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.

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4 thoughts on “What can schools learn from successful communities?

  1. I am committed to helping children in working class communities to achieve in school and as always I find posts regarding Michaela thought provoking.

    However, I struggle with the paragraph where you write, “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 school 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.”

    I appreciate the effectiveness of the approach of creating a siege mentality, so beloved of Alec Ferguson and others http://www.herald.ie/sport/soccer/jose-siege-mentality-creates-a-team-bond-30868708.html , but how do you feel this helps other children and schools in the area. Healthy competition between equals is no bad thing and can raise standards, but there can be a negative side if the competition is unequal.

    I went to an okay catholic secondary school in a highly deprived area of Birmingham. A few years after I left, the school beside us became the first City Technology College https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Technology_College . Over the coming years the impact upon my old school became very apparent. Many of the more motivated parents of the local catholic children starting sending their children to Kingshurt CTC, rather than Archbishop Grimshaw RC. Kingshurst CTC was perceived as having more resources and children going there would have a better chance of academic success. By mid 2006 my old school was in special measures.

    My question to you is how can we/you make sure that story is not repeated in the area around Michaela? Because it is not just sad that my old school that declined, it is the sad that thousands of kids went through that school as it was declining and who knows what impact did that have on their life chances.

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    • A fascinating comment, and thank you very much for taking the time to engage!

      I would say a couple of things on this. Firstly, and perhaps selfishly, I’m not interested in other schools in our community – and there are a fair few with some excellent exam results and Outstanding Ofsted judgements. There are also schools which are not. But it’s not my job to worry about other schools, good or not good – my job is to make my school the best there is. And I think that’s true of every teacher – we can’t control what happens in other schools, so why worry about that?

      Secondly, every one of the four schools I have worked in has told the pupils ‘we’re the best’ and they’re ‘lucky to come here’. Even in schools which do NOT have good results, and which DO NOT have an Ofsted stamp of approval, there is a sense of camaraderie and pride developed in telling children they are special because of the school they go to. It benefits everyone, children, teachers, schools, the community, to feel good about what they are doing. Poor schools who focus on why they are so bad will not be as effective, surely, as a poor school that knows it can be great, and which emphasises its greatness to the pupils? Imagine telling kids: ‘listen, your teachers are rubbish and our results are terrible. You’d be better off across the road,’ is totally unnecessary and ineffectual. If true, SLT need to work behind the scenes to make it untrue! But in the meantime, telling kids: ‘your teachers work SO hard for you,’ ‘our uniform is the smartest of any in the borough – so wear it with pride’, picking out the top achievers and saying ‘he/she was in the top 5% in the country – that could be you too!’ or in other ways emphasising the best bits of the school is good for pupil and staff morale.

      Forgive me if I have misunderstood your comment, but happy to clarify further!

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      • Thanks for getting back to me.
        Just a bit of background. My 15 years of teaching have all been done in a disadvantaged primary school in the Irish Republic.Over here we don’t have SATS, league tables, academias or an inspectorate as powerful as OFSTED.
        In our own area the six primary headteachers all meet up on a regular basis and discuss common issues and teachers have come together to discuss teaching practices and initiatives. I believe this cooperation between local schools has had some impact and has the potential to be even more effective in the future.

        I know the doors of Michaela are open to anybody who wants to visit, and next year I hope to accept this opportunity, but I am just interested in how Michaela interacts and influences other schools in the locality. Is there any forum where local teachers and heads can come together to share good practice or ideas and help raiseeducation standards across the wider community?

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