“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.



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