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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.

Curriculum

Teaching

Leadership 

English

Reading

 

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

Teaching Vocabulary

 

If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.

image1

I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7

A Michaela Feedback Lesson

At Michaela, we have two exam sessions each year: in February and the end of June. Nonetheless, when completing a unit we do sometimes give pupils an assessment to see what they can do. Recently, our year 8s finished learning about Romantic Poetry. To really stretch them, we decided to give them a poem they had not seen before, and ask them to write on it. The responses were phenomenal, and you can read some below. But today, I want to focus on how we give feedback following such an assessment, using a specific example.

I visited Joe Kirby’s year 8 lesson, just at the moment he was testing them on the words they had misspelled. He tested them on the spellings (in the same way as I have written about previously here) and then went on to look at what else the pupils needed to do to improve their essays.

He began by looking at grammar, a key aspect of our English curriculum at Michaela. At Michaela, we focus on memory and automaticity, and we know pupils need to overlearn each aspect of writing in order to improve. If a couple of pupils are misusing the apostrophe, we know all pupils will benefit from overlearning this key ingredient of accuracy. Joe has written three sentences on the board which come from different pupils’ essays, and he asks them to write them correctly in the back of their books. He then goes over this as a whole class, leading pupils to articulate why each apostrophe is needed:

 

 

Following the focus on spelling and grammar, Joe goes into what not to do, using examples again lifted from the pupils’ essays, and helps them to see how to improve these by explaining from the front of the class:

Here are some more examples of ‘vague’ sentences, with Joe explaining what pupils need to do better:

He then goes on to explain what precision means, and gives concrete examples of how to be precise:

 

 

Joe then leads pupils through some of the most impressive insights from their essays. This was my favourite bit of the lesson, and something I tried with my own year 8 classes the following day. When reading their books, you put a tick in the margin of a sentence you found especially impressive, and note their name and a trigger word on your feedback sheet. You can then say, ‘Elena, can you read your sentence on alliteration?’ It is lovely to celebrate the impressive responses of pupils, while also helping others see what they ought to be writing about:

Following this, pupils read one of their classmate’s essays, again focusing on what precisely made it so effective:

Hosna example parag

After this, pupils re-wrote a paragraph in their books.

The above approach is simple, and requires no marking. The teacher reads the essays, noting down examples of great work and ‘non-examples’, or examples of what not to do. The teacher then structures the feedback in a clear way, for us beginning with accuracy, moving on to ‘non-examples,’ and finishing with exemplars.

Here are some further examples of the pupils’ writing. Remember, this was analysis of John Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ a poem they had never encountered before. Some sophisticated insights they have written include:

‘Keats keeps the poem following free verse and no rhyme scheme to perhaps inform readers that the possibilities and powers of the ambiguities, hidden meanings and unknown capabilities are not so easily understood and that the power is so strong that it breaks all form of rhythm and pattern.’

‘This poem could be about the relationship between the poet and poem and the emotion it gives the reader. Keats could be saying that poetry is capable of inflicting an outburst of emotion, which is recollected in “tranquillity.”’

‘At the beginning of the poem, “now warm and capable” is used combining life and death imagery to describe the transience of life in the present.’

‘The poet does not refer to an actual living hand in his poem, instead it is used to symbolise the poem itself, personifying it. He does this to illustrate that life may be transient however this poem shall be transcendent, otherwise “haunt” our “days” and “chill” our “dreaming nights.”’

Keisi parag

 

Maryam parag

What can schools learn from successful communities?

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

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

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

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

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

Superiority

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

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

 

Insecurity

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

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

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

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

 

Impulse Control

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

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

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

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

 

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

Lean In

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, back to those questions which have haunted me:

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

 

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

 

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

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

Lean In

Teacher Instruction

While moving my blog from Squarespace to WordPress, I witnessed some worrying things. I was horrified to see the extent to which I had relied upon group work, philosophy circles and multimedia to engage pupils. I considered, briefly, expunging these articles from my blog. But I decided, ultimately, that it was more honest to leave them. I have, you see, been on a journey.

When I first met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford, Bodil Isaksen and Kris Boulton in 2013 to write an e-book for Teach First starters, I was their polar opposite. While they talked about knowledge and instruction, I raved about student-led lessons and pupils’ personal interpretations. We had common ground only on curriculum choice: the one thing that united us was the idea that kids should be taught great literature. We were desperately divided on how to teach it.

By September 2014, Michaela Community School had opened, and I was still nay-saying in the corner. It wasn’t until Katie Ashford shared her pupils’ essays with me that I had the profound realisation: their way worked. My way did not work. With my way, some children thrived, and others were left hopelessly far behind. With their approach, Katie’s set 4 (of 4) year 7s were outperforming my set 3 (of five) year 10s.

Teacher instruction sounded terrifying. For one thing, I’d never done it or been trained to do it. What would I say? How on earth could I fill 60 minutes of learning time with… Me? In my head, teacher instruction was like a lecture, and in my experience lecturers would speak once a week, and have a whole week to prepare it. How could you possibly lecture six times a day?

But that isn’t at all what it is. When I first visited Michaela, I accepted the theory, but had no idea what to do in practice. Seeing it, I saw there was a lot more common ground than I had thought. In fact, even in the dark days of 2013, I might even have done a bit of teacher instruction myself.

Teacher instruction is highly active, not passive. We explain, read, expand, yes; we also probe, question and test. We spend time writing out explanations and printing them up for pupil and teacher to read together. We spend time in department meetings discussing what we will teach and the key learning points we will be drawing out as we teach. The result is powerful: a highly engaging and dynamic classroom, full of pupils learning, answering questions, and recapping their prior knowledge. Visit Michaela and you see one thing very clearly: pupils love learning. They aren’t sitting in lessons bored, waiting for the next video clip or poster activity to engage them. They are answering questions, positing ideas, listening and annotating or taking notes, reading, reading reading; writing, writing, writing.

For a flavour of what teacher instruction looks like, watch year 8 annotating as Joe Kirby talks. Notice how he recaps on their prior knowledge throughout instruction – picking up on vocabulary they have learned, along with their prior knowledge:

Watch Olivia Dyer questioning year 8 in science. This is the start of a lesson, where she is recapping their prior knowledge. Look how many pupils have their hands up wanting to contribute! I always love visiting Olivia’s classroom – her manner is extraordinary: she is patient, quiet, calm and encouraging.

I love Naveen Rizvi’s excitement about the Maths as she carefully models for year 7, and engages the pupils every step of the way:

And finally, Jonny Porter’s expert use of a pupil demonstration to explain jousting to year 8, again recapping on their prior knowledge all the way:

 

 

Tiger Teachers

In Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there are two key messages for parents and teachers. The first: hard work pays off. The second: strict discipline is the best way to ensure our kids succeed. Statistical evidence shows that Chinese kids are ‘stereotypically successful’: in 2014, Chinese children were the highest performing ethnic group, with 74.4% achieving 5 A*-C EM compared with the national average of 56.6%. What is the secret?

Chua notes: ‘In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that ‘stressing academic success is not good for children’ or that ‘parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.’ By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt that way.’ The idea of learning as ‘fun,’ ‘discovery’ or ‘exploring’ does not seem to exist for Chinese parents. Throughout the book, Chua makes references to poor teaching methods holding Western children back: ‘While the other kids were learning to count from 1 to 10 the creative American way – with rods, beads and cones – I taught Sophia addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals the rote Chinese way.’ When Chua talks about skills, she explains: ‘I don’t mean inborn skills, just skills learned the diligent, disciplined, confidence-expanding Chinese way.’ Underpinning this comment is the highest of high expectations: children can learn anything, as long as they are taught it explicitly and drilled enough in it.

To those who may argue that not all children can be successful with hard work, Chua cites her sister Cindy, who was born with Down’s syndrome: Chua’s mother ‘[spent] hours patiently doing puzzles with Cindy and teaching her how to draw. When Cindy started grade school, my mother taught her to read and drilled multiplication tables with her. Today, Cindy holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.’ As the mother of young children, Chua notes: ‘As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks, I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: 1. Higher dreams for their children, and 2. Higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.’

And by ‘how much they can take,’ Chua is referring not only to how much children can learn, but how much discipline they can handle. Each of Chua’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu, play instruments; Chua, a professor of law at Yale university, attends every music lesson and every practice session at home, coaching, guiding and, in reality, shouting. The extraordinary results are achieved through this disciplined and strict practice. She explains: ‘What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.’ Furthermore, while Western parents worry about self-esteem, Chinese parents: ‘assume strength, not fragility.’

Chua’s harshness has been condemned in the media, notably when given a sub-standard birthday card, hand-made by her daughters. She quotes herself saying: ‘I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.’ In a later letter, her daughter notes: ‘funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: the card was feeble, and I was busted. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel like you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.’

It is not easy to discipline children in this harsh way: ‘you have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy.’ We believe exactly the same thing at Michaela. There are times when I really, really don’t want to give a pupil a demerit or a detention: I know how hard they are trying, even though they are still doing the wrong thing, and I love them so, so much. I’ve started saying in my head: ‘do I love them enough to give them a demerit right now?’ By turning our thinking from indulgence to discipline, I do think that in the long term our children will be more successful, not to mention more resilient.

For hard work is the gateway to future success: if a child achieves lower mark than wanted in a test ‘the Chinese mother would get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.’ Even on holiday, Chua insisted on daily instrument practice, telling her children: ‘every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.’ She reflects: ‘Will Sophia recall with bitterness the time I laid in to her at a piano in Barcelona because her fingers were not kicking high enough? If so, I hope she also remembers Rocquebrune, where the manager of our hotel heard Sophia practising and invited her to perform for the entire restaurant that evening, overlooking the Mediterranean, [getting] bravos and hugs from all the guests.’

She rails against the indulgence of choice in Western parenting: ‘they just keep repeating things like “you have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion” when it’s obvious that the “passion” is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.’ Children do not know enough to make the right choices, which is why indulgence will lead to lower academic success. Nearly half of young people are leaving school without even the minimum qualifications: this is a national tragedy, and something we need to take seriously. When Chua’s rebellious younger daughter gives up the violin in her most rebellious teens, her mother feels she has lost – but when she takes up tennis the coach comments to her: ‘she has an unbelievable work ethic – I’ve never seen anyone improve so fast. You and your husband have done an amazing job with her. She never settles for less than 110 percent.’ And today she, like her older sister before her, attends Harvard.

We want a happy ending for our children. But this means hard work, and discipline to ensure they do that hard work: ‘In Disney movies, the “good daughter” always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.’

Winning prizes, passing exams: these give children choices. In the short term it is so very, very hard to be strict, to be demanding, and to not settle for less than 100%. At Michaela, we have very, very high standards, and are not afraid to tell our pupils: ‘that’s not good enough. Do it again.’ In the short term, it feels bad for them to have ‘failed,’ but the extra practice, and seeing the improvement in the second piece should stand them in good stead in the long term.

Chua writes: ‘All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.’ This resonates strongly with me: at Michaela, we do things totally differently. We all want our children to succeed, but we just have a very different approach.

Battle hymn