Am I Michaela?

So, after discovering Michaela, by chance, earlier in the year, listening, fascinated and intrigued, to several of their teachers talking online about Bootcamp, Dead White Men and Family Lunches, as well as reading their book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher’, I visited – in early July.

If you’ve read a few of my previous blogs, you’ll know that, all that is Michaela, has challenged my thinking – massively. I’ve since realised, somewhat miffed, at times, that my training was solely ‘Progressive’. I was taught to believe that child-led, and all that that means, was the only way. Being a facilitator of learning was a good thing; being the fountain of all knowledge was bad – as was assuming a position of expertise and clear authority in the classroom. If my children were not engaged in their learning – I probably wasn’t doing something quite right; if they were disruptive or did not demonstrate good manners, well – I guess that was my fault, too.

All this thinking and questioning on my part could not be kept to myself and a few of my colleagues heard all about Michaela, that all the staff were on the same page; that there was complete consistency across the school regarding discipline and expectations; learning happened as the result of drill and didactic teaching; there was no group-work at Michaela, pupils learned in silence, they moved around the school silently. Behaviour was impeccable. Honestly, their faces said it all – wide eyes and raised eyebrows. How can that be? It all seemed so very far away from what we had always done – what we were all trained to do. But I was excited about this different way of doing things; this was a school that was challenging the status quo and in doing so, providing an education for inner-city children and seemingly making a difference in the process.

So, with all this in mind (and with a very open mind), I arrived at Wembley Park Station on a sunny July lunch-time. I grew up in Wembley and went to school nearby; I remember being at bus-stops at home-time and watching elderly people being shoved out of the way by boisterous, senior-school pupils – but I had learned that Michaela children were different. I signed-in and was informed about my visit; I was presented with ‘Dos and Don’ts’ – the expectations of me, as a visitor – for example, I was not to act surprised when the children told me that they liked their school; I was encouraged to talk about my university experience and training.

Some were playing with balls, others were sitting on bench-tables talking. Uniform was smart. Play looked sensible and considerate. I approached a member of staff on duty and introduced myself. He began outlining the school’s ethos and philosophy. He was friendly and open. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed another member of staff speaking sternly to a pupil – a boy. The conversation was quiet and seemed respectful (although the member of staff had his hands in his pockets)…I know, I know – it feels petty to mention it – but I expected exemplary modeling of behaviour, too – but never mind.

After a few minutes, the children were called to line-up to go in for lunch. A male member of staff spoke loudly and sternly, reminding pupils of expected behaviour, how they were to walk inside. Eyes forward. One boy turned his head and looked sideways and received a demerit. I should have expected that, but I found myself trying to reason / justify what I’d just seen – it wasn’t easy.

Inside, after a quick shake of the hand by Ms Birbalsingh, she led us to a table at which I was invited to sit for the Family Lunch. The space was clean and organised. Pupils filed in silently and stood behind their chairs. They were led by Mr Porter in singing ‘Jerusalem’ – they hadn’t practised it much, apparently. God Save the Queen was better.

Lunch was served by the pupils. It went something like this, ‘Servers 1 and 2 – on my ‘Go’…Go!’ We were told what to discuss during our lunch (along the lines of Andy Murray’s motivation and commitment in order to get to Wimbledon). The pupils closest to me were confident in attempting to articulate their opinions. They responded to my questions about what they wanted to study at University and demonstrated good manners throughout the meal. Fifteen minutes later, another ‘Servers 3 and 4, on my ‘Go’…Go!’ and the clear-up process began. I was literally about to place a fork-load of vegetables in my mouth but thought better of it.

After lunch, pupils were encouraged to offer a few sentences to explain something for which they were grateful. This happened several times and after each, all pupils gave a two-clap applause, together, in response. Pupils spoke audibly and confidently. I got the feeling that for at least one pupil on my table, he had simply learned to play the game – he had asked me my name and where I’d come from, early on in the meal and had worked out that thanking me for visiting would be appreciated – I’m not sure it really mattered to him whether I was there or not, but I could be wrong – and I’m willing to acknowledge that all children (and adults) learn to play the game one way or the other.

The transition after lunch, into lessons, was outstandingly efficient and orderly. We were allocated two guides who would take us around the school. They were given a timer which would beep, we were told, after 20 minutes, after which they would go back to their lessons and we would be free to walk around the school and pop in to any lessons we wished to. The guides, a boy and a girl spoke confidently and the girl in particular, was clear and eloquent in her explanations of how the school was organised, what each of her badges represented and what ‘SLANT’ stood for. We were led into several classes; pupils were well-behaved, were sitting up straight (mostly) and raised their hands before contributing. Teachers stood at the front. And taught.

I walked around Michaela afterwards feeling as though I needed some time to process it all. I heard a teacher warn pupils that many of them were very close to receiving a detention. I walked past another in which one pupil had just been given a demerit for having lost his place in a text when called upon to read. I walked past another and sensed that some pupils, if allowed, would quite like to sigh deeply and stop listening for a bit… I watched other pupils enjoying a teacher’s joke and having a good laugh and the boy who lost his place in the text – well, I watched the girl on his left kindly (that’s the perfect adverb), point out where he should be.

To be honest though, I was relieved to sign-out and end my visit. I messaged an ex-colleague and told him that I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. He asked, ‘Too army?’ which, I think, pretty much summed it up for me. Much of what Michaela stands for does resonate with me, however. I have realised, thanks to their example, that some of the ‘Progressive’ stuff doesn’t necessarily enhance learning and some of it, absolutely doesn’t. Throughout this process, I’ve thought heaps about discipline in schools, expectations of behaviour, responsibility of pupils (and parents), good learning habits, relevance of content, the balance between knowledge and ‘finding out’, who we are actually doing it all for, as well as teacher work-load versus actual impact on learning.

I think that Michaela’s passion for changing the education system in order to better-serve some of Brent’s children, has to be respected; I’m fairly certain that many of their pupils will be, if they’re not already, hugely thankful for their Michaela opportunity. I have certainly learned a lot and hope to be a better teacher because of it. To answer the original question, though, ‘Am I Michaela?’, I felt (and it was definitely a feeling), from the first moment I stepped through the doors, that no, I’m not. Although I am thankful for the experience, and thought at one point, that yep – that’s me – and I could definitely work in a school like that – I just didn’t warm to it. I am, however, going to make some changes in my classroom…but not too many.

To all the staff and pupils of Michaela, thank you for welcoming me.

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Remember, remember..?

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about knowledge (and more specifically, remembering knowledge). I’m sure most people would agree that whilst Google and Sat Navs, for example, have often saved the day, it’s been at a price. There’s no need to pay attention to sign-posts or remember landmarks anymore – no need to learn that fact or that capital city – we can just look it up. Sadly, though, through this process, I believe we’ve also lost a respect for memory – something which we should be actively developing and challenging, rather than passively, perhaps, buying into strategies which may actually be compromising it.

Research shows that memories and learning, are laid down through repetition – practice – habits. I was taught a song when I was about seven – The Books of the Bible – 66 titles, tricky in parts – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy…’ I still remember that song thirty-odd years later. Sure, occasionally, I’ve had to think hard in order to recall it but I can. It wasn’t learned under duress, nobody forced me – it was modelled and we just sang it – repeatedly.

Some would argue, ‘Well, what’s the use of knowing that?’ – I’ve sometimes asked myself the same thing – but I’m not sure that’s the point – or maybe that’s exactly the point. At the time, there wasn’t a reason given – nobody said ‘learn this and you’ll impress your RE teacher…’ (it did), or ‘it’s a super party trick – a real ice-breaker…’ (wouldn’t know, never tried it) – we just learned it. We don’t always need to have a reason to remember something. We just need the opportunity and perhaps more importantly, the expectation.

I have often, with somewhat of a guilty conscience, explained a lack of pupil memory with self-talk like, ‘maybe I’m not making this engaging enough…maybe this isn’t what they’re interested in, maybe I’m not doing something quite right.’ So, instead of demanding my children develop memory and recall (and giving them the opportunities and expectation to do so), I perhaps, compromise it further; over time, I have stuck up hundreds of words on my walls, coloured card, laminated, pretty. I’ve hung things from the ceiling (which often just got in the way) and I’ve spent ages creating word-mats and other resources which I then have to remind them to go and look at when they get stuck.

Is this helping them or holding them back? Is there just so much ‘stuff’ everywhere, that they don’t actually see any of it? Is it efficient or is it simply a crutch? I can’t be the only one to have created these kinds of resources only to observe pupils paying very little or no attention to them whatsoever.

I’m not questioning the good intentions of such resources or that in some cases, they are helpful – what I am questioning is whether there is a better way – a more efficient way. If the words are on the wall, they won’t need to memorise them – they’re on the wall – and even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make the effort to stop what they’re doing and go and look…why would they? That requires an interruption to their current thinking – their train of thought. It’s frustrating. They have to stop, get up off their chair, walk over to the wall, find the right word, go back and sit down and pick up where they left off…possibly having disturbed others around them on the way – are we advocating this process over simply teaching them to remember the words that they’ll need and providing them with the opportunities to recall them?

I get that over time, there’s a hope that they’ll remember stuff because it’s on the wall – that it’ll somehow be absorbed – but I’m not sure ‘hope’ is an adequate strategy. Is it really too much for us to expect our children to remember and verbally recall, by heart, a bank of adverbs, a bank of synonyms for ‘said’ or whatever…? I don’t think so. And yet…

Consider the lengths that we go to, to ensure that memory is not optimised – not challenged. We print, photocopy, laminate, display – we cover walls, literally, with bits of printed paper, which often can’t be seen from where pupils sit anyway. We cover walls with words that could quite possibly, be memorised through repetitive, rhythmic chanting, through singing, through saying them, spelling them, over and over. This doesn’t have to be dull – it can be a positive experience, it can build confidence through a collaborative, happy ‘noise’. Yet, we continue to resort to printing and laminating hundreds of words for display – year after year, in thousands of classrooms, in hundreds of thousands of schools, all over the world. Think about that for a second. From an environmental perspective alone, this should be considered outrageous, regardless of whether or not it actually made any difference to children’s learning.

Our memories are absolutely incredible and whilst I don’t, and probably never will, understand how it all works, I do know that if I don’t use it, I’ll probably lose it. I really can’t see any harm in expecting a child to learn, rhythmically and off by heart, ‘quickly, quietly, carefully, cautiously’ or ‘grumbled, mumbled, stuttered and yelled’ – or whatever. Why does it have to go on the wall?

Reading this back, it does sound like a bit of a rant – it’s not meant to. I just think that sometimes, the very things we do, because we’ve always considered them ‘good practice’, and because we’ve always done them that way, are the very things we should be questioning. I guess we owe it to our children, and to ourselves, to remember to do that occasionally.

 

Making learning fun – the trap of jazzing it up

My dad used to get irritated when he’d hear somebody say, ‘Look at the choo choo train’ or, ‘That’s a dicky bird.’…he’d exclaim, ‘Why teach a child a three-syllable word when they only have to learn one?’  He was right. Why teach a child to say ‘Ta’ (cringe), when ‘thank you’ is what they’ll be expected to use later?

Playing ‘Crazy Eights’ the other day with small children – on the cards were pictures of weird looking vegetables – with eyeballs. I’m guessing that the idea of gamifying a game (!) – jazzing it up to dumb it down – was to encourage young children to play – to somehow make it easier… weird looking vegetables, after all, might be appealing to some – especially if playing with family or friends is somehow not enough (why not?). So, instead of just learning to recognise diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs and numbers, they were also processing (and possibly being distracted by) the eye-balled vegetables.

One of my eight-year olds used to become tearful when she couldn’t quite get 20 out of 20 for our daily multiplication quiz. She went home every day and, supported by her parents, put in a huge amount of effort to learn them. She made dramatic progress. Other children didn’t and, despite encouragement, still don’t; as a year group generally, we deployed several layers of incentives; we issued certificates, badges and occasionally, there’d be a special appearance by ‘Maths Man’.

For this one child, the certificates were nice…but her intrinsic motivation was always present and that’s what drove her. She didn’t need any of that jazzed up stuff – the learning was the reward. All children, surely, have that intrinsic motivation – well, they do before it becomes eroded by the learned expectation of ‘getting something’ in return. Even when they knew they’d receive a certificate if they did well, for some of them, it wasn’t an incentive. It’s not a fail-proof system. What are we missing? Maybe parental support? A certificate might fix that temporarily but it isn’t a long-term solution. Intrinsic motivation? How did they lose it in the first place?

As adults, do we think that a child can’t learn something new, or something better, without those external incentives? It’s a genuine question – the funny vegetable on a playing card, that Maths badge, or the sound of a relatively more playful word such as ‘choo choo train’? The thing is, that sooner or later, those extrinsic motivating layers fall away – if they motivate at all. They’ll have to play with a real pack of cards (why not start with one?), somebody will point out, ‘Dicky bird? What?!’ Or their teacher will forget the certificate… Do we want to lull children into that trap? Surely, when they’ve experienced success – when they’ve earned it – when they’ve seen and felt the difference it can make – when it becomes internalised and remembered, a certificate is rather a weak substitute, actually. A step further would be to say, that if the certificate or badge or housepoint is seen as the culmination of learning – the reward – then we’re definitely off track.

Learning is not always easy. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult – but these little people we have in our care are designed to do just that…they’re the perfect age and we have them – the world’s best learners – in our classrooms, every day. The assumption that they’ll learn only if I make it fun, or if there’s a badge on offer, is possibly rather patronising. The problem is that as soon as you offer an incentive (other than the learning itself), bad habits can develop. It’s a bit like hiding the vegetables under the pizza in the hope that both will be eaten… If you want the vegetables to be eaten, don’t serve pizza.

I’ve always harped on about extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic and in my (idealist) head, we really shouldn’t have to be jazzing up teaching and learning in order to make it accessible to, or engaging for our pupils. We shouldn’t need to turn learning into games…and we shouldn’t be spending inordinate amounts of time trying to make things ‘fun’ because we’re concerned that children won’t engage if we don’t. What does that say about them? What does it say about us? What does it say about the content we’re teaching?

‘We played this really cool game in Maths… ‘OK,’ I say, ‘but what did you learn?’ Hmmm.

What happens when the ‘fun’ stops and they’re suddenly lost, having never needed to dig deep, internalise motivation or without any memory of actually feeling that deep-down success? If our pupils are asking, ‘Why didn’t get a badge?’, we might need to rethink what we’re actually teaching them. It’s a precarious system – not only because it doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the real world, but also because of the inevitable inconsistencies that come with trying to manage it. It’s a distraction – and if we’re constantly distracting our pupils from the business of learning, they might actually leave school having not learned much at all, really.

So, what’s the answer? Well, whilst I think making learning ‘fun’ isn’t necessary, I do want it to be fulfilling, satisfying and ultimately empowering. If we’re passionate and have high expectations, if they have good learning habits, if it’s meaningful, if they get to change their world with what they’ve learned, even just a tiny bit, why do we need to jazz it up? ‘Having fun’ isn’t necessary. Children thrive on learning stuff, they love knowing stuff, they love finding out more and applying all they’ve learned in clever, creative and meaningful ways.

That’s got to be enough, right?

Tangerines, Toast and Teaching to the Test

OK – I’ve realised that it’s all in the title; I reckon that if my title includes foodstuffs (the more alliterative, the better), my blog stands a better chance of being read. I asked my five year old (who is, as I’m writing this, drawing the world’s flags and labelling each one – paper and pencils all over the place), whether he could think of a food beginning with ‘t’. He answered, ‘Tangerine.’ Then I thought of ‘toast’ – et voila, I had my blog title – quite like the rhythm of it, too – alright, it’s a daft title but I hope to make a vague point, linked to it, a bit later on.

Tangerines and toast aside, ‘teaching to the test’ is one of those things that we’ve all probably done at one point or another. There will always be a temptation to drill what we know will be in the test, because the results may be indicative of whether or not we’re doing a good job (of drilling, not necessarily of the teaching of learning). I’ve known teachers who actively track exam questions year on year – they predict which ones will ‘come up’, and then teach, mainly to those questions. And our pupils too, are learning to ask, ‘Will this be in the test?’ – if it’s likely, well, then they’ll make sure they learn it. If it isn’t, they won’t worry so much.

What we are learning to do here, is to play the game – teaching (and learning) to the test – it’s not right and it’s nothing new, but it is understandable – if that’s the hoop, then I need to learn how to jump through it, right? Really?

But there’s also more to it than this. I have a problem with how we test; if our pupils have been learning through conversation, through discussion, through bouncing ideas around and exploring, it seems unfair that we would then test them in a way which is completely alien to this process. Why do we value data that is generated through silent testing, in the abstract, and in the absence of voice? I don’t want to change the way my pupils learn just because of the way they’ll be tested – but occasionally,  I have done because if that’s the test, then I want them to pass it – of course I do.

I’ve had some great conversations with a colleague about this – data from traditional testing pales into insignificance against learning that is evidenced and demonstrated in a variety of more creative ways, doesn’t it? Whilst there may be a (small) role for traditional test data, we all know how easy it is to pick holes in it (unless the data is really impressive – in which case, we won’t pick at it too much). Potentially, it just seems such a fickle process; if it’s good data, we’ll go along with it – if it’s not, we won’t. I have a feeling we can do better than that.

So…what to do? I guess we officially change the test.

If learning is dynamic, exploratory, vibrant, meaningful – embedded in conversation – in other words, a very human experience, then we need the way we test, to reflect this (assuming this is the way we feel pupils learn best…). The idea of teaching to the test then, suddenly becomes a good thing because we’re not haphazardly changing the way we want to teach to support the way we test, but rather, changing the way we test, to complement the way we believe our pupils learn best.  

Innovate testing – innovate teaching – innovate learning. Think it works if you say it backwards, too.

Anyway, I’m aware that I’m getting close to that looming final paragraph. Still trying to think of a way of bringing all this together in a way that links back to my title. Thought about saying something like ‘food for thought’, but that sounds cheesy.

I guess my point is, that whilst I may have learned how to come up with a vaguely interesting title (a hoop that I’ve learned to consider jumping through in order to pass the test), it isn’t necessarily reflective of the content, or quality(!) of the blog itself. It took me a few minutes to come up with the title. It took me ages to write the blog – and regardless of what judgements you make about what I’ve written (you may have been either pleased or disappointed that toast didn’t get much of a mention), at least you did take a moment to look beyond the title.

Incidentally, my five year old is still drawing his flags and labelling his countries. His learning is everywhere – literally – in the papers strewn around, the maps he’s drawn, the lists of countries he’s written and re-written – it’s in the conversations we have, in the facts he tells me and in the questions he asks (the ones he knows the answers to already – to see if I know – and the ones he doesn’t).

Whilst I may want to teach him explicitly what the capital of Venezuela is, in order to be able to answer that question when I ask it, there is absolutely no doubt that he is learning – and demonstrating it. And yet, he has no concept of what a test is or that at some point, he’ll have to take one in order for somebody else to determine his learning. The learning is his motivation, not the thought of a test.

Change the test. We’re here to grow learners.

Oh – Just Blog On!

I’m writing this in response to Chris Leoffler’s blog ‘The Sophomore Slump’. I nodded along, thinking…’yep – exactly!’

I began blogging a couple of months ago, as a result of the #IMMOOC and a persuasive nudge from a colleague. Initially, it was enough that a couple of people read my blogs and added the odd comment – great. And then I blogged about something that was, for me, a little surprising – perhaps controversial, even, given that I’d just begun the ‘Innovative Teaching Academy’ course… I tweeted it…and it got retweeted and like Chris, I had many more visitors to my blog – over 200 – literally overnight.

And then, I wrote another one. It was balanced I thought, as was the first – and I spent ages on it – 4 hours, I think – wording it right…you know – I loved the writing side, but it was a complete brain-ache. I even considered when best to Tweet it (!) given time differences (I’m in Brunei and it was a UK ‘audience’ I was aiming at). I went to bed in the early hours, content that I’d got it absolutely right, feeling a little like a kid on Christmas Eve – hoping (maybe even ‘knowing’) that there’d be something in my ‘Twitter Stocking’ when I woke up. Worrying.

Nothing.

Surprisingly, I didn’t burst into tears and wonder why I’d been forgotten – or overlooked. I did feel confused though – being new to this ‘game’, I thought that because I’d had a good round, last time, it would simply get better – an increase in ‘likes’, in retweets and yep…in dopamine – people would suddenly ‘know me’ and therefore read what I had to say. And then, thinking some more, I realised that I was already asking the question… ‘right, what can I blog about now to get my ‘audience’ back’? Really, though, it wasn’t my audience – I simply got one ‘on loan’, briefly, via a retweet. But I found this question just a little soul-searching, and began feeling uncomfortable that I’d even asked it. There was also the undeniable, growing ‘habit’ of checking my phone…

So – where does that leave the newbie blogger with slightly dented pride? I think it leaves you with what you’ve always known deep down – that to write, or to do anything meaningful – to you – must be done primarily because you are intrinsically motivated to do so, regardless of ‘likes’, retweets or levels of dopamine. It leaves you with the self-assurance that if you’re blogging about something you care about, you aren’t making yourself vulnerable by doing it for the wrong reasons; your reasons will be good and you won’t find yourself trying to desperately defend it – because you were compromised along the way (even just a little) by the thought of those ‘likes’ and the approval of that unseen audience.

I guess my point is, if you are blogging because you want your opinions and ideas to be noticed, you need to take a moment to realise, that your opinions and ideas might get noticed. Play the game fairly and with passion but without cheating yourself, or breaking your own rules in order to win.

And finally, I considered whether we have the balance right (there’s that word again…balance) between writing for the thrill of an ‘audience’ – and writing for the simple release of self-expression – for the enjoyment of it. Perhaps a blog on the subject of intrinsic motivation in the classroom, has just joined the queue.

As I’m writing this, I hope somebody will read it, perhaps they’ll nod along. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps it will prompt them to respond. But I know that it doesn’t really matter…not really – just gotta blog on anyway.

And Chris – thanks for the blog (which I definitely didn’t think was mediocre).

Empowered or Patronised? Why it all Hangs in the Balance.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that I’ve been thinking – a lot – about balance – and whether the balance between teaching knowledge and learning through curiosity and discovery (in my classroom), is optimum. I’ve also learned this week, that there is a debate in education between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’… I learned this, I think, through a combined process of discovery (I was curious), being taught (reading blogs and articles written by people who know more about it than me) and then thinking about what I’d learned.

I talked to a Year 6 pupil yesterday about a project she had designed as part of Global Day of Design. She had re-designed the layout of our school’s cafe. She spoke about her ideas and the reasons behind them; she talked about the cramped lay-out and how she wanted to reduce the amount of packaging which came with the sandwiches and drinks. I asked her whether she’d considered encouraging people to bring their own reusable packaging. We discussed how this might work. I knew (in my head) that there might be a possibility to incentivise customers by offering a discount if they brought their own packaging; a sandwich would cost less if they did. But this idea wasn’t in her head…yet. Could I have simply told her this? Could I have taught her that this is a practice adopted by some coffee-shops? It would certainly have saved some time.

But I didn’t. And, we had one of those cliched but precious light-bulb moments where her face lit up as she realised what the solution might be. Her realisation. Was this process patronising or empowering? I like to think it was empowering.

A couple of weeks previously, I had presented my pupils with a visual stimulus designed to generate questions about volcanoes, of which there were many. The intention was to ‘find out’ answers to their questions – we were going to ‘log-on’ and visit the library. But one pupil asked me – specifically. I don’t remember my answer exactly but it didn’t answer her question. I think I said something along the lines of, ‘Well, let’s go and find out – where’s the fun in me telling you?’ Upon reflection, I realise she was asking me – the teacher – because she considered me as being just as reliable and efficient (if not more so), than ‘researching’ her question elsewhere. But I didn’t tell her and she had to wait. Was this empowering? I don’t think so. I think it was patronising. It was certainly frustrating for her. This was an opportunity where adopting a more traditional approach of ‘just telling her’, in that moment, would have been wise.

Can I expect to get the balance right all the time? Unfortunately, absolutely not. Would it feel safer to consistently adopt one approach or the other? Maybe – but I’m not sure ‘safe’ is a reason to do so. I want to believe that there can be a balance between the two. How you arrive at that balance and what it looks like, will depend upon what you’re aiming for and will evolve as the needs of your pupils evolve.

There is a fine line, perhaps, between pupils feeling patronised and feeling empowered – a fine line that doesn’t necessarily become easier to see, just because the needle on the scale hovers more towards ‘Traditionalist’, or more towards ‘Progressive’. Teaching knowledge empowers. Learning through discovery is empowering. Remembering – in order to demonstrate an understanding of what has been taught and discovered, is powerful. There is a balance to be had – and that’s the trick.

At the end of the day, maybe we should, with respect, put the labels aside (I’m not really keen on being given one) and just get on with respectfully empowering our pupils with knowledge, the skills to discover more of it and the confidence to explore and demonstrate it – how ever that might look and in what ever ‘measures’ suit them, the ones in your classroom at this moment.

Marmite, Michaela and Making a Difference

Over the weekend, perusing somewhat aimlessly on Twitter, I stumbled across ‘Michaela’. Apparently, it’s a school which can be compared to Marmite; you either love it or hate it – a free school situated in Wembley Park (I grew up down the road), established with an intake of 120 Year 7 pupils in 2014, and founded by Katharine Birbalsingh. Places at Michaela are awarded by lottery.  They believe in a knowledge-based curriculum, where the teacher is proudly and passionately, the fountain of all knowledge. Pupils sit in rows, facing the teacher. They invest in books instead of Smart-Boards. Behaviour, from all accounts, supports this type of curriculum delivery – silent classrooms, silent corridors, children who are taught to open doors for others, shake hands and make and maintain eye-contact – children who are making excellent progress academically – teachers who are all on the same page with regards to what they believe is best for their pupils and who do not feel over-worked.

I haven’t visited the school (yet – and they are very used to visitors, too) so can only go on what I’ve seen on YouTube but I’d recommend having a listen if you’re curious. They talk about a range of issues from the ‘nonsense’ in the teaching profession, to ‘Dead White Men’ and cultural literacy, family lunches and Boot Camp. I was, and am, absolutely intrigued. If you flick back through my last couple of blogs, you’ll see why I find myself surprised that I’m now wanting to know more about a school with a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, where ‘learning by child-led discovery’ doesn’t happen. Pupils learn habits which are conducive to being taught; they are taught explicitly not to slouch, to actively listen, to raise their hands before speaking – habits which enable the teachers to teach. All teachers are consistent in enforcing the rules. All pupils understand the reasons for the rules. They ‘sweat the small stuff’ and the ‘big stuff’ is rare.

So – what are the implications? I haven’t processed it all yet and I expect that I’ll continue to think hard – but it does occur to me that in my own practice, I may not be dedicating enough time to the learning and recall of ‘hard-facts’. Are some of my pupils ‘floundering’ in confusion or grappling with distraction during learning through discovery? Have I got the balance right between teaching knowledge, curiosity-led learning and encouraging diverse application of it? I want my pupils to be able to demonstrate their learning in flexible and creative ways but have I taught them enough to be able to make adequate (or even powerful) links between ‘knowledge’ in order to do this?

For example, do I want my pupils to clearly define, when asked, what a quarter is? Yes. Might I have to ‘teach’ them to articulate that a ‘quarter is 2 eighths’? Yes. Might I have to reinforce the memorisation of this fact through regular repetition? Probably. Do I want them to remember what a quarter is, next year? In 2 years? Yes. Do I want them to be able to demonstrate this factual learning with cubes, drawings, explanations? Absolutely. And of course I want them to explore (and explain) further relationships between quarters and eighths which may not be explicitly taught but instead, learned through curiosity, discovery and through exploration. Is the latter ‘learning’ likely to happen without the former ‘teaching’? Possibly. Is it likely that pupils will feel more confident exploring having been taught facts (and to regularly articulate them) first? I don’t know for sure.

Maybe I’m over-thinking (I’ve been known to), and perhaps it doesn’t matter which comes first – as long one complements the other. At the end of the day, I do want my pupils to ‘know stuff’, to remember it, and to be able to articulate what they know with confidence and clarity. But I also want them to be able to demonstrate this knowledge in a variety of meaningful ways and have opportunities to explore beyond taught knowledge, to be challenged with making connections, to struggle through problems where the depth of mental processing goes beyond recall of learned facts. It’s interesting stuff!

So, all that Michaela seems to be, is challenging my thinking – massively – it is exciting to be presented with different ideas – in Michaela’s case, a ‘different’ way of doing things seems to be making a big difference to children who very much need to feel that they too, can make a difference.  The thing is, though, if it wasn’t for my sense of ‘finding out more’, my sense of curiosity, and my desire to discover – because I wanted to – I wouldn’t have delved deeper. I wouldn’t have watched over 3 hours of Michaela’s staff explaining their thinking on Saturday morning. I wouldn’t have asked questions and I wouldn’t have written this (and potentially reached all 3 of my reader-base!). Equally, though, if I had been taught during my training, that a ‘teacher-led, knowledge-based’ curriculum was an ‘actual thing’, and a potential alternative to being ‘progressive’, (didn’t know I had this label, either), I would already know about it…assuming the teaching had been memorable (and I had been listening).

Ms Birbalsingh – I’d like to visit!

Are we Spoiling the Snow?

OK – bear with me. Science – this morning. Trudged along to a Science lab in the Senior School – my children didn’t know what to expect. I had purposely not mentioned that we were going into a room full of bones. A colleague, who was leading the session, had set out a huge variety of skulls and skeletons and I had hoped that we would be able to explore. Wonder. Puzzle. Make observations. Ask questions…and we did get to do that, but only a little bit; he told them what that bone was, and ‘that there are three bones in the ear’… ‘and that’s an orangutan’s skeleton’. His intentions were good – of course they were – and he knows his stuff – but I thought, ‘Ow…give curiosity a chance…there could be some great questions here…’

As I’m writing this, a memory comes to mind; I’m standing in the lounge with my sister (I’m probably about 8, she’s about 6). It’s first thing in the morning – slippers and pyjamas. Through the glass of the patio doors, we’re watching our much older brother, hands shoved in pockets, smug and purposeful, walk a big circle around the garden – smirking at us. The thing is, that night, there’d been snow and the garden was untouched and perfect. We were desperate to get dressed and go out. We were excited. Remember that feeling? We wanted to be the ones to play in the snow – to explore it – it really wasn’t his thing anymore. We didn’t want to have to watch somebody else muck it up for us – and deny us the delight of doing that ourselves. I have no memory of actually going out and playing in the snow after that. I’m not sure I wanted to. I do remember the feelings of outrage and disappointment though. He had spoiled the magic – intentionally.

It’s maybe a tenuous link (!), but back in the Science lab – I wondered whether each child’s opportunity to explore had been optimum. The lesson wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but did that mean learning hadn’t happened?

Does it matter?

I mentioned it to another colleague later on, reflecting on whether it was significant or whether I was over-thinking it. She answered… ‘Yes, it’s massive.’ And I think, that potentially, it could be.

The role of a teacher, my role, has to change. I really don’t want to be at the front – ‘the expert’, the ‘if Mrs Young says it, it must be true’…(I’ve heard some of my children say that). I want to learn with them…the more I do this job, the more I realise how much I don’t know… Sure – I know it’s a balance and sometimes, you have to literally ‘teach’ to fill in the odd, inevitable gap – and I love being part of that learning. But have I ever spoiled the snow?  Yep – probably.

So I’m thinking that my role is now more about supplying the hats and gloves before I send them out, roughly in the right direction; perhaps I just need to keep an eye on them and be there afterwards with the hot-chocolate, when they’re ready to defrost and reflect on the experience.

A room full of skeletons is a fantastic resource and we’re so fortunate to have it at our finger-tips – but does it become a little less fantastic when it’s accessed in the absence of curiosity?

Saying curiosity is ‘a bottomless pit’ doesn’t sound quite right, but it is, potentially, bottomless. It doesn’t take up any space in the cupboard and it’s completely free – but it’s also vulnerable – like snow – it can be trampled on and melt away in a second. If curiosity was seen more as an official resource to learning, rather than an occasional ‘luxury’, would we take better care of it? Is it, in actual fact, our most valuable resource?

Have our cats learned not to be curious?

I’m guessing that at its origin, the proverb ‘curiosity killed the cat’ was meant to warn against ‘unnecessary investigation or exploration’ which could possibly result in, well…death. But what meaning does it have today? Do we ever say it to our children? Do we imply it, and what message does it send? Do we, as teachers, get to encourage our ‘curious cats’ or do we feel that, because of curriculum design or time restraints we can’t let them out – well, not until we’ve taught them what they need to learn..?

Curiosity has got to be pretty high up on the list of reasons why we learn anything, hasn’t it? At least initially. How does meaningful, memorable or profound learning take place without those sparks of curiosity? But we know all this. The trick is how we encourage that terrified and seriously-reprimanded cat back into our classrooms in order to drive the learning. It’s on its last legs, that cat. It’s not used to being let out.

Just did a quick Google search – ‘apathy’, ‘disinterest’ and ‘indifference’ are all possible antonyms of curiosity. If we took a moment to ask the cat how it felt about all this, I’m guessing it wouldn’t yawn and say ‘…I think curiosity is over-rated, actually.’ I’d hope that, given half a chance, it would be off, through the cat-flap, and into a blur of adventure.

Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat occasionally – but how does that compare to killing curiosity?

If people don’t like you sharing, it’s everyone’s problem

Have had a few great conversations recently about ‘sharing’. Sharing is crucial. How do we ‘grow’ good practice, develop innovative ideas and make us all better learners and practitioners if we’re not sharing it? It’s a big problem.

This is a complex issue – and not one that will necessarily be solved with the well-intentioned ‘If people don’t like you sharing, it’s their problem’ advice. I have a sneaky feeling that the roots of the problem go deep.  I can still hear a few of my teachers’ instructions (from way back…), ‘Cover your work…don’t copy…keep your ideas to yourself…you can’t use somebody else’s idea…be original.’ We were discouraged to share colouring pencils, let alone ideas. And have I said similar things over the years? …Yep.

So, I’m thinking that this is a learned culture. It’s not that we don’t want to ‘stand out’ and share occasionally (in fact, we were told to stand out, too, weren’t we? All these mixed messages…), I think it’s more about not knowing how to.

How do you share without being seen to be blowing your own trumpet?  How do you share an idea when you think the ‘popular kids’ in the corner will have something to say about it on the playground at break-time? How do you get those kids to be receptive to new ideas when they think they know it all, already? How do we, as teachers, walk into a colleague’s classroom, with the intention of ‘learning’, without them feeling like they’re being judged? It’s often just easier not to share – you make yourself vulnerable if you do.

The thing is, though, we have to share – and be receptive to it – the good stuff and the not so go stuff. This is what we’re encouraging our children to do more and more…share ideas, grow ideas, disagree with ideas, innovate ideas… It’s a tricky balance. In the classroom, it might be tempting to link sharing with an external reward – ‘Well done for sharing…have a house-point.’ You can see what’s coming… ‘When shared, she didn’t give me a house-point… and… ‘That was my idea…’ and the problem persists. So, the culture of sharing just has to…well…be. We have to just get on with it – in the classroom as well as in the staffroom. Maybe the problem also comes from thinking ‘ideas belong to someone’ – the sense of ownership. Maybe ideas should not be ‘owned’…dunno.

But I do know, that if, at the end of the day, people don’t like you sharing, it isn’t just their problem – it’s everyone’s. And we need to sort it.

Definitely blown my 200 word limit…