Musings over Michaela

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (a wall, Michaela. Originally Aristotle!)

I have deliberately waited a week to blog about my recent visit to Michaela, because there was so much to take away, but also questions that rather than remaining unanswered, had not even existed in my mind before walking through the gates, or perhaps do not even have an answer. I am also incredibly aware of the weight that opinions towards Michaela seem to carry, so have an incredibly ardent wish that my words are concise enough to convey the meaning with which I intend (not something that I excel at on the whole, but I’ll try). Above all, I waited to write so that I would have enough time to do so with clarity, but not enough time that I would waffle forever- as you can see, this first paragraph fails already! Rather than spend time explaining the details of my visit- what I did, who I saw, I want to try and pull together my key observations and why I see the school as one of the most refreshing opportunities for young people in state education in quite some time.

The balance of childhood and challenge

Arriving at lunchtime, I was free to talk to the children as they played and waited to be called in for lunch. The playground reminded me of my first Primary school , a small village school outside Felixstowe where the playground and the act of play was central to any lunchtime. On the Michaela website, Katharine’s address begins with the statement, ‘at Michaela, children can be children,’ and it was this statement that rang so truly throughout my visit. The conversations that I shared with the children carried a combination of curiosity in me and my teaching experiences (LCFC saved some blank looks at least from the boys! Leicester is a long way from London) but also a burning desire to answer any questions that I may have in return.  The lack of phones, talk about last night’s TOWIE, not shying away from the fact a grown-up is cramping their style at lunchtime was so refreshing. Discussion was energetic and I noticed a sense of community; students teased one another playfully about the fact that one of their friends had put an incorrect answer for a knowledge quiz that morning, before thinking up a rhyme to help him remember it next time. Two boys chased one another round but as soon as this resulted in one of them dropping his work folder, several students helped him retrieve the contents from the floor. There was a sense of calm and I think it wasn’t until attending lessons that I reflected upon the possibility that without a presence of disruption and challenging behaviour that I would expect to see within a school (this is where I will struggle to be concise) that aggression simply doesn’t factor here. I do not believe that conflicts don’t occur or that students don’t walk through the gates with events of home or relationships on their mind, but simply that they are either equipped with the tolerance of others to know how to deal emotionally as such, or that being in school is a momentary escape to learn.


Tough love and Time

Children were so ready to share their takes of the school that they have an unabashed loyalty towards: my questions varied from, ‘what would be the first thing you told my son if he were to come here?’ to ‘what is the best thing about this school’ and the answer was always the same, but with such different meaning: ‘it’s strict Miss.’ It was always conveyed as a positive thing. At family lunch, play time, the discussions centred around this to the point that I probably exhausted them with my curiosity in something that as teachers, we already know- children like boundaries. Beyond that, they appreciate them, are grateful for their undeniable regularity and above all, understand their value because at Michaela, the children grasp the reasons behind sanctions and praise. Rather than an oppressive stamp upon their enthusiasm, it spurs the students on to succeed; family lunch appreciations were a clear example of this. Students are invited to share a moment of appreciation with the group and are encouraged to notice kindness, give specific evidence and project to the crowd in exchange for a merit. This act is so embedded with the children that their motives for sharing seemed to be rooted in the opportunity to share gratitude rather than the reward (rightly so). @jo_facer facilitated and was not an easy one to extract a merit from! Her feedback after each appreciation was critical but fair, highlighting the successes whether it was volume or the specific appreciation but not shying away from stating where others fell down in their delivery or lack of reasons. My main observations? That ALL children that had contributed, those with merits and without, immediately put their hand back up for another opportunity to share. Imagine that level of resilience within a classroom setting.

In acknowledging what one student described as ‘tough love,’ and a robust system where children do not recognise the teacher as strict but the system, it is clear to see the advantages within the school day in its entirety. Time is given a place of honour for both staff and students in every act; school appreciations are received with a double clap only; a process like lesson changeover is swift and ordered because learning is the key outcome of time spent well. Time was a central theme that repeatedly cropped up during the course of my day- my guide noted the fact that in comparison to friends in other local schools, he described his education as ‘better’ because his time in school was not wasted. He told me in rather astute terms as he showed me spectacular artwork produced as a result of the study of artists such as Monet and Renoir that pupils made progress at Michaela because the time is dedicated to learning, always.


Priorities for Progress

Knowledge organisers, something that I now feel that I have not utilised enough, play a central part to the Michaela curriculum. Students have a bank for each year of their education, of which they are quizzed upon different sections at regular intervals. There are several advantages to this approach; all students retain key information for the subject, demystifying both the cognitive process of retention but also the topic itself into a process of simply learning and recalling. Michaela’s walls are adorned with the work of students, accompanied with detailed captions that draw the reader to appreciate particular attributes of the work, but most importantly details of how the student has applied previous learning to put the piece into context, for which I believe KOs are wholely responsible. For such a large proportion of students, they falter at this starting block for so many years that they lose the opportunity to move onto the analytical and evaluative qualities of the topic itself (I won’t dwell on this, not being an expert. @joe__kirby does a much better job of explaining the successes of KOs here). Work displayed in the toilets (!) demonstrates the power of this process paying off; students use knowledge gained from previous topics and apply it to their analysis months later.

Another key success (and something which was repeatedly tweeted about at ResearchED recently) that I observed was modelled reading. @doug_lemov preaches- in the nicest possible way!- about this incessantly and it is something that doesn’t get the airplay at secondary. Michaela teachers modelled reading beautifully, to which students replicated to in some cases, a superior standard! Reading is an incredibly active task within lessons, with target questions fired at students regularly to maintain the ‘moment’ of the text, rapidly unpicking challenging language using recall of previous units to ensure comprehension and move swiftly towards the analysis of character actions and motives.

The process of annotation and a lack of an ‘end point’ was also intriguing to see; students annotated and developed their own ideas in green pen, when feeding back after a knowledge quiz, others contributed answers, or annotating a text. Everything about the process of teaching and learning at Michaela is explicit; teachers instruct to annotate something of interest as a result of student questioning; students ask as many questions as necessary to understand an essay task set. NOTHING is left to interpretation, but do not construe this as a disadvantage. Instead, students have an incredible understanding of what is expected of them; their confidence not in the topic itself but in their ability to master it is what drives them forward. The efficiency of the practical process of developing work but also a deep understanding that there is always room to improve makes for an incredibly high ceiling when it comes to outcomes.

During my tour, I asked about the presence of challenge within the school; I was keen to understand the aspiration for the student that successfully retains information and is keen to exceed expectations beyond the Knowledge Organiser; where was the opportunity for fostering curiosity in the subject? With less discussion time than I was used to, I wondered if students were ever My guide stated that personally, his current challenge was the requirements of GCSE papers. He felt that not only were the questions easier than work that he was used to, but the format of them would be difficult to combat initially. Does this simply open up the debate that the demands of examinations still don’t accommodate for anything other than teaching to the exam?

Debate and Discussion

I think I would have always left Michaela with questions, but most I have been able to provide my own answer, having worked in state schools and dealt with in some instances incredibly challenging behaviour and a frustrating lack of progress. How do pupils reach additional challenge? Because challenge IS the expectation here. Why is the competitive edge that I heard essential to success? Because it drives success in pupils if they understand that they are pitted against one another by a system that we cannot control but are rooting for them all the same. How do all succeed? Because this is growth mindset in its most practical form; students understand that hard work equals progress. Anything else is simply wasting time.

If I learned anything that day, it is that context is key. Aspects of Michaela’s approach will work in all schools, with a whole-school approach and the backing of everyone- is that possible to achieve? Perhaps, but the reality usually presents a very different, varied, inconsistent outcome (we’re human, consistency isn’t really our finest hour). Context is what makes Michaela’s success so extraordinary- the eloquence, perseverance, gratitude and sheer determination of the pupils are qualities that I have not seen within a school setting to that extent in my five years of teaching. What the media seems to fail to notice is that Michaela is succeeding at providing a robust education with high expectations in quite a transparent, honest capacity. In the face of hate mail, criticism and some quite despicable acts of cruelty towards both staff and students. The first question put to me by friends (teachers and otherwise) was: Did I ‘agree’ with all that I saw? I’m not sure that that word has a place here. In fact, it lacks all relevance. The children do, wholeheartedly, with a fierce sense of loyalty and enthusiasm, and it allows them to succeed. Perhaps that is enough. At least, if you teach and support teachers, I believe that it should be.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”- Karl Marx


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