West London Free School: Knowledge Rules

West London Free School is well known as the flagship free school. Opened in 2011 by a parent group and spearheaded by the indomitable Toby Young, it has championed a knowledge-rich curriculum, and attracted a number of luminaries of traditional education to work there.

I arrived for my visit at lunch break, and was met with the very usual sound of a playground full of excited children. The outdoor space, as with so many London schools, is limited, which does have the benefit of ensuring the children are really looked after by teachers. As the children merrily chatted, teachers weaved in and out of friendship groups, chatting with their charges.

West London Free School’s corridors are not silent, but I did note a marked difference between volume on the playground and the volume as the kids filed into lessons after the bell rang. There was a low whisper between some as they made their way into their classrooms, and behaviour expectations were rigorously reinforced. Expectations of pupils’ behaviour were high, with the result that across the school the worst behaviour I saw was some covert whispering, generally spotted quickly by teachers, who dealt with it with meaningful pauses or ‘the teacher stare’ rather than sanctions.

Across the school – across year groups, subject areas, and ability groups – the pupils’ focus was superb. The atmosphere in classes was one of concentration, but also energy. I firmly believe that this is because the children at West London Free School know they are learning. In every classroom I visited, the teacher’s style was traditional. Desks were in rows, and teachers were at the front, often sitting and commanding the class with their (clearly expert) subject knowledge.

In year 11 English, the teacher led a whole-class discussion as pupils annotated the poem. The only resources being used were the GCSE anthology and a pen. The teacher’s own copy had been annotated in huge detail, showing her lesson preparation and own subject knowledge. In year 10 History, pupils were learning about the suffragettes, using the textbook with teacher guidance, additional information and questioning to extend their learning. In year 8 Classics, the pupils listened to a reading of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ while taking notes about what they were hearing.

Lesson changeover was tricky, as the school is served by one narrow staircase, and moving that many children up and down is always going to be a challenge. Yet the trainee science teacher I saw moved from entry to beginning the pupils’ learning in under two minutes, with every child focused. The Head of Science played a large role in her corridor, popping into every science classroom to support with settling pupils rapidly.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the children of WLFS. I know children are always lovely, but I was really struck by the politeness of every pupil I encountered. In every lesson, they moved their books so I could see them, often whispering to me to explain what they were learning. In every room I went into, pupils stood ‘for the visitor’ and were unfailingly polite and welcoming and happy. They are an absolute credit to their teachers and their community.

Visiting West London Free School gave me great hope for the knowledge community. It is clear to see that when children behave, and teachers know their subject and prepare well for their lessons, a really lovely atmosphere of focus and achievement can be created. I am very excited to see what the next chapter for West London Free School holds.

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Bedford Free School: knowledge and discipline

‘We believe that, given the right circumstances, all children are capable of extraordinary things.’

So reads the wall in the reception of Bedford Free School. The school was established in 2012, and has been working out exactly what those ‘right circumstances’ are. Last year, for example, under the previous Principal, Mark Lehain, the school introduced silent corridors. It is hard to imagine the peaceful halls of the school otherwise, but the children have taken to them well, and are grateful for the ‘calm’ atmosphere. One year 10 who showed me around said: ‘it’s great, because we get 50 minutes of learning in every 50 minute lesson with the silent entry.’

Across the school, and including in cover lessons, behaviour is exemplary. One class’s teacher employed Doug Lemov’s ‘do it again’ technique to line up her class anew outside when there was ‘some silliness’ on the stairs (standing in the stairwell, I heard nothing). Standards are very high here. Executive Principal Stuart Lock tours the school, asking of teachers his trademark: ‘is everything to your satisfaction, sir/miss?’ to provide a supportive climate for teachers.

Bedford’s context is unusual: a commuter town to London in part, it is said that a larger than average number of children attend long-established private schools. The intake of state schools in Bedford, therefore, doesn’t always reflect the full demographics of the area.

Apart from behaviour, I was struck by the knowledge focus of the school. All children carry ‘100% books’, which contain knowledge maps collating the core knowledge of each subject. These are referred to, used, and tested across subject lessons. In History, pupils began their lesson by filling in a partially blanked-out knowledge map, allowing the teacher to assess their recall. In Art, pupils completed a knowledge-based end of unit exam, where they were asked to identify paintings and techniques, among other aspects. In Science, I saw a teacher going over a recent exam practice paper, re-teaching questions the class had struggled with.

The school is increasingly using booklets like these in English to ensure pupils’ focus is on the text and linked questions, and this has led to remarkable consistency across classrooms. The writing in these booklets is supplemented by work in their books.

Bedford Free School have a generous approach to guests, offering for me to take away any booklets I saw. (‘All we ask is that you send them back to us if you make any improvements so we can all improve!’)

Every pupil reads for 30 minutes a day in what the school calls ‘DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time’, but which is improved immeasurably by having the whole class read a text together with a teacher, thus ensuring all pupils are held accountable to be reading during this time, and no child can just stare into space. This also ensures the pupils are constantly being exposed to high quality texts, improving both their literacy and their cultural literacy.

In addition to academics, the school day is structured using ‘electives’ built into the timetable, so every child enjoys extra-curricular activities. Incredibly, last year 92% of pupils at the school participated competitively in a school sports team, despite the fact that the school cannot host matches due to its lack of facilities.

As with all the best schools I have visited, the focus is on relentless improvement, and there is no complacency. Stuart and his team are working hard each day to tweak the conditions to ensure every pupil at Bedford Free School can achieve their full potential.

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.

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.

Planning for mastery

As a follow-on to the initial inset session I have written about previously on memory, I was excited to build on these ideas in delivering a CPD session on planning for mastery with an extraordinary Lead Practitioner, Sophie Smith, who has championed Ark’s English Mastery course of lessons at my school for the past year.

That said, as scary as a day one inset it, you know teachers will be automatically more excited and engaged than at 4pm on a Wednesday, two weeks into term time, when a stack of marking beckons. Showing my draft to a colleague, the feedback was: ‘more pictures.’ I’m not a very visual person, so can’t claim credit for any images on the powerpoint – these are all the work of Sophie.

We began with another paper ‘do now,’ but this time I wanted to collect an insight into people’s thinking about education: what, in their view, was the purpose of education? How good was the current planning in their area? What were the most important aspects of planning? And how much time did they spend on those aspects?

First, I wanted to link mastery planning to the school’s context. We know that our children arrive to us further behind than more advantaged children, who have more social and cultural capital, along with simply knowing more stuff, and having practiced stuff more. I also wanted to pick up on a challenge I’d been given in the feedback from the first session: ‘where is the space for children’s creativity?’ asked one colleague. I asked teachers to think of the most creative child they had encountered: the one who had thought of a new way to solve a problem in maths, or had asked a curious question in science, or had linked different factors together in history. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, those children are also the ones who know the most. This correlation suggests to me that knowledge is the essential bedrock of creativity. You can’t create successfully in a vacuum.

We then posed the question: how do you teach a year 11 class who have an exam in a week’s time? Is it the same or different to your usual teaching?

In retrospect, this question would have worked better later in the session, or perhaps in a later session. There is too much to consider in changing the planning paradigm to successfully cover it all in an hour. What we wanted was for people to note the urgency with which they taught year 11 before an exam, and for us to link this urgency to our way of planning in all years – because time is short, and we have five years to close a significant gap.

I then shared what I found to be a useful distinction from Joe Kirby on planning: changing the paradigm from engaging starter, exciting activities, and reflective plenary to recap, instruction and deliberate practice. (I’ve added ‘deliberate’ to Kirby’s wording for two reasons: firstly, because we need to be completely focused on practising the specific aspects our students most struggle with, and secondly because without it the memorable phrase: ‘Recap, Instruction, Practice’ spells ‘R.I.P,’ which I felt would not connote a happy paradigm for teachers.)

Why is this so important? We know our students come to school massively far behind; research shows that less advantaged children at aged five have heard 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. We also know that, nationally, students on free school meals achieve nearly half the five A*-C including English and maths compared with their more advantaged peers. We can’t do anything about how our students come to us, but we do have five years to close that gap to ensure they aren’t leaving us academically deprived.

Then, instead of citing the Sutton Trust’s research on motivation as I had planned (‘too many words! More pictures!’), Sophie engaged teachers with the cart and horse analogy: we often see self-esteem as the horse, pulling along the achievement, but in fact it is the opposite: achievement drives motivation and builds self-esteem; when children start succeeding at school, they are more likely to buy in.

We shared four key concepts on planning for mastery: select the content, sequence it, teach it, and quiz it. In retrospect, each could be a session by itself. Sophie shared the more rigorous texts brought in with English Mastery, and we asked departments to discuss how much children should read in their subjects, and what they could get them to read. In sequencing, I emphasised considering both the knowledge and practice gap when planning any lesson. For teaching, I didn’t go into nearly enough specific depth, and allowed departments to discuss themselves what they felt the highest leverage teacher actions were, with some interesting results. And finally with quizzing, I cited the knowledge maps and multiple choice tests we were already creating and which could be easily reused.

Subject teams took fifteen minutes then to look over a lesson together alongside these key principles and edit it. We finished with a similar quiz, with room for teachers to write their concerns and needs for support. Most wrote ‘time,’ and a few asked for support in making knowledge maps or finding rigorous content. The next most prevalent concern was meeting the needs of all students, which I will be writing about soon.

In reviewing the feedback sheets, I was interested to gauge the teachers’ response to the do now question: what is the purpose of education? Rank these statements 1-6 where 1 is the most important purpose. The vast majority, 60%, rated ‘forming good, kind and moral individuals’ as the top priority, followed by ‘preparing our students for the world of work’ at 27%. Not a single person chose either of these options as the most important purpose: ‘ensuring our students achieve the highest results in national exams’ or ‘teaching our students rigorous content so they outperform their peers in exams’. For the least important, 37% chose that latter option. The next most popular least important choice at 33% was ‘teaching our students the best of what has been thought and said.’

Mastery CPD

Do now (1)

E. D. Hirsch at Policy Exchange

I’ve written previously about the impact Hirsch’s ideas in Cultural Literacy had on me, and so, with all the zeal of a convert, I clamoured to hear him speak at Policy Exchange last week.

Nick Gibb introduced Hirsch, outlining the influence he had on his thinking and the direction of travel in the Department for Education. He noted the strong social purpose behind Hirsch: the desire to equalise the distribution of intellectual capital in society, and compared this to the 2007 National Curriculum’s hostility to teaching prescribed knowledge.

Hirsch followed, quipping amiably: ‘it’s so rare for people in the USA in high political office to read books,’ before launching into a forty minute survey of his major educational theories. He explored the idea of developmentalism – to allow a child to develop on their own – and noted the ensuing confusion from such a disparate method of education, and gave some of the theoretical history which underpinned such notions.

Behind every utterance, the drive to use curriculum to equalise society was discerned. Explaining the wrong-headed focus on teaching reading skills, Hirsch cited Willingham’s research which suggests that ‘about a week’ is enough time to teach children ‘reading skills;’ ‘any more than that is a waste of time.’ High reading ability can only be achieved by a broad, wide-ranging and well-rounded education. He cited studies of poor readers who could outperform good readers when they knew more about the given topic, and, perhaps more fascinating, that students with low IQ and high IQ who both knew lots about the topic did equally well in reading about it. Knowledge, for Hirsch and most of his audience, overcomes ‘brute handicaps.’

Furthermore, just as the novice finds it debilitatingly hard to look up new vocabulary in a dictionary (in particular, discerning the ambiguities of words), so the internet age rewards those who already have wide knowledge: ‘Google is not an equal opportunities fact finder.’ I know from sending students off to ‘research’ a topic that this is true – too often they stumble across extremely dubious sites, and come away with ever more misconceptions than they began with.

The overriding purpose of education, for Hirsch, is an acculturation of children into society; we need to teach them the language and ideas of that society before they can enter into its dialogue. For those who worry that teaching knowledge is indoctrination, this is a vital point: it is impossible to (successfully) argue from ignorance. The old paradigms of transferable skills and discovery learning ‘have not been successful in bringing about equality’: core knowledge, conversely, has shown a remarkable gap-closing propensity in Massachusetts, Japan and Shanghai among others.

Throughout, Hirsch was self-effacing, describing himself as a classic ‘hedgehog’, knowing ‘one big thing’ (‘I just go around, repeating my one big thing’). We are so grateful to the Inspiration Trust for bringing Hirsch to London and to Jonathan Simons and Policy Exchange for organising this lecture so we can hear this legend repeat this one, big, hugely important thing.

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Keep it simple

It’s really difficult to boil down the most important messages from my short time visiting Michaela Community School. In discussing with people afterwards, I kept hearing myself say: ‘the really key thing is’, ‘the most important aspect’, ‘the best thing’ until I realized the futility of trying to rank each an every special aspect I was seeing.

A week later, I think I’ve got it: keep it simple.

The things that struck me are no different to those that have struck other visitors: silent corridors, with students moving purposefully between lessons; silent classrooms, broken only by the sounds of teachers teaching with joy and passion, students asking questions about the learning out of curiosity, and students turning to one another to whisper their ideas to reinforce their learning; exceptional politeness from every single student in every single interaction; extraordinary quality of student work. I could go on enumerating each tiny miracle I saw.

But I think it boils down to simplicity. Michaela have stripped away every educational gimmick and are just teaching very well. Their behaviour system is simple: merits for hard work or kindness, demerits for getting the details wrong (including failing to track the teacher adequately), meaning pretty much impeccable behavior because the standards are so high (and I believe three demerits escalates to being removed from the classroom). (A useless aside: everything is logged on iPad or iPhone apps, which took me a while to get used to as in assembly when registers were being taken it sort of looked like everyone was texting.)

Lessons are the simplest I have ever seen, and without doubt the most effective. Teachers read with their classes, stopping frequently to check understanding or to add detail and engage their classes with expert ideas or embellishments (or, in one instance, one-man drama performances to illustrate a point). Then students write silently about what they have read, while teachers and teacher fellows (like uber-TAs) circulate, checking for understanding and helping out. Then teachers go over the writing as a whole class, spending more time on the questions they noticed students struggled with while the children self or peer-assess in green pen. And sometimes, the whole sequence isn’t finished, and the lesson just ends, and that seems to be ok. No-one dies because there wasn’t a plenary or card sort or group work or shouting. Lessons at the tail end of the year were tailored in an incredibly specific way; watching a teacher go over and over and over one single concept, with constant questioning, I was interested to be told as she circulated ‘only 19% of the class got this one right,’ thus clearly explaining the focus taken from the needs of the class.

So the assessment is also simple: heaps of multiple choice questions, which are tracked meticulously by teachers so they can re-teach concepts more of the class are struggling with. These quizzes are done electronically and students receive immediate feedback.

The curriculum is also refreshingly simple. Students study English, Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography, ‘Religion’ [they ‘hate acronyms’), ‘Sport’ and Art. The curriculum is radically skewed towards teaching reading, writing and Maths, with extra time for English and Maths, but without teaching reading as a generic skill – instead, the curriculum planners understand that reading is also about your general knowledge (schools withdrawing students from humanities to teach reading: be warned).

The curriculum is based on something called ‘Knowledge,’ which the Michaela teachers like a lot, and so do their students. Their students chirpily explain to any visitor that they will ‘remember what they learn’ forever; as they explain sincerely and clearly: learning is not just about passing exams, but rather about having knowledge stored in their long-term memory, making them ever smarter.

The normal frills of schools are there in a way – termly trips, a reward event on the last day. But no parents’ evenings draining teachers’ energy; no endless marking of every exercise book; no half termly assessments to grade and complete data entry for.

So, does it work? This radically simple alternative to education? I was convinced in the Autumn term, when Katie Ashford shared paragraphs of year 7 students from the lowest ‘stream’ and they were of astonishing quality. And now there is ‘evidence’ for the data-minded among us: students are making startling progress on the GL assessment tests in reading, writing and Maths. 100% of students made expected or greater than expected progress, and average progress in levels was between 4 and 5 sublevels. Students’ reading ages have soared over the course of the year, with pupils making an average of 20 months progress in 10 months.

But all the Michaela crew will say is ‘time will tell.’ They are humble: the school is new, with only one year group. That too is part of its enviable simplicity. If the school can keep its focus on these simple things as it grows, it will be the making of a revolution in education.