I Wish I Taught Maths

I was terrible at Maths. I had never learned the basics – times tables, long multiplication – nothing. When I sat the entrance exam for an assisted place scheme to go to a local private school, I scored almost nothing on the Maths paper. The kind Headteacher led me through the paper question by question, one to one, and decided to offer me a place because I seemed to understand it, I had just ‘never been taught it.’ Once ensconced in the private school that changed my life, I was sent to top set Maths. I struggled. I made my teacher, Mrs Meadows-Smith’s, life a misery. I asked stupid, time-wasting questions. I hated Maths.

And so the next year, I was placed in the third set for Maths. And I loved it. Finally, I could understand what was going on. Mr. Shepperson’s explanations were clear, and his enthusiasm was encouraging. I spent a term in set 3, before being propelled again to set 1. Where again, I hated it. We took a half-termly test, and every half term I came bottom, or second from bottom. On the eve of year 11, I heard someone say in an off-hand way: ‘The kids at the bottom of set 1 will get Bs; the kids at the top of set 2 will get As.’ That was it. I petitioned the Head of Maths, and got to join set 2… Again, with Mrs. Meadows-Smith. That poor woman. I had learned nothing in terms of behaviour, and continued to be distracted and annoying. She persevered. She never once raised her voice. She was kind and patient, even though I was her literal nightmare. I have no idea how I managed to get an A at GCSE Maths, but I imagine it was 5% due to me, and 95% due to Mrs. Meadows-Smith.

By the end of year 11, I loved Maths, because I could do Maths, and Maths is incredible when you can do it. I asked the Head of Maths if I could do Maths A-level. The response was categorical: no. I may have ‘scraped an A’ at GCSE (code for: we have no idea how this has happened but we are very happy for you), but I could only hope for a C at best in the AS level, not to mention the even harder A-level.

He was right. But when I walk the corridors of any school, I always linger a little longer in Maths classes. Maths is different to basically every other lesson in schools. The operations required are different. The method, in many ways, is different. Children do not encounter Maths in any other lesson apart from Maths: Maths teachers have the hardest job in terms of getting children to understand their subject.

 Reading Craig Barton’s How I Wish I’d Taught Maths has only convinced me more that I wish I could teach Maths. But the book is about so much more than Maths. Barton’s journey is one many readers will recognise: ‘mid-career’ he hit a ‘crisis’, whereby he realised that much of what he had done was actually ‘wrong,’ and did not lead to greater student understanding of Maths. He embarked on a mission to find out how to do it better, and this book is a record of that mission.

Each chapter follows the same helpful pattern: what Barton used to think, what he has read on that particular subject (always an astonishing amount of books, journal articles and a few blogs thrown into the mix), before a useable summary of his ‘takeaways’, which, because they are written by an actual teacher who teaches actual children, are completely actionable and never require bonkers amounts of effort.

So much of this book is helpful beyond Maths – chapters on how children learn, the novice/expert issue, what motivates learners, how to get better at instruction, cognitive load theory, worked examples, deliberate practice, formative assessment and long-term memory all include a useful précis of the science involved plus applicable insights for teachers of all subjects.

For example, in a chapter exploring what motivates students, Barton talks about the balance between struggle and success, something that every teacher will recognise: while we do want children to ‘struggle’ a bit, so they find the work challenging, and endure the kinds of difficulties that ensure their thinking is engaged, we also need them to succeed so that, long term, they will be more likely to persevere. Yet we don’t want them succeeding too easily, or all the time. Barton’s exploration of tricky issues like this, with his perspective as a working teacher, is invaluable.

One example of a transferable, useful and research-informed trick Barton shares is to get students to give each answer they write a ‘confidence score’ out of ten prior to marking. The idea is that it makes the children think about how much they think they know something. When they then go through and self-correct, they are more likely to take in the mistakes they have made and remember to not do it that way again. This is the ‘hypercorrection’ effect, whereby ‘errors committed with high confidence are more likely to be corrected than low-confidence errors.’ Another of my favourite insights is that student learning is significantly improved following self-assessment, but students who have peer marked do not experience as much improvement. This is a great nugget of research that will save countless minutes of class time across the land (‘I don’t have a partner’/‘no, that’s a 2 not a 3!’/‘Miss, he’s doing it wrong/making a mess of my book!’).

Having endured many ‘co-planning’ sessions, I, like Barton, was perplexed: why does all the research suggest co-planning leads to better teaching, but every session I sat through seemed like a total waste of time? Barton’s insight is that planning a lesson together is less helpful than writing questions together. To transfer this out of the Maths domain a little, we might think of this as creating the lesson content together, rather than the logistics of a lesson together. Indeed, I increasingly think the best way to support teachers is to give them (or co-create with them) the lesson content, and then use coaching to ensure they are delivering that content in the best possible way.

Obviously, all of the examples in this book are of Maths, and I’m afraid I am unqualified to share my insights on how helpful these are; though I defer to two readers, Kris Boulton and Dani Quinn, whose Maths skills are, in my view, unparalleled: their effusive praise for the book speaks volumes (Maths pun attempted).

One of my favourite things about reading excellent books are their citations. After reading Barton’s book, my Amazon wishlist is absolutely bursting with education tomes, which works well with my new year’s reading resolution to read more non-fiction books.

So what will I do now? The plan to get a Maths A-level looks to have legs, thanks to Kris Boulton’s ‘Up Learn’ project, and, life-logistics depending, I’m hoping the next five years will see me re-engage with Maths in a more formal way. In the mean time, I will continue to lurk in Maths classrooms, and lend Barton’s book to everyone I know who actually does teach Maths (and to a few people who don’t).

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What should school CPD focus on?

We’ve all sat through some real shockers of school CPD sessions at one time or another. Thinking about the elements of what I think makes great teaching, here are the school-based CPD sessions I think every school should be running:

Behaviour

The most important thing in a school is that the children behave. Managing behaviour should be returned to again and again to ensure all teachers have clarity, and that the systems are applied consistently by all. It is also worth thinking about when behaviour slips – is it in the canteen, at the beginnings of lessons, during the fire drill – and addressing those specific moments with a new approach.

Reading

Children read in every single lesson, but it’s not always obvious how to get them to the point where they will read aloud confidently.


Writing

Children write in every single lesson, but is their writing always accurate and coherent? There are lots of small tweaks we can make to out practise to help children write more effectively.


Questioning

I think questioning is the absolute most important thing a teacher can do. The best teachers I have seen pepper their explanations with multiple questions asked of as many students as possible to check they understand, and then to see if the students can apply their understanding to new scenarios and begin to think more deeply about the content.


Explanation

Subject departments should be talking in their CPD time about the best way to explain tricky concepts, and thinking about the common misconceptions children have.


Booklets

Rather than using Powerpoints or photocopying multiple sheets, departments should focus on pre-producing booklets and then planning how to deliver them. Those responsible for resourcing should be trained in the best and fastest way to produce booklets under the inevitable time pressures of any school.


Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers force teams to consider what they want students to learn for the long term. CPD on making them as effective and clear as possible would be helpful, especially in the early days of adopting them.


Recaps and quizzing

Understanding the science of memory, the power of overlearning, and the simplicity of recapping prior knowledge would go a long way to helping children retain knowledge for the long term.


Deliberate practice

Not all practice is as helpful as it could be. Helping teachers discern the most important skills for children to practice and then supporting them to make activities that ensure children are undertaking deliberate practice is invaluable.


Feedback

Rather than laboriously marking every book, teachers can give whole-class feedback. But it is not always obvious which aspects to focus on to make the feedback as effective as possible.

 

All of the above aspects could easily be covered in short 20 or 30 minute slots, and focused on key aspects or resources, but I think that all the elements are crucial to good teaching. In terms of pedagogy, I don’t think we can do better than implementing coaching observations, as advocated in Leverage Leadership, with frequent low-stakes observations focused on one minor tweak each time to improve teaching. 

Reach 2017

On Monday 23rd October, the first day of the October half term, hundreds of keen educators made their way to Feltham for Reach’s annual conference. The standard is always high, but I felt this year was a particular cracker.

 

NYC after No Excuses: Taylor Delhagen and Mark Lehain

There were two ‘no excuses’ sessions in the first slot: one from Peter Jones, the head of Paddington Academy, on how employing no excuses discipline turned behaviour around in his school, and the other from Delhagen on how he turned his back on no excuses towards a more restorative approach. My overwhelming take away from this was Lehain’s respectful challenge to some of Delhagen’s remarks. Delhagen was a Teach for America whiz kid who was made a Head early on, but grew disenchanted with ‘no excuses’ after seeing the number of children ‘lost’ by that system. Delhagen is a man with a clear mission and morality: he repeatedly asked us ‘where do those children go?’ and reminded us that ‘those children are someone’s problem.’ I don’t think any proponents of ‘no excuses’ discipline I know would disagree. He described as ‘utilitarian’ the challenge that if you do not exclude one child for bringing in a weapon to school, other children will receive the message that this is acceptable, and shared the story of one child at his school, who, after bringing in a weapon, was subject to restorative justice. The child, her parents, parents from the community and other children sat in a circle, and the child could hear the impact her actions had on others. Following this, the child remained in school and succeeded in attending a top university.

A lovely story, of course. And of course schools should not be blindly excluding children. But I don’t think they are. Exclusion is always a difficult call, and the schools that I know do everything they can to ensure all children are included in their communities. But there have to be red lines, and I suspect even Delhagen has them. The child in the story brought in a weapon for her own safety; had she used it on a pupil or member of staff, I suspect the ending would have been very different.

Exclusion does not exclude the possibility of the child understanding the impact their actions have had, and tough sanctions do not prevent conversations and explanations of why their behaviour is unacceptable.

 

The School Improvement Conundrum: Chris Fairbairn, Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs and Clare Sealy

I am ever in awe of Headteachers, and this panel was simply 45 minutes of inspiration. Chris spoke of his experience at Burlington Danes in West London, detailing how seeing first hand the extraordinary transformation executed by Dame Sally Coates had made him believe that ‘change is possible.’ He also spoke of working in two schools prior to headship as helping him to be able to work out what his values were: at Burlington Danes, they did not just focus on results, but also serving the community and creating a great culture for children to learn in. He spoke of challenging entrenched low expectations at his school, Totteridge Academy, a theme he picked up in more depth in his later session.

I had never heard Clare Sealy speak, but her honesty and no-nonsense approach immediately endeared her to me. She outlined being ‘thrown into headship’ with humility, playing down her personal strengths and insisting people liked her ‘because the head before had been mad.’ She was honest about her evolution, saying she had been a phonics sceptic before visiting another school and seeing the impact, and subsequently changing her mind, and suggested that the best headteachers are open-minded to change.

Lydia agreed with Clare, and said the best CPD she had organised was to take a bus-load of her MAT’s headteachers to an excellent school so everyone could see first hand what was possible. She spoke about school improvement ‘beginning and ending with the head’, who needs a strong vision shared by the whole team – including the children.

 

Reach Academy’s First GCSE results – Rebecca Cramer

I always love hearing Rebecca speak – she is the epitome of honesty and humility. This summer, the education world watched in awe as Reach’s first class received extraordinary results, with all but one child achieving a 4 or above in English and Maths. They prioritise academic subjects: 95% of children were entered for the EBacc. Yet Cramer’s speech was focused almost entirely on the mistakes they had made, and what Reach had learned from those mistakes – there is no room for complacency here. Rebecca noted that the new exams had been an advantage, as teachers avoided complacency: they knew it would be tougher, and so did the children. Reach’s small cohort lends itself to mixed ability teaching, and the team are focused on how to stretch top achievers as a result, laying on ‘master classes’ (‘dine for a nine’) and working on injecting more challenge into their Key Stage 3 curriculum (‘teaching excellence beats teaching to the test’).

It is hard to pick out the most useful advice without running to a thousand words on this talk alone, so I will briefly summarise some key take-aways:

  • Don’t run revision until January of Year 11, after their mocks have scared them into working harder. Otherwise, they will burn out and so will you
  • Set grade boundaries in mock exams higher than you think to avoid complacency
  • Relationships are the most important thing – invest in those
  • Focus on every child – not just the loud ones

I loved the idea of a parent and child assembly after the mock exams, after which children are handed their results in an envelope and they ‘feel really sad.’ What Reach do with parents is unparalleled in the state sector, and I look forward to hearing more about how they have engaged them so effectively.

 

In at the deep end: Chris Fairbairn

I was lucky enough to visit Chris at Totteridge Academy in Barnet before half term. It was the day after open evening, and most staff had been at the school late. Yet that morning there was a feeling of elation in the school. As Chris took me around, teachers would stop him to gush: ‘that was the best open evening ever. I can’t believe how different the school is.’ This is after only one year in post. In 2016, 50 parents attended their open evening. This year, it was 450. News is spreading, and a huge amount is down to Chris’s leadership. The school’s progress 8 score improved from -0.45 to +0.32 this year, and the old measure of 5 A*-C including English and Maths was up by 27%.

Chris said the turn-around was down to three main aspects: the power of high expectations, building a reputation, and hard work. He spoke of a staff turnover of 43% and 13 fixed term exclusions in the first week as really setting the tone for higher expectations for both staff and students, all set in the context of a school that had significantly underperformed for decades in the community. The quotation: ‘worry about your character, not your reputation. Character is who your are, and your reputation is who people think you are’ spoke to the core of what Chris does: he draws on deep integrity to make people follow him into battle. This sense of moral purpose is combined with savvy know-how, as he shared some top tips for maximising results with his first year 11 cohort, as he knew they would be a big driver of the school’s success. Chris mentioned two pieces advice from his aforementioned mentor, Dame Sally Coates, which are well worth repeating: ‘surround yourself with amazing people’ (he has done) and, when tough choices need to be made, ‘always go back to what is best for the children.’ I can’t wait to see what happens at Totteridge next.

 

How we approach primary curriculum design – Jon Brunskill

I always love hearing Jon speak – he is full of self-deprecating humour and intelligence in almost equal measure. For every unit at Reach primary, teachers must think: ‘what do I want every single child to know by the end of the unit?’ I can think of no better place to start. Jon says this normally consists of a timeline, key tier 3 vocabulary and key concepts. A guiding principle is also ‘what would I expect intelligent adults to know?’ He uses this to create knowledge organisers that the children quiz on.

Jon drew on Kirschner’s work on long term memory, along with Hirsch’s assertion that background knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, to make a forthright argument about a knowledge-rich primary curriculum that is, frankly, inspirational. Noting that it was impossible to expect primary teachers to be experts in every subject, he recommended the Civitas books as a good place to start, along with the advice that primary teachers be honest about their subject knowledge, and read books to improve it.

Touching briefly on pedagogy, he noted: ‘we don’t do the carousel thing’ (where children teach each other in small groups having been given resources) – ‘if they don’t need a teacher to learn, what are they learning?’ All children end the unit by writing an end of unit essay, and the year 2 work Jon shared was really extraordinary. I can’t wait to see what the children taught his curriculum can do by the end of key stage 2.

 

What can the UK education system learn from other countries? – Lucy Crehan, Alex Beard, Taylor Delhagen, John Rendel

I charged my phone during the last two sessions, so my notes are far more limited. Overall, the message from this panel seemed to be: depressingly little. The consensus was that countries were more different than the same, and that politicians needed to be wary of bringing over whole-sale practices from other countries.

Lucy Crehan spoke of timetabling to allow teachers to specialise in particular year groups and to reduce workload, which I partially agree with – though I think, in the absence of a KS3 curriculum, if you don’t know where they need to be by A-levels or GCSEs this may be sub-optimal for pupils. She noted that part of a practice’s success or failure was also down to implementation, meaning we ought not to dismiss an idea which works well in another country just because we have failed to do it very well ourselves.

There seemed to be some concern about exporting ideas from the UK and USA to other countries for fear of ‘cultural imperialism.’ PISA was seen as a good measurement in general, but policy makers were criticised for over-extrapolating from PISA and using that data to sanction rather than support school systems. John Rendell, speaking about the unions, made the point that the public perception is that they put teachers before students: ‘teachers won’t be respected until they are seen as the protector of student learning and not teacher rights.’

 

New schools – success and failure – Oli de Botton, Max Haimendorf, Rebecca Cramer, Jenny Thompson, Charlie Kennard

As the leaders of these new schools stressed the challenges they had faced along with the successes they had enjoyed, I was amazed by the variation between schools even within one city. Rebecca spoke about undervaluing ‘operations’ early on, and recognising now how vital it is that, for example, the school photocopier works smoothly.

Listening to Max speak was a particular highlight. KSA opened in 2009, and it really was on its own then, doing something completely different. Max travelled to the US for inspiration, stealing the best of what he saw in Uncommon Schools and KIPP. He has stuck with his school for eight years, and despite consistently excellent results was keen to stress the mistakes he felt he had made. (‘Don’t start a school day at 7:55 and end it at 5pm. Some people will burn out.’) His reflections on staff wellbeing and retention, and his honesty in sharing with the room where he had got it wrong, was really extraordinary.

Rebecca started on the original KSA team, but decided for Reach to ‘go it alone’ without a Multi-Academy Trust to back them, and shared the benefits and the challenges this had brought, while Jenny Thompson talked about recruitment issues in Bradford and having to grow staff.

 

Coupled with these incredible talks were plenty of opportunities to catch up with education folk and meet new people. I’m not sure this short post can do the day justice – I will be thinking about what I learned at Reach for a long time to come.

What Makes Us Happy

At Michaela, we aren’t only focused on our kids working hard, learning loads and achieving great grades. We also want them to be happy. We think long and hard about how we can foster our kids’ happiness, and, having read wisdom literature, there are three strands to building a happier life that we focus on: gratitude, personal responsibility and duty.

Gratitude

In a TED talk, David Steindel-Rast says: ‘It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.’ As adults, we have come to find that it is better to give than to receive. Wisdom literature tells us that the more grateful we are, the happier we are; that is why all religions set aside prayers to thank God for what we are given. In secular life, we know that counting our blessings helps us to focus on what we have rather than what we lack, something an increasingly materialistic society wishes us to dwell on.

At Michaela, we know that kids are not naturally grateful – in fact, it is often the opposite. They are surrounded by images of acquisition with constant advertising and MTV-style programmes of the rich and famous, not to mention social media allowing the kids to see the extraordinarily luxurious lives of their idols.

To foster gratitude, we have daily appreciations at lunchtime. The kids take it in turns to say who they are grateful to that day, and for what. We choose ten to twenty children each day to stand up and say, in front of the whole lunchroom (some 180 children and adults) who they are grateful to and why. You can see an example of this in action in this video at around 1:20.

A couple of times a term, tutors also allow pupils the opportunity to write postcards. The pupils are encouraged to write their thanks to a teacher or member of staff who has really helped them. For teachers, there is nothing better than finding a handful of postcards in our pigeon holes with messages of gratitude. We teachers also remember to be grateful to our wonderful kids: every week, every teacher writes three to ten postcards to members of their classes who have made a real effort or really impressed us that week.

 

Personal responsibility

When we believe events to be outside our control, we find life endlessly frustrating. We are stymied in our efforts by continually thinking: if only this wasn’t the case! If only this had happened instead! It is a frustrating way to live, because we cannot control the actions of others. If we focus on how others behave, we will often find ourselves at a dead end, unable to reach our goals.

If, on the other hand, we focus on our own locus of control, we feel much more content. If we are unhappy with how something has gone, instead of blaming the wider world, we instead focus our attention on the things we could have done differently.

So, for example, if a pupil finds themself in a detention they perceive as unfair, we have a conversation with them to talk them through to taking responsibility.

‘But I was whispering because the boy next to me was whispering to me first! Why did I get the detention but he didn’t?’ This reaction leads to anger and resentment. The children feel unhappy that a punishment seems to have been given unfairly. It is hard for kids to understand that teachers are never omniscient, and we can’t catch every infraction. We turn this conversation around by first emphasising that we have strict rules and detentions so that the children can have a peaceful and calm environment to learn in. We then refocus the child on what they can do differently. What can they do next time to change their consequences? Not talk back. If someone whispers to them, they cannot control that person’s actions but they can control their own, and how they respond. Taking responsibility is always better than blaming others. As adults, we know that the best people take the blame and are honest when they get something wrong. As adults, we feel happier when we know we can change things for the future. We want our kids to learn that lesson too.

 

Duty

Modern Western society encourages us to think about our dreams: what do we dream of doing with our lives? What do we dream of achieving? What do we dream of having? Yet focusing on ourselves and what we hope to get, acquire, achieve is not the route to happiness. Inevitably, things will happen in all of our lives to prevent us from ever enjoying the ideal life.

If, instead, we focus on our duty, we can find a surer route to happiness. Duty means finding your contribution. It is not what you can get from society that we should focus on, but what you can give to society.

This was a lesson I learned over many years. I was always very ambitious and very self-focused, never satisfied with what I was achieving, and never just enjoying life for what it was. In taking a demotion to join Michaela, I hugely struggled with my ambitious side. Yet over time I realised that if I focused on my duty instead of my ego, I would be happier. My ego wanted to feel important; but my duty was to contribute to what I firmly believe is a ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting school. To focus on position is frustrating; to focus on what you can contribute to a movement is exciting.

Similarly, we often talk to our kids about legacy: what legacy do you want to leave in the world? What will your contribution be? It can’t be about how much money they want to earn, or how many accolades they wish to be given. Instead, if they focus on what they can give and contribute they will lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Stoicism, humility, space: how Michaela changes the people who work there

One of the things I hear a lot from my colleagues at Michaela is that working at the school has made them better people. Why is it that so many of us feel we have improved as humans through our collective endeavour to teach children? 

Stoicism

‘I’d never heard of stoicism before I worked here. Now I’m reading Epictetus with eleven year olds. It’s mad!’ (Michaela teacher)

We explicitly teach stoicism to the kids from day one of Bootcamp in Year 7. We teach them that adversity is there to test them, and the true test of character is how they choose to respond. They will, like everyone, experience difficulties in their lives: stoicism gives them tools to rise to those challenges.

By continually reminding pupils to ‘stay stoical’ – when they get a detention, when they cut their finger, when they have a cold, when they’re finding a topic or idea difficult, when they have six hours of exams a day in exam week – we are also internalising that message ourselves. It is really quite extraordinary how high staff attendance is at Michaela.

Stoicism is a life-changing philosophy. I’ve recently started reading The Daily Stoic, which is like a Bible for perseverance and perspective. When difficult things used to happen in my life, I would go to pieces. I would cry, or feel anger, or feel that it just wasn’t fair. But now, I remember what we teach our kids: Nelson Mandela spent 27 years wrongfully imprisoned; Victor Frankl endured the miseries of a concentration camp. Nothing that can happen in my life will come close to the suffering they endured, but through our own endurance we can set examples for others.

In August, for example, I slipped a disc in my neck. I was in absolute agony for months, and felt very sorry for myself continually. But when I was tempted to indulge in considering how ‘unfair’ my lot was, I had only to look at the shining example of my step-mother, whose M.S. may make her daily life incredibly difficult, but will not take the smile and positivity from her. She is a force of nature, and a wonderful human to be around. She is an example for me to live up to: if I feel pain, it is nothing compared to what she feels every day; if she can endure it, I can follow her example.

 

Humility

Before I worked at Michaela, I loved being told I was great, and hated being told how to improve. I was, in short, pretty arrogant. But through our culture of candour, and through a culture of continual improvement and continual feedback, through working at Michaela you become more humble. We are all always improving, and come to actually look forward to our candid conversations as we know they will genuinely help us improve.

It is great to work somewhere free of blame. In about my first month of working at Michaela, Katharine asked me to present something at a staff meeting. I came up with a handout I know would have worked well at any of my previous schools and talked people through it. It didn’t seem to go as well as I had anticipated, and I wasn’t sure why.

The next day, Katharine asked me to see her. ‘It didn’t work,’ she said. ‘You’re telling people “why,” but they know why – they need to know “how.”’ Does that sound harsh? It wasn’t harsh in the delivery – it was delivered without blame, without recrimination, in the spirit of sharing information: this didn’t work, so next time do this.

Being humble means you learn more: you don’t write off the first year teacher’s advice because you are more experienced, you don’t discount the ideas of others in the school because of any misguided notion of ‘rank.’ You listen to everyone, and you learn more than you could have ever expected.

 

Space

I do wonder if all schools could be like Michaela in terms of the ethos and atmosphere for staff. Certainly, our workload is very intense – days are packed from 7:30am to 4pm – but we also have evenings and weekends and holidays free to see friends, to see family; to read, to write, to think. I’ve never had so many colleagues go to the theatre mid-week, or go away for the entirety of a half term or long holiday without the slightest qualms.

And every day is zen: silent corridors, quiet classrooms, children behaving beautifully is all conducive to feeling happy to take on difficult advice, and finding it easier to deal with emotional or physical problems. In times of crisis, Michaela is a really lovely place to be.

In my previous jobs, I absolutely loved what I was doing, but I was often exhausted: I would cancel plans at the last minute because I could not bear to leave the sofa at the weekend, I wouldn’t see close friends for months on end, I wouldn’t book long holidays because I knew I would find the workload unmanageable when I returned.

Now, I still love what I’m doing, but it’s not all of my life – it’s part of my life. But that part of my life impacts on everything else, and I find my friendships deepen, and my relationships with my family soften, because I see them more often, and I am more present with them.

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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