In the past few months I’ve visited both School 21 and Michaela Community School: the former as part of a sort of organised show and tell, the latter on my own. I’ve been thinking hard about what might constitute my own beliefs about teaching so I wanted to sample two, apparently very much opposed, approaches: Michaela’s strict adherence to direct instruction, or School 21’s advocacy of project based learning (PBL). Setting up some kind of thesis and antithesis will surely bring me synthesis, won’t it? Good plan.
Well, maybe so. But no plan survives contact with the enemy nor even, in this case, a couple of schools. So rather than come back with clarity I find the way forward even less apparent than it was. I thought I’d try to explain why, as much for own benefit as for anyone else’s. I have focused largely, though not exclusively, on pedagogy. I should day that I have only spent one afternoon at Michaela and one day at School 21, mainly in a meeting room, so please excuse any errors of understanding on my part: I’ll be happy to correct them.
There are some very clear differences
I can’t imagine many teachers moving from one school to the other. It doesn’t take much time on edutwitter to see how passionate Michaela teachers are about their methods. Teacher talk and no group work are where it’s at. There is little lesson planning: this advertisement for a History teacher explains that “resources are provided for you”, and the aim is to be able to reuse lessons time and again. There is a clear preference for low- or no-tech lessons: I know from conversations with Deputy Head Joe Kirby that use of, say, a video clip to introduce a lesson is frowned upon. Every homework is a learning homework and every day has a quiz based on it.
Meanwhile, over at School 21, they are equally passionate about PBL, which often if not always involves two or more departments working together. An example we were given was of a combined English and Maths project to campaign against the building of a concrete factory on local land (they won). Through this the students learned the skills to produce a written report which included data from mathematical modelling of the likely pollution. This involved a huge amount of planning on behalf of the teachers – not that they seemed to mind, and pointed out that once up and running the lessons require little prep – and is very much not replicable; each project undertaken tends to be a brand new one.
Some other contrasts:
- One of S21’s stated aims is to promote oracy. One teacher we heard from reckoned to speak for about 30% of the time in lessons. That’s probably about the reverse of many of the Michaela lessons I saw, apart perhaps from in MFL. Oracy is manifest in many ways, but group work and presentations form quite a large part of lessons. This is not the case at Michaela.
- One of the S21 teachers told us that “coaching [their word for tutoring] is the single most important role of each member of staff” – which would put teaching second at best. Michaela is certainly a caring school, but I think teachers see themselves as teachers first and foremost. Certainly they seem to love being in a school where, as they might put it, you can actually teach.
- “School is not a holding pen for the future,” we were told at S21. That’s partly why they go out of their way to try to use PBL to solve real world problems. At Michaela they also prepare their students for the future, but by very overtly drilling them in the knowledge they think they will need. No solving of real world problems there, at least not until students have the domain knowledge to really attack them.
- We heard at S21 that PBL is required at KS3 because students need to be given a purpose to their learning. At KS4 and 5 the purpose is (or will be) provided by looming public exams, but without this carrot in yy7-9 it’s up to teachers to provide sufficient stimulus. Michaela, I think, would roundly disagree. Creating purpose through PBL is unnecessary, because what greater purpose than to learn, and unhelpful, because it distracts from the serious business of knowledge acquisition.
But also some similarities
First, some non-teaching ones. One: both schools are in difficult London boroughs. According to this 2016 survey Newham (home to S21) is the third unhappiest place in the country to live and Brent (Michaela) is fourth. Two: both serve multicultural communities. According to the 2011 census, Newham’s population is 71% BAME; Brent’s is 64%. Three: both are newish free schools. S21’s first cohort sat their GCSEs this year, Michaela’s will do so in 2019. Four: both have very clear aims which are espoused by strong, charismatic leaders and borne out by enthusiastic, committed staff.
More interestingly, in some aspects S21’s pedagogical approach seems more akin to Michaela’s then I had imagined. We heard that at S21 PBL does not continue into KS3 because, as mentioned above, the requisite purpose is provided by GCSEs and A-Levels. That suggests quite a focus on exams, which is certainly similar to Michaela: in one Y9 lesson I saw while there, GCSE exam technique was already being explicitly taught. (That said, in the 20 mins or so of a Y11 English class I saw at S21, there was some teacher talk, some group chat, some feedback. Not the Michaela way at all.)
Next, their school mottos. One has “Head, Hand and Heart”, the other “Work Hard, Be Kind.” Pretty similar really, and although the former (S21) explicity mentions “hand” – which its website describes as “generating ideas, problem solving and making” – Michaela too prides itself on the creativity of its students.
Also, both schools are clearly unafraid to do things differently. Oracy and regular PBL are not so explicit in most schools, and neither is such a strong emphasis on direct instruction. But both schools, and critically both leadership teams, believe passionately in what they are doing and the way they are doing it, despite the brickbats that come their way.
Perhaps, then, they aren’t quite the thesis and antithesis after all. If Michaela isn’t the joyless info-factory of legend, then S21 isn’t the frothy free-for-all that some would suspect in a school wedded to PBL – not least because those wedding vows are broken at KS4 (and some teachers don’t abide by them anyway, we were told).
So what does all that mean?
Both schools want to produce the same thing: well rounded, well adjusted students, well prepared for life beyond the classroom. S21’s excellent GCSE results suggest they are doing something right, but I have no doubt whatever that Michaela’s first cohort will also do stunningly well. Both schools have been rated Outstanding by OFSTED. At KS3 they go about things in very different ways, and while there are variances at KS4 too they may be less marked. All of which means, well, that neither appears obviously better than the other. Oh well.