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I’ve worked in education since 2010, as an English teacher, Head of Department and Assistant Head in four schools. I’m currently Head of English at Michaela Community School. I write about curriculum, teaching, leadership, English and reading. You can read about what education means to me and why I do what I do here.

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Thoughts on ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Team Mentality

 

‘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.

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Gold Dust

The teaching of facts has long had a rather negative reputation, from Gradgrind in Dickens’ 1854 Hard Times (‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts’) to the prevalent metaphor today: ‘spoon-feeding.’ The image is of foisting undesirable ideas into young, unformed minds is useless at best, harmful at worst.

When people I hugely respect in education come to Michaela, their fears about our school are often linked to this understanding of facts. ‘What will happen,’ they ask, ‘when the kids go to university, if they have just been spoon-fed facts?’

I reassure visitors that we don’t, in fact, teach our children ‘nothing but Facts’ a la Gradgrind (our children do a lot of whole-class discussion and independent writing). But it is true – we explicitly teach facts in a way, and for a proportion of teaching time, that few other schools do.

That is because we look at learning through a totally different prism.

Facts are the bedrock of understanding. Knowing twenty facts might feel pointless and useless. But when you know one thousand facts, you start to see the reality that facts drive understanding. And when you know more than one million facts, as I estimate is the case for every university educated person (and therefore, every teacher), expert-induced blindness can make us discount their importance.

In Ian Leslie’s Curious, he states: ‘knowledge loves knowledge.’ The more facts you know, the more you can connect them up, forming a web of deeper understanding. Far from futile, facts are the key to unlocking the civil rights issue of our time. E.D. Hirsch argues in Why Knowledge Matters: ‘once the centrality of knowledge is fully grasped by educators and the wider public, the right to parity of knowledge among young pupils will come to be understood as a civil right.’

Part of the reason teachers have tended to dislike facts is because schools are driven by a skills-led assessment system. Look at any exam rubric and all you will see are skills. Yes, there is ‘indicative content,’ but notice that you’re not expected to ensure that content is included to reach the top grades. This has led to a surge in drilling to the test and content-free lessons where we practise the supposed ‘skills’ that will lead to exam success.

Except that, far from levelling the playing field, an exam system predicated on skills is actually biased towards the wealthier in our society. Because behind every decontextualised skill sits a plenitude of facts. It is accepted that richer pupils have more general knowledge by virtue of cultural and social immersion from their earliest years that poorer pupils too often lack from their home background, and are then denied at school. A skills-led paradigm, by encouraging content-free drilling to the test, will privilege those wealthier pupils who have the underlying knowledge to succeed. As Hirsch writes, ‘a child who has the relevant domain-specific background knowledge will understand the passage and get the answer right fast, without conscious strategising’ – they don’t need the tricks the poorer pupils are drilled in, because they have the cultural literacy to access most texts. As Hirsch writes, ‘advantaged students are constantly building up academic knowledge from both inside and outside the school. Disadvantaged students gain their academic knowledge mainly inside school, so they are gaining less academic knowledge overall during the year, even when the teacher is conveying the curriculum effectively.’ (Incidentally, what would level the playing field would be a unified body of knowledge that all children need to learn and be tested on – but that is a post for another day.)

Let me illustrate the arguments above with a specific example.

If I only know two facts about Shakespeare – his birth date and death date, perhaps – I might be tempted to discount the importance of facts. What can I do with those two facts? But if I also know when the bubonic plague was at its peak, when Elizabeth died and James I succeeded her, when more and more plays were published, when the gunpowder plot was, when Elizabeth was threatened with assassination and why, all these additional facts start to build understanding. I can start to make connections between facts and text, and start to have a deeper understanding of the multidimensionality of Shakespeare’s work.

Similarly, if you ask a kid to comment cold on a piece of text they have never seen before, these facts are, in reality, invaluable. If a child only knows what a simile and a metaphor are, they won’t be able to have as rich a response as a child who knows techniques like tricolon, anaphora, anthropomorphism, epiplexis, hypaphora as well. A child who knows historical chronology, and what was happening in the world at the time the text was written, will have a still stronger and deeper understanding. If they know aspects of the form – rhyme, meter, stagecraft, structural techniques in novels – they will be better placed to comment on the piece of writing in question. If they have a broad vocabulary, composed both of wide reading and, yes, learning challenging words by rote over time, they will stand a much better chance of accessing the nuances of that unseen text. And if they know grammar themselves, they can formulate all these ideas into sentences which communicate clearly their ideas about this unseen text. A child who has detailed and extensive knowledge can combine all this knowledge together and respond to a text in a far better way than a child who has been drilled in the skills of inference and analysis.

A broad general knowledge is vital for pupils to succeed: skills-led strategies are not enough. As Hirsch argues, ‘there are strict limits to the progress students can make if the text is on a topic that is unfamiliar.’ I remember asking a lower ability class to make inferences about symbolism. Asking them what red might symbolise, one responded: ‘jam?’ That child did not have the bedrock of facts that become cultural literacy, and at that time I did not know what to do to give them these facts.

Why do poor kids tend to drop out of university in greater numbers? This is a complex question, and one I’d like to return to in future. But it definitely isn’t because their schools have taught them too many facts. In the USA, where these studies are far more prevalent, KIPP kids, and kids from other charter networks like Uncommon, are going to university in droves compared with their impoverished counterparts from other schools. And yes, lots of them are dropping out. But it would be foolish to blame an overly structured curriculum for this.

If anything, learning facts prevents against university drop-out. When I went to university, even though I had attended a good school, I was intimidated by how much the people from those ‘really good’ private schools knew. I remember clearly having no idea what a ‘dichotomy’ was, and the fact that everyone else seemed to know made me hesitant to ask. That was just one small fact.

I like to imagine our kids at university, with all these facts, all this beautiful web of understanding glistening in the October frost. These pieces of knowledge are beautiful, precious gifts. These facts are gold dust.

Hillbilly Elegy

Like it or not, our society is fraught with class divisions. I was hooked from the first to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like Vance, I would now consider myself middle class – university educated, well-paid and a person with a gym membership I actually use. But it was not ever thus. Like Vance, my parents experienced extraordinarily different lives to my own: my Mum is one of seven, and with two unemployed parents the family of nine squashed themselves into the village council house I later grew up in (by which point it was immense for the three of us – Mum, Nan and me). She was the only one of the seven siblings to get into a grammar school (despite initially failing the eleven plus), and despite her promise, left school at sixteen to join the army, as did my Dad (who also failed the eleven plus), one of six. My children will have a very different childhood to my parents’, or even mine.

‘You’re reading about your people!’ mocked my other half (who is what we both jokingly refer to as ‘middling’). And in some ways I was, and in some ways I wasn’t. Our society is fraught with class divisions, and despite my roots, an assisted place to a private school largely took me out of my ‘natural’ world at an early age, just as my Mum’s grammar school had taken her from hers.

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s story of how he beat the odds of poor ‘white trash’ kids in the US and ‘got out.’ Fringe success stories are one thing, but how do we replicate that success for all children? I think there are some places this book helps us to understand, and other places where solutions are suggested.

In the Ohio of Vance’s experience, ‘the statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.’ Poor and socially isolated, Vance describes poor whites in America as inhabiting a culture ‘that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

He remembers a $13 an hour factory job he had in Ohio, one he explains is excellent pay for the area and for the requisite skills. He was shocked his boss found it hard to recruit, but could understand why. Vance refers to one employee with a pregnant girlfriend, who had ‘every reason’ to hold onto that job, who was chronically late, a poor worker, and would take 45 minute bathroom breaks. When he was inevitably fired, the worker railed against the boss for not understanding that he had to support a girlfriend and child, taking no responsibility for what had happened.

For hillbillies, the value of hard work is proclaimed but not enacted. Vance cites a neighbour who had received welfare (benefits) her entire life who would ‘blather on about the importance of industriousness’ and people who ‘abuse the system’: ‘this was the construct she’d built in her head: most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she – despite never having worked in her life – was an obvious exception.’ I remember teaching An Inspector Calls for the first time, and being shocked that in a school with over 70% pupil premium, 100% of my class were on the Birlings’ side, blaming Eva Smith for her plight. When we discussed benefits, more than one pupils angrily said the government shouldn’t be giving them to anyone except their own parents, who were an exception. Vance too tackles this cognitive dissonance: ‘we talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.’

The experience of the hard-working hillbilly seems to come into constant conflict with the others of the ‘same’ social class: working in a grocery store, Vance discovers how the welfare system is gamed: they’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash… I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I could only dream about.’ So why wasn’t Vance one of ‘them’?

This seems largely down to the influence of his ‘crazy’ grandmother, Mamaw, who early on in the book tells young Vance: ‘never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to.’

Throughout the book, Vance is struggling to explore where responsibility lies. He describes the decay of the town; the boarded up shops and houses where druggies lurk; jobs declining but federal programmes helping people to buy their homes trapping them with immense debt in areas where there are no jobs. He describes his mother’s spiralling drug addiction, noting how he scoffed when she came back from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting calling her addiction ‘a disease,’ finding this ‘patently absurd.’ Yet he also acknowledges that there is some research that supports such a view of abuse – the difficulty is that patients who believe their addiction is a disease find it far harder to get clean.

So often in this book, the statistics don’t answer the questions Vance is asking: ‘why didn’t our neighbour leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behaviour was destroying her daughter?’ The closest he can come is to tell stories which reveal the values of the people he grew up with. There are countless stories centred on loyalty, for example: the need to use violence to defend the honour of family members is cited on several occasions, and in one story his grandparents trash a store after an assistant is rude to young J.D. Vance. He writes of violence and shouting matches as the norm in relationships, and compares the unpredictability of his parents’ responses to ‘living among land mines’.

So the crucial question: how did Vance succeed against the odds?

  1. ‘Mamaw’

Vance’s grandmother is a pillar of predictability – even if she is predictably insane, her reactions are at least easy to predict. Vance hides out in her house when things get tough, and finds there somewhere quiet. In fact, he says he is a mediocre pupil until he moves in with her full time for the final three years of his education: ‘three years with Mamaw – uninterrupted and alone – saved me.’

Speaking to a teacher at his old high school, Vance says the teacher told him: ‘they want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’ Interestingly, Vance never blames his ‘sub-par’ high school for his initial lack of academic success, instead expressing frequent gratitude for qualified teachers and a fully funded school building.

Mamaw has the right priorities – while Vance talks about the Hillbilly tendency to spend huge sums of money on Christmas, financed with credit cards or pay-day loans, Mamaw does not buy him ‘cell phones or nice clothes’ but when a teacher says he needs a $180 ‘graphing calculator’, she buys it for him, and uses the guilt over this expensive purchase to shame him into working harder at Maths.

  1. The Marines

The most revealing section of the book for me was this one, perhaps because both of my parents joined the army at age 15 and 17. For them, it was the key to a future: to travel, learn and be responsible members of society. I truly believe the army is strongly to be thanked for my own childhood: Mum may have held down two or three jobs at a time, and she may have raised me alone, but dinner was always on the table at 6pm, she was never even thirty seconds late for any of her jobs, and the house was always spotless. Routine is important for all of us, but especially for children.

Conversely, after a troubled and unpredictable childhood, Vance relates that ‘everything about the unstructured college experience terrified me.’ (As a sidenote, I do wonder if part of why poorer kids struggle in University is due to a lack of structure in earlier life – the middle class kids, in comparison, have had a lifetime of structure and so are not only able to structure their own lives independently, they also look forward to a little less structure at University.)

So instead of going straight to University, Vance joined the Marines. In his 13 weeks of bootcamp (where he was entirely cut off from home and family, with no phone calls allowed) he experiences harsh discipline. Taking a slice of cake on the first day, his drill instructor says: ‘you really need that cake, don’t you, fat-ass?’ as he smacks the cake out of his hands. Vance notes: ‘if you’d told me that I’d react to such an insult by cleaning up the cake and heading back to my seat, I’d never have believed you… I had underestimated myself.’ And this is the message of the Marines: Vance suddenly realises he has more self-control, more resilience, and more aptitude than he had ever thought possible: ‘what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: it’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.’

He experienced tough discipline, but also realised he was strong enough to take it:

‘Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, I came a little closer to believing in myself.’

In the Marines, a communal identity is forged: ‘from the day you arrive, no one calls you by your first name. You’re not allowed to say “I” because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality.’ This fosters sense of belonging unlike any other. My Dad says the same of the British army – the drill sergeant’s job over new recruits is to ‘break them completely’; ‘make them hate you.’ He described to me how, thrown together with strangers, you quickly bonded over your mutual hatred of the drill sergeant. And, in my Dad’s words, ‘as the team bond develops, collective and individual performance improves, the drill sergeant reacts appropriately and the team’s respect for him/her increases. By the end of the process the team is a full functioning, well-oiled machine with pride in their own ability and level of performance that has full respect for a satisfied instructor who is the only one who really knows why.’

Moreover, the Marine Corps ‘assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances.’ Vance was taught absolutely everything about these aspects of life, and then his drill instructor checked up on him: ‘in the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms.’ To this day, my Father shines his shoes before leaving the house, and painstakingly irons every visible and invisible crease out of his clothes before putting them on, a hangover habit from a drill sergeant ‘complaining a perfectly pressed shirt wasn’t pressed enough.’

The Marines also gave Vance perspective. On spending time in Iraq, after giving a ‘two cent’ rubber to a boy who smiles like every Christmas has come at once and races to his family to show them, he muses: ‘for my entire life, I’d harboured resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house… but as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy, I began to appreciate how lucky I was.’

 

One specific query with the content of this book was on education: I couldn’t quite square the fact that Vance says that school was a ‘haven’ for him, but his attendance was poor – something so many of us struggle with in schools. If home is hell, why don’t these kids want to be in school? The only thing I can think of is that in homes of such extremes, the kids in them are desperate for kindness. Perhaps pretending to be sick elicits kindness from the inconstant adults in their lives, and they stay home to enjoy these infrequent kindnesses when they come. I’ve also seen parents who desperately want their children to stay home with them as a comfort to themselves rather than for the benefit of the child. I approached Vance through Twitter, and he kindly responded, noting that his attendance was at its worst when he and his sister were living alone, without any adult supervision at all. This makes sense, and I’ve known this happen to many children in previous schools. He also emphasised that he did not approach school in a ‘rational’ way: ‘I hated school and hated home worse.’ The difficulty of pupil attendance defies logical explanation: Vance told me: ‘mostly, when things are so stressful, you don’t want to do anything.’ All of this is fairly bleak for schools.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ leaves us with even more uneasy questions. Social mobility isn’t all positive; it’s also moving ‘away from something.’ My Mum certainly experienced that when she was at grammar school, and I felt something similar when I was the only cousin at a private school.

Another question is: how can we make success against the odds the norm? How can we replicate Mamaw or the Marines for kids who don’t have these?

I think schools can do a few things:

  1. Be a reliable presence

Schools can be predictable, reliable, calm and safe places for children to be in. Teachers need to be emotionally constant, so children can always predict how they will respond.

  1. Instil discipline

Self-discipline is the key to success. If schools are set up to do one thing well, it is to enforce discipline and instil self-discipline. A strong system of behaviour management, accepting no excuses or exceptions, can massively help children to see that their lives are self-directed, and they have responsibility for their actions.

  1. Push kids harder

Success is motivating; schools need to push kids who are furthest behind harder. Currently, we often treat these kids more softly. We need them to work harder and do more. If we can set up enough areas along the way for them to see their success, they can start to believe they can achieve no matter what their background is.

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The Path to Wisdom

At the risk of opening with a lamentable cliché, the older I grow the less I know. More and more, I’m questioning old paradigms, not only in my work, education, but also in life.

Take, for example, the paradigm of sincerity. It is an accepted truism that we must be true to ourselves: old Polonius’ ‘to thine own self be true’ could hardly be more frequently quoted (and we conveniently forget the rest of his advice is brushed off as the witterings of an old ditherer). How about fixing our difficult relationships: we tend to want to have a heart-to-heart, ‘this changes everything’ conversation.

But what if there was a different way?

Michael Puett’s The Path: a new way to think about everything takes ancient Chinese wisdom and reveals its use in the modern world. He notes the ‘unhappiness, narcissism and anxiety surging in the developed world’ and suggests an Eastern alternative. Instead of prizing sincerity, Chinese philosophers emphasise: ‘honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so eventually we would act in the right, ethical way.’ For them, artifice is crucial: we would not want to say everything that comes into our heads, and nor should we.

Puett talks about everyday rituals, such as the response to ‘how are you’ being ‘fine, how are you?’ This ritual is important: it establishes a connection quickly, and allows us to move on. We are learning to behave in a socially appropriate way all the time. The most notable example of this is the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We first learn these words as a rote act, and they are largely meaningless to the toddlers who respond automatically to Mum’s ‘what do you say?’ But over time, this rote act evolves, and we come to genuinely feel grateful to others. Puett reminds us that we construct new realities with such white lies all the time: couples say ‘I love you’ when they don’t necessarily feel that loving nurtures the relationship and improves it, allowing their love to grow with this ritual.

Our lives are patterned by such rituals, and our behaviour is the inheritor of them. Instead of saying: ‘it’s just the way I am: I’m a very angry/emotional/sad person,’ you should recognise that you have slipped into ‘patterns of behaviour’ over time, and you have the power to change those patterns. Why do some of us revert to our teenage selves around our parents? Patterns of behaviour. But we can change ourselves and our relationships. How? By focusing on each daily moment. If we change how we ‘live our lives on a daily basis,’ we can alter our lives for good.

A large part of this is in staying in touch with our emotions, while not letting them rule us. Puett notes: ‘you will not mend a troubled relationship with your sister by sitting down for a single big breakthrough heart-to-heart talk. It will happen instead through the tiny decisions you make about how to behave and respond every time you talk.’ So, next time she pushes your buttons, instead of responding, think: ‘I’m feeling anger right now. But if I can put that emotion aside and respond in a kind way, I can change this interaction.’ We can even acknowledge our emotions in a heated exchange to help clarify what is going wrong: ‘I’m responding in an angry way because I’m feeling threatened by what you are saying. But you are not trying to threaten me, so let me understand what you mean.’ If we can take control of our emotions, and then our responses, we won’t be buffeted by the events of life to happiness and sadness, but can instead cultivate ‘balance and alignment, or an inner stability.’

Puett compares the Protestant world view, so pervasive today, that the world ultimately has order and sense with the philosopher Mencius’ view that the world is capricious: ‘hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished.’ He believes that if we fail to respond to the changing world, we ‘die in shackles.’ Our reactions can’t be controlled by the things that happen to us. Again, a micro, daily focus is helpful here: instead of saying: ‘who am I?’, which is something always shifting and changing, or ‘how should I plan my life?’ which is open to similar flux, we need to move our focus to alter things on a small, interaction by interaction level.

And this is why artifice is intensely helpful. We get further in life by employing artifice. If you march into work, bringing your mood with you, you infect everyone you meet with your anger and upset. As adults, we have self-control, and we can grow our self control. As teachers, we are artificial ever single day, and many is the day I’ve woken up tired and grumpy, to plaster a smile on my face and ‘get through the day,’ only to end a teaching day feeling genuinely delighted. Pretending to be happy is the surest route to happy I know of. Similarly, the ‘deliberate training’ of a pianist, the artificial scales and arpeggios, is what leads to the ‘joyful freedom’ of the concert pianist.

This way of thinking is vital for schools: ‘our habits limit what we can see, access and know.’ Our children with least self-control must be taught self-control. They must be taught how to behave, and over time they will internalise it. Telling a child to say ‘thank you’ for a lesson might feel artificial, but over time gratitude grows from the external appearance of gratitude. Telling children to sit up straight and ‘track’ the speaker might feel horribly controlling, but over time this artificial habit becomes a real habit, and one that will stand them in excellent stead when they have marathon attention-spans that will enable them to argue at length in law courts, parliamentary debates, and focus throughout complex surgical procedures.

Puett writes: ‘in this fractured and fragmented world, it’s up to us to generate order.’ This is true of ourselves, and also true of our schools. The world is a messy place, and if our children are going to thrive in it, they need to understand how to control themselves and their emotions, and learn the habits that will allow them to succeed.

the-path

We Have Overcomplicated Teaching: Research Ed 2016

I was overjoyed to be asked to present at Research Ed’s national conference last Saturday.

We have massively overcomplicated teaching. In my talk, I explored how we have overcomplicated it, why, why we need to go simple and how that would work, using examples from Michaela Community School.

I began the session with a series of questions, which readers may wish to revisit:

  • How many activities do you need in a lesson?
  • How often do the activities change in a lesson?
  • How many different ‘starters’ do you create?
  • How many different ‘plenaries’ do you have?
  • How many variations on tasks do you have?
  • How many slides do you have on a powerpoint?
  • How many resources do you print for each lesson?
  • How many ways are you expected to differentiate for children?
  • How many pages does your scheme of work fill?
  • How often have you changed schemes of work?
  • How often have you taught the same curriculum two or more years in a row?
  • How many intervention sessions have you run after school? Weekends?
  • How much feedback do you give children?
  • How much data do you gather? Input? Use?
  • How many CPD sessions have explored new ways of teaching children?
  • How many targets do you have to meet for your performance appraisal?
  • How many trips do you take?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to take a trip?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to log a behaviour report?
  • How many external agencies are working with your young people?
  • How often do children miss your lessons for interventions?
  • How do you get children to turn up to detentions, and what happens when they don’t?
  • How many action plans have you written?

I spent four years teaching thirty slide powerpoint lessons. Life in a dark room, filled by clicks and mumbles, was uninspiring for both the children and me. The failures of the past, not purely powerpoint-related it must be conceded, have led to what I called ‘intervention hell’ in the present, something that will be kicking in soon for many teachers, if it hasn’t already. We are drowning in data we don’t use. External agencies are taking children out of the one thing that will change their life: lessons where they are learning.

Schools are no longer seen as places of learning – in the expectation that we will educate the whole child, prevent radicalisation, encourage healthy eating, and teach financial literacy (among other initiatives), we are missing the crucial thing: kids learning stuff, passing exams, having successful lives. In 2015, only 53% of kids in the country achieved the old benchmark of 5 A*-C including English and Maths. 47% of kids didn’t even get five Cs including English and Maths. Schools are categorically failing to teach all kids effectively. Our role has been massively overcomplicated.

But the over-complication is not only the state’s fault. We too must accept responsibility. In the ‘missionary teacher’ or ‘martyr teacher’ paradigm, too many of us have decided to ‘sacrifice our lives on the altar of pupil progress’, to borrow a phrase from Joe Kirby’s Michaela debate speech. Working fourteen hour days, working weekends, working holidays (as it seemed nearly the whole room was doing or had done at some point) is categorically not sustainable. Who can do that for thirty, forty years? Our martyrdom has spawned an arms race, where ambitious teachers strive to outcompete each other. Add to this soup flawed accountability measures, spurious research (learning styles, anyone?) and the ‘teacher as entertainer’ model pedalled by teacher training organisations and SLTs up and down the country, and you have a recipe for disastrous burnout, as evidenced by the 50,000 or so teachers leaving the classroom every year.

Why is simplicity better? Three reasons spring to mind: sustainability, consistency, retention. Sustainability for teachers: simpler teaching means we can have lives and carry on doing the job we love for the long-term. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency for children: teachers who stay massively impact on the children. Having the same teachers year in, year out, is undervalued at the moment. (In a later conversation, I mused about school improvement. I think a lot of mediocre schools who achieve great results do so by being strong on two fronts: behaviour, and teachers staying. Behaviour is obvious – better a calm than a chaotic school. But teachers staying, as long as they are middling to excellent and not diabolically harmful to children, has a massive impact on consistency within the school and consistency for children.) And retention: teachers who want to stay in the profession is of obvious benefit to schools who spent enormous sums of money and time on recruitment each year.

How do we simplify teaching? I explored three strands: curriculum, pedagogy and systems.

With the curriculum, I focused on within subject choices, rather than whole-school curriculum. When planning the curriculum, instead of fourteen page schemes of work that no child will ever see (or arguably benefit from), make unit packs. All ‘worksheets’ can be in the pack. No need for a powerpoint – everything is happier when your curtains are open in the classroom, and technology is an added stress teachers simply don’t need in their lives. At Michaela, we use packs to cut workload, but also to benefit kids: the text is central. Kids are reading a vast amount across subjects, not just in English. We add recap questions to strengthen pupil memory, resource comprehension and discussion questions to prevent teachers thinking these up on the spot or the night before, and prepare model exemplars to guide pupils to where we want them to end up.

With pedagogy, I foregrounded the three arms of practice at Michaela: direct instruction, questioning, and extended practice. There is a huge gap between our pupils and their wealthier counterparts, and the gap is partly knowledge and partly practice. To close the knowledge gap, we teach with urgency. We never ask pupils to guess, but instruct upfront by reading text and explaining. We then question to check understanding, and recap to aid memorisation. To close the practice gap, we make sure when we’re not questioning and teaching, the kids are reading and writing. Kids are generally great speakers, great debaters and especially great at arguing; that’s not where the gap is. Our kids need more reading and more writing, so we make sure they do lots of that. We need to teach with urgency all the way through school – from reception to year 10, we teach like every second is vital (because it is). Hopefully that way we can prevent the intervention hell that is year 11.

I showed some clips of what direct instruction looks like, as it can sound massively off-putting:

 

Notice how interactive these lessons are. It’s certainly not a case of teachers lecturing at bored children. We can’t just talk at children – that much is true. We have to constantly question and check they have understood and remembered what we have taught.

Finally, I explored three systems to simplify teaching: behaviour, homework and feedback. Currently, I would imagine the majority of schools ‘allow’ teachers to set their own detentions. This is great for building teacher-pupil relationships, but I would argue the drawbacks outweigh this benefit. Teachers set detentions of any length they choose, so children can judge different teachers to be stricter or ‘easier.’ If a pupil doesn’t turn up, individual teachers have to hunt the child down. Too often, teachers end up chasing detentions that are multiplying, constantly trying to remember who has and has not turned up, and liaising with form tutors and parents to cajole the children into serving their time. Long-term, many teachers give up. I don’t blame them. The administration involved in setting, sitting, chasing detentions is too much. So teachers stop bothering.

Similarly with homework – and homework isn’t just challenging in terms of sanctioning non-completion. Teachers are desperately trying to think up new and different homework tasks, setting it, and then marking it. Again, all this administration is overburdening and discourages pupil completion (‘son, what’s your science homework?’ ‘No idea. Something about research? It might be due next Tuesday? Dunno.’) At Michaela, all teachers set the same homework on a rigid timetable. All kids are revising their subjects for the same length of time in the same way. Absolutely no confusion over what they need to do or when; no excuses. (We use knowledge organisers to set this revision.)

Finally feedback – I’ve written at length on this before, so I would encourage you to revisit my lengthier piece if you’re interested. The long and the short of it: don’t do it.

I ended with some advice for leaders. When you have a shining star working 14 hour days, it is tempting to let them get on with it. But that sets unrealistic expectations for others, and could set up unfair comparisons between them and other teachers. They are also too often using their time pointlessly: extra marking, making transient displays, or forty five slide PowerPoints with the requisite resources. Instead, have the conversation with them: could every teacher do what you are doing? Do you want a family one day? Will you be able to do this when you do? When you lead a department, would you want every teacher doing this? Thousands of teachers leave the profession every year – how do we make this a school where people want to stay? What is the impact of your excessive workload on others in the department?

Leaders need to lead by example, teaching rigorous content, actually teaching, limiting their activities, resources and feedback (I suggested teachers carry a red pen around with you when kids are writing, and use icons to set targets instead of laborious written comments). Leaders need to mitigate the impact of school systems on teachers: if you lead a department, you set a centralised detention for that department if your school will not (show the SLT it works).

There were a number of questions and comments following the talk. One common thread in these questions was: where is the room for teacher creativity with such a rigid system? I guess we don’t really value creativity as highly as consistency and workload at Michaela. Although there is plenty of space for creativity in delivery (see: Jonny Porter jousting, above), we don’t let teachers make whizzy jazzy PowerPoints or decide to teach their own thing in their own way. Michaela is not for everyone.

But I would challenge questioners: sometimes what we enjoy doing most is not the best thing for the kids. And sometimes what we enjoy doing in our own classroom, going above and beyond for our kids, has an adverse impact on the others around us, not to mention our own workload. And finally, great content is exciting in and of itself! I wouldn’t choose to teach Julius Caesar – it’s not my favourite Shakespeare play. But I absolutely loved teaching it, because it’s Shakespeare! Same with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – not my favourite poem, but again, it is a great one, and so great to teach.

I was heartened by the people I met afterwards: it was especially lovely to hear teachers say to me: ‘I’ve done this for years and always been told I was wrong!’ What I’ve said is not revolutionary: many, many teachers have always known this. I hope Michaela can shine a light on what works for kids and teachers and allow these brilliant professionals to just teach, and then have a life. Some of what I said was not appreciated by some members of the audience; I had reports of some eye-rolling and tutting as I was speaking. I’d like to say: thank you. Thank you for coming to hear me speak, thank you for not walking out, thank you for taking the time to be challenged. Next time: ask a question, get in touch, tell me what you don’t like. It is wonderful to debate these ideas. I really think that in sacrificing some individuality and creativity we can deliver amazing results for pupils, and amazing work-life balance for teachers.

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.

Michaela front of school