Michaela Community School

Saturday 12 October 2019

A school with lessons for us all

I find that one of the best forms of professional development is to learn from what works in other schools. This blog focuses in on one specific school - dubbed to be the ‘strictest in Britain’ – which says it is spearheading an “educational revolution” after triumphing in its first examination results.

Michaela Community School in London was established in 2014 to serve a disadvantaged community. The staff at the school have written 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers', where they describe how they have established a strong culture focused on learning and success. Whilst its pedagogy is very much based on a knowledge rich curriculum – in contrast with the constructivist philosophy underpinning IB programmes – it has much to teach all schools who put each child at the centre of their concerns as they prepare them for high-stakes exams.

The book is packed with good advice. These are my key take-aways:

  • Induction Programme - into the culture of the school: Michaela runs a seven day induction programme for all new teachers and students, imersing them in the culture of the school. Day 1:Ethos & Routines; Day 2: Behavioural Standards & Self-Control; Day 3: Habits & Responsibility; Day 4: Intelligence - all pupils know the concepts of long-term memory, working memory, automaticity and overlearning - and through the telling of stories of sports atheletes and musicians they are introduced to the power of deliberate practice to improve and achieve success; Day 5: Kindness & Integrity - how to treat each other; Day 6: Trust & Community; Day 7: Gratitude & Perseverance - where they are taught the story of Nelson Mandela who persevered through a long and difficult struggle for freedom and learn William Ernest Henley's /Invictus' poem and Rudyard Kipling's 'If' by heart, showing them how to apply these lessons to their own lives, on how to overcome difficulties, setbacks and frustrations.
    "Bootcamp gives all teachers and pupils a shared repository of enduring wisdom, virtues, values, guidance, stories, paragons, parables, lessons, poems, quotations and mantras such as 'You control your emotions; your emotions don't control you', 'Anger is weakness; self-control is strength.'"
  • Staff Handbook - that explains all the rationales for the way Michaela does schooling. It is a 60-page guide. New recruits are given this months in advance of starting at the school. The first week teachers are in a school they watch a lot of experienced teachers teach the Machaela way, then are watched doing it thesmelves - again another way of inducting them into the culture of the school. Teachers are provided with a phone app so that they can learn the names of all pupils before they arrive in the school.
  • Explicitly teaching and embedding values - 'Work hard, be kind' is Michaella's motto. They quote James Matthew Barrie's “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves” when they explain the importance of embedding a culture of kindness and appreciation. "It's great to be grateful" is one of their mantras.
    "Gratitude at Michaela is an everyday practice that everyone is called on to be a part of. One ritual that we have for this is appreciations. Every day, we encourage every pupil over lunch to think of someone they feel appreciative towards, and share why. It reminds us all to ask: 'what are we taking for granted at the moment?" Another gratitude mechanism that helps us to go beyond self-centredness is thank-you notes. Every half term, we encourage pupils to write a postcard to someone they'd like to thank."
  • Teachers as leaders of learning - they teach a knowledge rich curriculum believing that 'knowledge is power' - empowering all children to achieve, choose their future and decide what legacy they would like to leave. They believe that long-term memory is the dominant structure in cognitive architecture, and therefore they aim to to help pupils remember everything they are learning, and master the most important content, similar to the famous London cab drivers who have learn the 25,000 streets of the city. They design their curriculum, lessons and exams with long-term memory in mind. "We prioritise careful sequencing and dovetailing of subject knowledge. We ensure that (in) every lesson and exam week it is revisited, drilled and tested rigorously and relentlessly. In short, we aim to ensure that our pupils do not forget what they are learning for years to come." The book poses the following questions to reflect on:
    "Do you meticulously specify every concept that pupils will master in each year, along with precise definitions? | Do you decide and oreganise every piece of knowledge in advance of every unit you teach? | Do you sequence and revisit knowledge cfrom previous units explicitly and systematically? | Do you test pupils' knowledge of all of these facts multiple times, even after a unit has ended? | Do you assess whether pupils have remembered those facts even a year later? | Do you know to what extent pupils have remembered or forgotten the precise definitions of those concepts?" (See How do we make learning memorable?)
  • Homework as revision - acknowledging the limitations to traditional homework they have fundamentally reimagined the challenge of homework and have connected it with with revision. Their homework is a seven-year revision plan, from age 11-18. Recognising that "cramming is an ineffective way to revise - it only works for the short term - they build in revision to every homework, dividing the week into seven revision sessions of no more than one hour each day focused on an individual subject.
    "The human mind forgets things very quickly: over half of newly learned knowledge is forgotten within a matter of days unless it is revisited. Cognitive scientists who study learning and the mind tell us: Long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. The aim of all instruction is to change long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Here is a summary of their findings: 'Use frequent quizzing: testing interrupts forgetting. In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool. At Michaela homework is revision and self-quizzing for all pupils across all their subjects. Here's how Michaela's homework-revision ecosystem works: we combine knowledge organisers, knowledge books, practice books, class quizzes and practice book checks."
    (See Homework - to be or not to be)
  • Family lunch - in their book they quote Luciano Pavarotti: "One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating." 'Family lunch' at Michaela is special - every day pupils and teachers eat together in a communal dining room, share conversation, serve each other and appreciate acts of kindness. Each table sits six pupils and an adult. Each pupil has a role to play. One serves lunch for all, another pour water, another clears up etc. They are learning how to serve each other. Every day they are given a topic to talk about whilst eating; the topic being is exlained by a member of staff who is leading lunch.
    In their book they explain: "'A good wine should always be accompanied by a good topic, and the topic should be pursued around the table with the wine' (Roger Scruton). Substitute wine for a healthy and nurtitious lunch, and this comes close to the underlying philosophy behind Family Lunch." After lunch five minutes is set aside for 'appreciations' (see above).

PS: In the following video the Head, Katharine Birbalsingh, explodes some common practices in education:


Tags: induction, knowledge is power, Michaela, memory


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