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!