A Michaela Feedback Lesson

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Hosna example parag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keisi parag

 

Maryam parag

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Teacher Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.