Fun in lessons: like chilli in food.

“Sir, are you a fun teacher?”  So asked one of my Y13s a few weeks ago.

She’d been in my class for the best part of two years and knew very well what my lessons were like.  She also knew pretty well what I am like, at least in the classroom.  So she also knew that this question would wind me up.

It did.  “NO! I am not a FUN teacher!”  She looked a little taken aback, and in retrospect the ear-splitting volume of my reply, the frenzied pounding of the table and the anguished cry as I crumpled, Wicked Witch of the West-like, to the floor may have been a bit OTT.  But goodness me did that question push my buttons.

In my mind a “fun teacher”, a male one anyway, probably wears a spinning bow tie at least once a year.  Homer Simpson socks will feature regularly.  “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!!!” will be a guiding philosophy.  Exclamation marks will proliferate.  Students may well be given amusing nicknames: one of my near contemporaries at school was called Elteeb by our form tutor, because his initials were WV, which is VW backwards.  That tutor also used a pair of scissors called Miranda as a doorstop.  He was definitely fun.

By that definition I, who wear sensible suits, sober ties, rarely use exclamation marks, eschew nicknames and certainly do not personify my stationery am not a fun teacher.  But my lessons are fun.  At least, the students seem to enjoy them and so do I.  So what’s the difference?  How can I possibly have fun lessons without being a fun teacher, beyond wearing my serious teacher disguise? And should I care about fun anyway?

Tom Bennett has recently written a proper article on similar matters for The Guardian.  To my mind one of the key lines is this:

“Play might be fun, but learning often isn’t. You just can’t avoid it: learning is often hard work.”

I agree.  There’s no point pretending that you can make every minute of every lesson, or even every lesson, thrillingly exciting and nor should you try.  It’s not so much the content, though no doubt we all have our less favourite bits.  It’s more that some things need practice, which usually isn’t the most popular thing ever.  Others need careful and meticulous explanation, which is unlikely to have ’em rolling in the aisles.  You get the picture.

That probably means these lessons, or these parts of lessons, aren’t fun.  They can though offer other, more helpful, positive feelings: satisfaction from working hard to reach the right answer; pride at completing today what seemed impossible yesterday; excitement at uncovering an additional layer of complexity.  This is, perhaps, what some people refer to as “the joy of learning.”

A fun teacher probably wouldn’t see things like that.  Where are the opportunities for YouTube clips, felt tip pens, scissors or ipads?  Too much struggling, not enough smiling.  More confusion than “progress”.  Much better and more accessible, therefore, to ask students to make a board game or build a castle than to analyse the views of an historian.

And yet we should not banish fun.  To some extent I think we are making life too easy for ourselves if we just rely on “the joy of learning” to provide the excitement.   I certainly want my Politics students to engage fully with the question of whether Congress is the “broken branch” of US government, including by reading academic articles and other learned tomes.  There’ll be struggle before satisfaction there.  But I’m missing a trick if I don’t start the topic with, say, this Huffington Post video: “Congress Approval Rating Lower Than Cockroaches, Genghis Khan And Nickelback.”  Augmented with a couple of articles about, say, the 2013 federal government shutdown, the students have around 20 minutes of stimulating and (in part) cerebral material which will fire their enthusiasm, start the process of acquiring knowledge and provide a reference point for future lessons.  It will probably be fun, too.

Where I’m getting to is this:

  1. a fun teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure the students have a good time; if they’re enjoying their French lessons, they’re enjoying French, right?  Wrong; and besides they may well not be learning very much French at all.
  1. a good teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure students have an exciting, satisfying and challenging education which fills them full of knowledge and the ability to use it;
  1. a really good teacher will recognize that in aiming for (ii), there will be times when a little bit of (i) is required, for atmospheric and/or pedagogical reasons.

True to the name of my blog, I know that many will disagree.  Traditional teachers are legion in the  twitterverse and committed to their views; I’d be really interested to hear them; although I don’t know the answers, instinctively I feel the above is right.  Because to me fun is like chili powder.  Too much and it obliterates the meal it’s supposed to enhance.  Too little and the meal will be functional but bland.  But in just the right amount it can make a dish sing.  Provided the chef isn’t wearing a spinning bow tie.


“Why not make a pillory?” Pointless homework and how to avoid it.

You know that bit where I say “I don’t know the answers”?  You might want to ignore that for this post.

This is a picture of a History homework done by a Y7 of my acquaintance.  She’s had this entire half term to do it.  It’s a snakes and ladders style board game about being a successful medieval king.


Beautiful, isn’t it?  It took hours.  Finding and shaping the board, measuring and drawing the lines, drawing and cutting out the swords and the rats, making the counters, writing the rules.  And – oh yes – about 30 minutes deciding what information to write in the squares.

This, then, is the epitome of a Pointless Homework.  Ostensibly it’s a History task, but the amount of history that has been learned or used is minimal.  It’s good to uphold the law, it’s bad to raise taxes too high, it’s good to have an heir, it’s bad to be invaded.  Incisive!  The rest of the time has been spent making a game, which hasn’t furthered her knowledge or understanding of history, or honed her historical skills, in the slightest.

(As an aside, this is far from the most egregious example of a pointless homework I’ve come across.  That accolade goes to a worksheet I found at my previous school when I began teaching in 1997.  It was on medieval punishments.  The homework task was this: “Make your own stocks or pillory.  Use cardboard or even wood!”  Imagine my delight when, returning to the school after a thirteen year absence, I found the self-same worksheet still sitting in the filing cabinet.  Like seeing an old, if slightly eccentric, friend.)

Nevertheless, the board game is still pointless and, sadly, far from unique.  We’ve all heard of – may even have been party to – homeworks such as “make a model of a castle” (you can insert your own subject’s version here).  The occasional twitter threads about this bear witness to the prevalence of such tasks across the curriculum.

History, though, does seem to be a serial offender.  Why?  Here are some of the justifications I’ve heard for castle-building and the like, with my comments underneath.

  1. We’ve done it for a long time.

Longevity does not of itself automatically confer benefits.

2. The children really like it.

a) My child didn’t.  If only by the law of averages she cannot have been the only one.  

b) Even if they do all like it, that’s no justification. My children really like sweets…

3. It’s important that every child gets to do something they are good at, and this helps the ones less good at reading and writing to shine in History.

Yes, children should be allowed to succeed.  But:

a) Children who are not good at reading and writing really need to get better at it, and that will not happen by making models in a subject that requires good literacy.

b) I would be very surprised to find my daughter spending a whole term of, say, DTE homework researching and writing an essay because “it’s good for children who aren’t good at the practical elements of DTE to be able to shine in this subject.” (NB this is not meant to be a dig at DTE, I’m just inventing an example to make a point.)

4. It helps them with their time management.

At KS3 at least, expecting them sensibly to spread a single task over half a term learn how to spread a task over several weeks is, how shall I put it, ambitious. 

What, then, makes a Pointful Homework?  To my mind, in my subjects (History and Politics; but more widely too I reckon) it boils down to this: a task which either cements, acquires or applies knowledge.  For example:

  • Cementing.  This is basically learning.  There are lots of ways to do it and lots of blogs about it: try this from @MissDCox or this from @joe_kirby.  Sometimes some time (or all the time, at Michaela and probably elsewhere too) does need to be given over to just getting stuff into brains.
  • Acquiring. This could happen in lots of ways.  At my school we are big on what we call pre-paration and others might term flipped learning: that is, reading, writing or researching something as the basis for the following lesson.  And of course there are many other methods of getting hold of new knowledge.
  • Applying.   It’s not enough to acquire and cement: what’s the point of massive knowledge if you don’t develop the skills to use it effectively?  Homework is a good time to practise applying what has been learned, to familiar questions where more cement needs to be applied, or to new ones where the aim is to challenge.

These three types of homework – cementing, acquiring and applying – allow a huge range of interesting, accessible, challenging and, well, pointful activities.  From self-quizzing to reading via mind-mapping and MyMaths there are endless possibilities.  They also provide a neat sanity check: if your task is doing none of the three things, it could be a Pointless Homework.  However, to work well the three types require adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of their law.  For example, some knowledge was applied to the making of the board game. Not much though, and only to the extent of “What are the biggest generalisations I can think of that will look good in a game?”  Similarly, copying a chunk of text from a book is, strictly speaking, acquiring knowledge.  It won’t sink in though.

In the end, what you set for homework will depend hugely on your pedagogical preferences.  But if those preferences involve the equivalent of sewing and stuffing a model of a cell, I urge you to reconsider.  Cement, acquire, apply.

“Us against the world.” The culture of Michaela.

“Remember who you are. You’re Michaela. We’re a family. We stick together. It’s us against the world.”  So went one of Barry Smith’s (now defunct) Sermons from the Bench, performed outside the school to dozens of silent students and astonished passers-by.  “Us against the world” is also emblazoned in huge yellow letters on a smart blue background on one of the school walls.

There’s no doubt that Michaela fosters terrific team spirit.  The children and staff are clearly proud of their school.  Deputy Head Joe Kirby: “Imagine 150 pupils and teachers cheerfully chanting in unison, with beaming smiles, loving learning and loving life.”  Head of English Jo Facer: “We want all our teachers to become Tiger Teachers, to see through a new paradigm: the Michaela Mindset.”  Admirable and, if you believe in what you do, entirely logical.

Yet to me there’s an almost cultish feel to some aspects of Michaela, a real sense that only their staff and a few enlightened fellow travellers “get it” and that everyone else is wrong. In the previous instalment I noted Joe Kirby’s view that a lesson starter involving a video clip wouldn’t be allowed at Michaela as it is inefficient and not built for the long haul; in other words, not Michaela.  In Battle Hymn this point is more strongly made.  Much of the book struck me as aggressively binary: it’s our way, or a less good way.  In fact, not just a less good way but a ridiculous way that no-one in their right minds would choose.  It’s this, and the aforementioned slogan, that I find most interesting about Michaela: a deeply ingrained, almost zealous sense that pedagogically they are right and that anyone who thinks any differently is utterly, hopelessly wrong.  At least that’s how the book comes across; as I’ve mentioned, in person things are different.

Trouble is, what I regard as unfortunate passages in Battle Hymn presumably reflect similar beliefs in school.  For example, a comparison is drawn between presenting children with a Rubik’s cube, which didn’t go well, and giving them a cube and a solution, which did.  The clear implication is that the former, more “progressive”, way is wrong.  In this example that’s probably true.  But I doubt that expecting children to engage fully with such a difficult puzzle without some help was ever very realistic. As such this example does little to persuade me to didacticism.  Similarly, wall displays of student work are dismissed as “unquestioned orthodoxy…never used or scrutinised by anybody…[that] served no purpose other than to prettify the classroom…(besides, who can read it?)”  As it happens I agree about putting children’s work on the wall; but there are so many other things that can helpfully be there.  Displays are a great way to turn a classroom into a lively place where I want to teach and children want to learn, and if done well they can effectively support that learning.  They do take time, but it’s worth the investment.

The vehemence of the language and the denial of any other view is of a piece with the somewhat “combative” (Joe Kirby) nature of other parts of the culture.  Here are a couple of recent tweets from Michaela staff:

  • “Discovery learning is…nonsense.”
  • “Progressives have lost their nerve and don’t want teachers to be informed enough to choose”

Nothing particularly bad in isolation and yes, we’ve all seen far worse on that particular platform.  But they’re part of a pattern.  In another part of Battle Hymn a very new teacher – seven months into a career, with no training apart from that received at Michaela – states that in her subject “[PGCE students] are explicitly trained not to teach knowledge.”  She goes on:  “Overall I spend 120 minutes per week teaching knowledge to each class. For a progressively trained teacher, it’s probably closer to 30.”  This is a remarkably forthright tone for someone so new into the profession: it would be contentious for anyone to be so dismissive of so many hardworking teachers and their professional tutors, let along someone with barely half a year’s experience.  I wonder whether she was emboldened by the Michaela culture: “we’re so self-evidently right that I can, already, tell everyone else they’re wrong.”  No wonder so many hackles have been raised.

I should add that the children were anything but combative.  They were charming, polite, articulate – lots of things I hope my own children are.  And in person the staff were the same, while nonetheless standing their ground.  There’s an awful lot that’s good about Michaela and its students are lucky to go there. I just think that the projected culture does not always do the school many favours.  After all, it’s perfectly possible to be for your kids without being against the world.


“Drill, drill, drill!” Pedagogy at Michaela .

Michaela teachers are passionate about pedagogy.  In particular they are passionate about the value of traditional teaching.  I knew this before I arrived; here are some short excerpts from Battle Hymn.

  • “Didactic teaching works best to teach knowledge…Drill, drill, drill!”
  • “Thousands of hours of drill and didactic teaching are needed to become an expert at something.”
  • “No starters, plenaries…cardsorts…No tablets, no computer room lessons.”

Similarly, Daniel Willingham of Why Don’t Students Like School fame is regularly prayed in aid, notably for his advocacy of retrieval practice: all Michaela homework involves self-quizzing, the content of which is tested the next day.

So I wasn’t surprised to see all of this in action.  However, I was surprised at quite how, well, drilly the drill was.   I wandered in and out of lessons for about an hour and a quarter and I’m pretty sure I saw typical Michaela teaching (they are hot on consistency in all things).  In lessons where text was being read, as a class, all students mark the line they are on by holding a ruler underneath it, with both hands.  Someone will read aloud, then someone else will take over (unless they’ve lost their place, in which case it’s a demerit).  The teacher will help out with difficult words: “Hegemony. I say you say,” at which point the teacher pronounces it and all the class, loudly and clearly, repeat it back. Then there might be some questions to answer in their books.  In a Science lesson the teacher drew angles and lines on the same version of the workbook as the children had, using a visualiser to display it to the whole class; they copied it down.  There was also some light questioning.  In a French lesson there was lots of quickfire questioning and speaking; in Y9 RS there was a very tight focus on GCSE exam technique.

That’s a very potted account.  You can read longer ones in the book or elsewhere online.    What particularly interested me was what I saw as a disconnect between some of the theory and some of the practice.  For example, Willingham’s most famous mantra (and certainly my favourite) is memory is the residue of thought.  I think most Michaela teachers would agree.  However, I would question how much thought was occurring in at least some of the lessons I saw.  It’s impossible to know, of course, and Joe Kirby’s view is that reading and listening do require thinking.  I’m not so sure; we’ve all read things and then had to reread them because we weren’t really paying attention.  Mimicry may also help with retention but again does not necessarily require a great deal of thought.  Further, there’s a danger of over-reliance on a few methods; Willingham himself advises teachers to “think of as many creative ways as you can to practise the really crucial skills…Repetition alone won’t do it.”

I don’t deny that the accumulation of knowledge is an excellent thing; I just wonder whether it can be accumulated in ways that are less dry.  This does not necessarily mean endless card sorts and flaky group work.  It could though mean asking the students to do more using of knowledge rather than merely accumulating.  It could mean setting synapses firing at the start of the lesson with an engaging two minute video clip: nothing wacky or weird but something relevant, thought provoking and capable of further investigation. I suggested as much to Joe; his view is that that there is not a minute to lose, that the Michaela way is more effective, and that they are trying to build systems that will be usable twenty years hence when YouTube might not even exist.  Mine is that a stimulating, relevant starter rapidly followed up with some serious content is an excellent use of time, and that if I am still using the same activities in twenty years I will be nearly as bored as my students.

I have similar questions about homework.  Flipped learning is not for Michaela.  I think this misses a trick.  I agree that regular quizzing is a good way to secure knowledge, and that securing knowledge is important.  But I also think that homework as preparation for the next lesson can require effort and thought.  For example, reading, annotating and commenting on an historian’s view of the outbreak of WW1 can be rigorous, challenging and a great lead-in to the next lesson.  Lots of facts will be retained (memory being the residue and all that) and lots of minds stimulated.  Again, I can’t see how this is a waste of time.

Michaela teaching relies on pens (two blue, one red, one green) and paper.  I think that denies the benefits that technology can bring.  Don’t get me wrong: a badly designed ICT or tablet exercise can mean more time spent choosing fonts and checking Insta than doing anything useful.  But Michaela’s love of visualisers shows how helpful technology can be, so to deny access to anything more seems curious.  There are lots of ways technology can promote the kind of thinking I described earlier; ordering events, grouping reasons, contributing to shared documents (which isn’t the same as group work, as you can readily tell who has done what) are all made much easier by use of simple software which takes moments to set up and master.

I also saw tension between the school’s professed aims and the teaching methods deployed.  Head of English Jo Facer says in Battle Hymn, “As with everything we do at Michaela, the responsibility is firmly placed on pupils, so that they become masters of their own fate…We don’t think it is our responsibility that the children progress, but the pupil’s.”  To me this does not sit easily with the school’s ultra-didactic methods.  Michaela produces its own textbooks and knowledge organisers and Michaela teachers play the role of experts, drilling students in what they need to know and how best to deploy it for maximum exam credit.  Homework is relearning what has been learned that day.  There is minimal student independence.  Of course it’s only the students who can do the homework and revise for the exams, so to that extent they are responsible for themselves.  Yet you can’t have it both ways: if teachers are expected literally to provide the knowledge and actively drill the skills, they can’t then abdicate responsibility for student progress.

I know that to some extent this is a rehash of the current, heated trad v prog debate so I’ve tried to couch it non-confrontationally.  But I haven’t yet seen anything to convince me that a focus on knowledge necessarily means teaching the Michaela Way.  At Michaela, though, there is no compromise, which leads me neatly into part 3: the Michaela Culture.


They don’t have green hair! First thoughts on Michaela.

I umm’d and ahh’d a lot before posting this.  Who needs to hear my thoughts on Michaela, after all?  But then I decided that I hadn’t seen very much moderate assessment of what goes on there; that there are things in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers that are somewhat provocative and thus invite a response; and that all I’ve done is write about what I saw and thought in a reasonable way.  Besides, no-one has to read it.

Last Tuesday I spent a fascinating afternoon at The Michaela School.

Fascinating in so many ways.  First, I’d not been into London state school since a few disastrous days of supply in 1997.  Second, I’ve never been on a school visit where there was no host; it was just “Here’s you badge, have a look round.” Third – well.  This was Michaela, after all.

It’s all true, you know.  The teachers really do just need to whistle and raise their hand for a playground full of chattering, laughing, basketballing kids to fall silent.  The children really do walk along corridors in single file, with purpose, saying “Hello Sir” when they walk past a stranger.  The teachers really do say “1-2-3 SLANT” and “You say I say”, issue merits and demerits on regular basis, explain that they are giving detentions because they want the best for the students, insist on sky high expectations and aspirations.  You’ll have read the blogs I’m sure, and they don’t lie.

What’s also true, and perhaps less obvious from the celebrated Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, is that the staff are normal people, kind, generous with their time, enthusiastic about their school (actually you’ll know that one already) and, if Deputy Head Joe Kirby is anything to go by, open to and interested in challenge.

Lots of things impressed me.  The clarity of purpose; the strength of the leadership; the consistency with which rules are implemented; the mature conversations I had with some Year 8s over family lunch about knife crime; the gratitude (“I would like to show my appreciation to Mr Pullan who has come such a long way to see us! On the count of two, 1-2!” Cue two loud claps, in true Michaela style.  That made me feel nice.); the quality of the classroom responses.  Generally, all the things you’ve already read about elsewhere so I won’t repeat them here.  That’s not to underplay them, just that it’s been said many times before.

Why then didn’t I come away wishing all schools were like that?  Why couldn’t I shake some of my misgivings about the approach?  In the end it came down to two areas: pedagogy and culture.  In both there were things to admire; but also a lot which didn’t convince me.

Cards on the table.  I teach in an independent school in an affluent area.  When it comes to inculcating respect for authority and each other, an understanding of community and the need to follow the rules, what is appropriate in my school may well not be for Michaela, and vice versa.  They deal with very different children from very different backgrounds and in this element of schooling they are doing extraordinary things.  But when it comes to classroom teaching, I am on more solid ground from which to opine.

I should also say that the content of these Michaela-related blogs was sent to Joe Kirby a couple of days before publication.  He exercised no editorial control but I wanted to let him have a look first.  In other words, they are not designed as a surprise attack on my committed and caring hosts.  It’s a genuine set of thoughts about a genuinely thought provoking visit.

You can read part two of this account, Drill, drill, drill, here; and part three, on its culture, here

Off to Michaela

Right then.  First blog.  Better make it good.  Interesting, amusing, piercing (as opposed to “interesting amusing piercing”).  Not too self-aggrandizing.  Not too clever-clever.  (Better delete that punctuation-based gag later.)  Not too many brackets. Oh.

I’m off to Michaela on Tuesday and I’m really looking forward to it.  From what I’ve read and heard, I don’t think my school and Michaela have very much in common, bar being in London.  Different intake, different approach.  Equally, instinctively I don’t think I like the Michaela Way; much of “Battle Hymns” caused me to suck my teeth.  So why go?

Partly, I admit, it’s to see what all the fuss is about.  As well as the book I’ve read the press, the blogs, the twitter debates.  I know that Michaela raises strong opinions and I’d like to see for myself.  In a way, then, I’m rubbernecking.  I’m not proud but it’s true.

More to the point, though, I need to see if I’m right.  My current view is that I wouldn’t want to be in a school like that.  But I’m yet to see a post-visit blog that doesn’t praise the school to the skies.  The teachers themselves are massively enthusiastic (@jo_facer is tweeting proof but they all seem similarly fired up, as far as I can tell).  The Head is nothing if not a strong leader with very clear views on what to do and how to do it (and I can definitely tell that).  They are very obviously on to something.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months thinking about my approach to teaching and school organisation.  I’ve no doubt that Tuesday’s visit will develop that.  I’m prepared to have my views changed; I’m hoping to have to do some serious thinking; I’m expecting a fascinating visit.

If you’re lucky, I’ll blog about it.