Teach Knowledge

What can you do when you inherit a clueless year 10 or 11 class? Teach them the test. It’s something that teachers who join struggling schools know well. Principals who are drafted in to turn around failing schools are not fools to throw their resources at year 11 intervention, a.k.a., teaching to the test. What is the alternative?

But kids at private schools and grammar schools don’t do better on these tests because they were drilled better in exam technique. They don’t even do better because their teachers are better paid, or better qualified, or their schools have bigger, better buildings. They do better on the tests because they have deep subject knowledge, built up incrementally over a great number of years, often beginning in the cradle with a loving parent’s reading aloud each night.

In state schools, we have, for too long, been teaching skills and neglecting knowledge. In English, we have taught any novel, or any poem, thinking that the thing that is important is the ‘skill’: of reading, of inferring, of analysing. And yet, novel finished, what have the children learned? Daniel Willingham says that memory is ‘the residue of thought.’ The problem with skills-based lessons is that they don’t require thinking about anything you can commit to memory. Nothing is learned because nothing is being remembered. Over years and years of skills-based teaching, children aren’t actually learning anything. They are simply practising some skills in a near vacuum.

And yet, when it comes to the exams, we all know what to do: we teach them the test. We don’t like knowledge, but we’ll drill children in quotations and PEE and techniques used in key poems. We’ll drill kids in how long to spend on each question and how many marks are available. We’ll drill kids on the key words in each question (‘bafflingly, when AQA says “structure”, what they actually mean is…’). And then we will complain that we have to teach to the test.

I say ‘we,’ because I am equally culpable. Before joining Michaela, I could not see an alternative way of teaching English. Surely it was all about the skills! Who cared when Oliver Twist was written or what the characters’ names were? The kids could look that stuff up! What mattered was their ideas about the text!

We hugely underestimate how vital knowledge is. Skills-teachers across the land cannot work out why their kids cannot improve their inferences, cannot improve their analysis. Why can’t their ideas about the text just be a bit, well, better?

The kids’ ideas can’t be better because they don’t know enough. We don’t think it matters whether they learn chronology, but we forget that it is not obvious to children that Dickens is a Victorian. It is not obvious to children that Shakespeare is an Elizabethan. It is not obvious to children that the Elizabethans pre-date the Victorians. They simply do not know this.

The children who grow up being taught facts and knowledge will thrive in their national exams. They will use all their background knowledge and cultural literacy to deliver deft insights in glorious prose, and sweep up the top grades with ease. The children taught through skills will improve slowly, painfully, and nowhere near fast enough to compete. They will endure two years of teaching to the test and lose any love of learning they might have gleaned in the previous years.

Is there another way? Of course: teach a knowledge-based curriculum from the very start. Stop giving the rich kids a head start.

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Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.

Warm – strict  

I have written previously about Teach Like a Champion, a book I feel to be the most important contribution to pedagogy advice I have read. Although it is nearly impossible to pick which of the important techniques are the most vital, ‘warm strict’ is definitely up there: in fact, it may even be the foundation of a successful education.

The thinking behind ‘warm strict’ is that you should not be either the warm, friendly, kind teacher or the strict teacher: you need to be both. And not one after the other – it’s not Jekyll and Hyde – but both, at the precise same time.

So ‘warm’ and ‘strict’ are not mutually exclusive. In fact, at Michaela, we have found that the more strict we want to be, the more warm we have to be.

Anyone who has visited Michaela is immediately struck by the behaviour of the pupils. It is unusual, they say, to find classroom after classroom where 100% of pupils are focused for 100% of the time. Row upon row of eyes are fixed on their teacher, or on their exercise books. There is no staring out the window, no fiddling with a pen, no hanging back on their chairs.

But this does not happen by magic. Watch any Michaela lesson, and teachers are constantly issuing corrections to pupils. These can take the form of reminders or demerits, and are swift and public. ‘Kevon, remember to keep those eyes glued to your page,’ might be issued to a year 7 who is still in terrible habits from primary school, who desperately wants to focus on his work but just isn’t quite in the habit of it. ‘Shyma, that’s a demerit: if you focus 100% on your paragraph you know it will be the best you can do,’ might address a year 9 who is knowingly letting their eyes wander because they are seeking to distract others or themselves. It’s a judgement call, and one we don’t all always get right, but in general Michaela teachers are incredibly consistent in the messages they give the children. (We achieve that consistency through frequent observations – the topic of a future post.)

In my previous schools, I was also issuing constant corrections; the difference was my stress level. With a tough class, counting up those three warnings before issuing a sanction would lead to me delivering corrections with an emotional tone, conveying the stress I was feeling. Because the bar for behaviour is set so ludicrously high at Michaela, and pupils are never doing anything worse in lessons than turning around, whispering or fiddling with a pen, we can all take the time to explain every correction we give throughout the lesson. And we give corrections, reminders, demerits and even detentions with care and love: ‘that’s your second demerit, which is a detention – this will help you to remember to keep your focus so you will achieve your full potential.’

Not only within lessons, but also between lessons, Michaela teachers are seeking out opportunities for warm interactions with pupils. At break time, tutors circulate the hall their year group is based in, shaking hands, chatting about their weekend or their interests; we even have footage of pupils teaching their tutors how to dance. At lunchtime, we eat with our pupils; teachers will seek out kids they have had to sanction or have a difficult conversation with, and use that friendly interaction to reset the relationship in a more positive tone.

Because we are so strict, it is vital that every teacher greets every child with a smile and happy ‘good morning!’ prior to each lesson. Because we are so strict, we must smile and chat with the pupils on the playground, in the lunch hall, and even at the bus stop. Because we are so strict, we need to let our love show.

All truly excellent teachers love their pupils – that seems obvious to me. But if you want to be really, really strict you need to show them that love in every smiling interaction.

PowerPoint

Before training as a teacher, I’m genuinely not even sure I was aware of the existence of PowerPoint. I’d certainly never used it, nor was it installed on my computer. I’d never encountered it as a pupil in school or a student in university (although I do recall images being used in lectures, which could easily have been delivered through a PowerPoint format).

It was in my second week of teacher training, in what is called a ‘Second School Experience,’ I first was made aware of the programme. Preparing to teach a lesson for the first time, I met with the class’s usual teacher whose opening words were, ‘here’s my log-in so you can make a PowerPoint. Obviously you’ll want to make a PowerPoint.’ It didn’t seem too obvious to me then. I spent an hour or so painfully working out how to use the programme, painstakingly copying and pasting images I found at random using clipart (I hadn’t yet understood how to get images from the internet onto a slide), and changing the fonts at random. During the lesson, which was obviously a disaster for far wider ranging reasons than the existence of PowerPoint, I remember finding the slides a hindrance rather than a help, as I awkwardly pointed to a slide from time to time, only really to justify the time that had been poured into making it.

Looking back on my first term of teaching, my early PowerPoints were four slide affairs. They had a title, a learning objective (it was 2010), and then a series of questions for kids to answer, split into different slides which vaguely corresponded to different parts of the text we were learning (normally, the heading was a page number, the bullet points questions).

But I learned fast. My PowerPoints soon exploded into twenty, even thirty slide affairs for a single 50 minute lesson, packed with animations, images and coloured backgrounds as standard. At peak-PowerPoint, I could knock one of these out in under ten minutes.

But I’ve since reneged, and I’ve come to believe the use of PowerPoint is misguided. Why?

  1. Life in a dark room

The first time I visited a school, after 6 interim years of work and study, my first thought was how dark it was. It was the end of the year, and so bright and beautiful outside, but in classroom after classroom it was beyond winter. It was hellishly dark, and with the blinds drawn the classrooms were sweltering. I wondered how the kids could even see what they were reading or writing. Much like modern family life, everyone seemed orientated towards the bright screen at the front. It’s depressing.

  1. Split focus

PowerPoint splits kids’ focus. You want them to focus on you, and your instruction – but instead, they are focused on the screen that bears the remnants of that instruction. You want them to focus on the text and what they are learning, but instead they have to keep looking up to find out what the question is before they write again.

  1. It stops teachers teaching

Even ten minutes to bosh out a PowerPoint is a waste of time. But more than that, it actively impedes my preparation. I’m thinking about slides instead of thinking about content. I might put twenty questions on a PowerPoint, but actually I need to be thinking about a hundred questions to ask pupils. At Michaela, we ask each of the 32 pupils in our classes at least three, and often more, questions in a single lesson. I need to spend my time planning those micro-questions as well, not just the few ‘big questions’ they might answer at length in discussion or writing.

  1. Technology fails you

If I haven’t persuaded you with the preceding arguments, perhaps I will have more luck here! Hands up who has ever had technology fail them in the classroom? That’ll be every teacher ever.

And it’s awful. You stand there at the front. You have nothing. You could write your questions on the tiny actual whiteboard that is awkwardly positioned so not all kids can even read it, but then you’d have your back to the children and we all know how that pans out. Plus, what if half your questions are about the gorgeous images you’ve meticulously selected? You’ve got nothing. You do a little dance. You pray you can contain them.

We teach a poem in year 7 by William Carlos Williams called ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’ It’s a poem about a painting by Pieter Brueghel, so obviously I felt I needed to show the kids the image in order for them to understand the significance of the poem. It was in my early days at Michaela, and I was already nervous as a visitor I knew vaguely from the world outside Michaela would be in my classroom. (I think we’re all desensitised to visitors now, as we have about five a day wander in.) I cued the image up ready. And then it transpired that my board was not connected to my computer. I absolutely panicked.

Back-up could not arrive in time, so I taught that lesson without my picture. I just explained the picture, and why it was important. The kids got it, wrote about the poem; happy days. It was fine. But by the afternoon my board was fixed. So, the second time I taught the lesson to the other year 7 class I taught, I had the image ready to go.

And it was a much weaker lesson. Because we had split attention. We had a request to pull the blinds down so they could ‘see it properly.’ They were confused by other aspects of the picture I didn’t want them to focus on. It was, all in all, a massive distraction.

  1. Work less, achieve more

Why have a resource and a PowerPoint? It’s the same argument I used to make against lesson plans – why do I need one when my PowerPoint shows my planning? Well now – why do I need a PowerPoint when my resource – poem, novel, play – shows my planning and thoughts about how I will teach these children?

At Michaela, all children have the same resource, and so does the teacher. The teacher’s is annotated with questions and key aspects to bring out in instruction. What more do we need?

A caveat

Ok – I actually do use PowerPoint. One slide, one lesson a week, for ten minutes. It is for our weekly quiz. We put the questions on a single PowerPoint slide, and the kids write their answers on paper. We then sort the papers using comparative judgement.

We’ve tried to come up with ways to avoid this, but so far everything considered has meant considerably more work for teachers than just sticking the questions up. We’re still brainstorming how to eradicate this last remaining slide. One PowerPoint slide one lesson a week. I look on that slide as a necessary evil.

Teaching English at Michaela

When I joined Michaela, I was excruciatingly ambitious, and not a little arrogant. Within a week, I felt that if I remained an English teacher at Michaela until the end of my working days, I would be content.

For someone who loves books, loves reading, and loves kids, it is the perfect job. Our classrooms are peaceful places, where children read loads and where discussions are enthusiastic, and often insightful. Even teaching year 7 and 8 last year, I would frequently be made to pause, sit back, and say: ‘hm. I hadn’t thought of it like that!’

It is, in short, the dream.

Of course, not everyone feels like this. The list of what we don’t do at Michaela is significantly longer than the list of what we do. We don’t do card sorts, group work, pair discussion, drawing, mind maps, or any tasks asking children to guess. Our knowledge-based curriculum is 100% fully resourced for teachers, so teachers never have to photocopy a single worksheet or create a single PowerPoint slide. They never have to decide what to teach, or in what order. They never have to guess what prior knowledge their kids might have – they simply look at the fully resourced curriculum for the lower year groups.

That said, not everyone wants this.

Many teachers love to create their own resources, and plan their own lessons. But we at Michaela would rather our English teachers focused on how to teach instead of what to teach. All teachers plan their lessons, in the sense that they read and annotate their booklets prior to teaching, ensuring that they know the best way to deliver new concepts to pupils. We meet together as a department once a week to add to these annotations, and to improve our alignment. It’s not good having one teacher decide to teach the term ‘hypophora’; far better if we all agree to teach the term and agree the best way to teach it.  If one teacher’s class are struggling to use apostrophes accurately, we all work together to decide on the best way to ensure the children really understand it.

At Michaela, we think that team beats individual. Our English department works together to ensure that every single pupil in our school gets the very best education possible – not just the kids happening to benefit from what one individual teacher happens to know and think to share with them.

The results? Happy kids, learning loads. Their writing is beyond joyous – it is certainly unlike anything I have ever encountered in any of my three previous schools. In my first term, my year 8s essays on Macbeth far outshone those of the year 13 pupils I had taught the text to last.

If this sounds great, then you’ll be excited to hear that we’re hiring, and we’d love to hear from you!

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.

We Have Overcomplicated Teaching: Research Ed 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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