challenging areas is the anxiety and the waste that come with poor behaviour. In my training we used to call it ‘the Dread’: that feeling when you wake on a Sunday when you know that, not only are you going to spend most of the day creating a card sort, but that the next day Year 8 will spend all day ripping it up.

Now there are those who will tell you that the reason for bad behaviour in classrooms is because of the teacher’s poor planning, their inexperience or their lack of charisma. There is some truth in this. Pupils do behave better with teachers who set work that is pitched to the right ability. Pupils do behave better with teachers that make them laugh (and who they can laugh at!) And pupils do behave better when they know that their teacher, deep down, really loves them. We all know teachers like this. They are the staffroom legends that can always be relied upon to bring even the naughtiest Year 11s to heal.

But you can’t design a system around Tom Bennett. You can’t design a system based on all of your teachers being exceptionally well-planned, exceptionally humorous or teachers who all have exceptional relationships with their classes. Not everyone can be exceptional.

No excuses discipline means that all teachers can teach, not just the exceptional because it creates a consistent culture of sky-high expectations throughout the school.All teachers and all pupils know where they stand. Every pupil knows they have to wear their uniform correctly. Every pupil knows they have to complete their homework. And every pupil knows they have to put their hand up before speaking. Of course there will always be teachers within these systems who are exceptional – teachers like Tom Bennett and John Tomsett will always stand out because of the relationships that they build with their pupils. But the success of our systems should not be judged on how they help the strongest but on how they help the weakest. No excuses discipline means that all our teachers can teach – even the nervous, the inexperienced and the least charismatic.

Proposition 2: No excuses discipline means all pupils can learn.

I want to tell you about one of our Year 7s who, for the purposes of this debate, I’ll call Tom. This is a shortened version of a conversation we had with his teacher in Year 6 before he joined us:

‘Tom is a nice boy but he has a problem with authority. He has had this problem since Reception, but it has worsened since the beginning of year 6. His problems are emotional. He has no father figure and this affects his self-esteem and how he reacts to authoritarian figures. He’s typical of boys round here. He dislikes time outs and detentions. He attends the Behavioural Unit 2 days per week. The other 3 days, he is in school until 1.30pm because he simply cannot cope with the full school day. On a regular basis, he has tantrums after lunch. He cries and throws himself into the walls. On some occasions, he throws chairs. Situations often escalate to violence and he often hits other children. In my opinion, Tom will need to be given time to adjust to secondary school and I think a full timetable from September would be very damaging.”

A ‘some excuses’ school would have taken that teacher at her word. They would haveexcused Tom’s behaviour on account of him having no father figure at home. They would have excused Tom’s behaviour because he was ‘typical’ [her words not mine] of boys in Wembley. And they would have excused Tom from a full school timetable and a full education because ‘he occasionally cries and throws himself into walls’.

We chose not to do that. We didn’t excuse Tom. We didn’t excuse him because he had no father figure at home. We didn’t excuse his behaviour. And we didn’t excuse him from lessons. And that’s a difficult thing for any adult to do: to use your authority over a child in a way that you know, at least temporarily, is going to upset them. For people who go in to teaching because they care about children it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s not what we thought we signed up to do.

But it is something that we must do because the alternative is so much worse. If we cannot change Tom’s behaviour we allow who he is now to define who he will be.

And Tom found it tricky at first. He spent the first three weeks in and out of detention like a yoyo. He cried a bit and, even now, he turns around from time to time. But he’s on a full timetable rather than leaving at 1.30. He is polite and well mannered to teachers and pupils. And, and most importantly, and because of this, he’s really happy. Because now he can learn. 

Summary

And that’s what this really comes down to: the alternative to a ‘no excuses’ culture is a ‘some excuses’ culture – where we allow children’s circumstances to define who they are and what they can be.

Every teacher in this room will have taught a pupil like Tom. And every school and every teacher has a choice. They can make excuses for Tom and say that kids like him are incapable of a full timetable. Kids like Tom will never bring the correct equipment to schools. And kids like Tom will never be able to put their hands up without first shouting out. I’ve said today that this is the ‘some excuses’ school: a school that presumes that because he always was he always will.

‘No excuses’ discipline rejects this. It says that teachers should be able to teach: allteachers, not just those whose planning is perfect, or are charismatic or who’ve established their reputation over 30 years. And, most importantly, no excuses discipline works for pupils. It means our country’s pupils – all our pupils – can go beyond the circumstances of their birth to be whatever they want to be.