Michaela: duty, loyalty and gratitude

duty and loyalty
In ‘National Identity’, his chapter in The Power of Culture, Michael Taylor explains that the Michaela Community School’s values are communitarian (p.78). Communitarianism in turn is based on the principle of self-governing small communities. The idea is that communities are essential for individuals to thrive, and in return for community support, individuals are expected to ‘give something back’. Michaela students’ obligations to the school, the wider community and the nation are framed in terms of duty.

Michael sees loyalty as a corollary of duty, and claims “The family and local community are an integral part of this, but the most logical point of our loyalty, whilst leaving plenty of room for critical analysis, should be to the nation”. He goes on, bizarrely, to frame rights in terms of possessing a passport; “As well as ensuring that pupils know that they have certain rights which are accorded to them by virtue of having a British passport, they also have a series of obligations and responsibility to their fellow citizens” (p.78). Do only people with passports have rights?

It’s clear that Michaela teachers feel a strong sense of duty toward their students. They’re committed to ensuring these young people grow into knowledgeable, civilised adults who lead fulfilling lives. But the emphasis in this book is on the students’ duty, rather than the teachers’. There are hints that’s because Michaela students tend to arrive with an awareness of their ‘rights’, but not of the responsibilities that go with them.

rights and responsibilities
Michaela doesn’t seem to think much of the contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’. Michael says that to “move away from the appalling world views and racism that have led to so much misery” is ‘admirable’ but that “embracing diversity in this country is often associated with a rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness” (p.74). And ”we have gone too far in Britain in creating a culture where a significant number of people appear to believe that rights are not always mirrored by responsibilities” (p.78).

As a history teacher, Michael must be aware of how the current focus on rights came about. For centuries British people (in common with the rest of the world) either had rights granted (or withdrawn) by a powerful minority, or they had to fight for rights, sometimes at great cost. And not always against invaders – the powerful minorities were usually distinctly British, and in particular, English. Mass education and improved communication have resulted in people becoming increasingly fed up with the focus being on their responsibilities rather than their rights, and many feel it’s time that changed.

Why would the Michaela narrative (Michaela is keen on narratives) overlook the inequity inherent in British history? My guess is that it would call into question the school’s rather hierarchical view of society and the value of the high status positions students are expected to aim for.

I agree the contemporary emphasis on rights glosses over responsibilities. It’s possible that Michaela students are taught about their responsibilities and rights, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, the school seems to have given the rights-and-responsibilities pendulum a hefty shove in the direction of responsibilities. That’s understandable, given the current climate, but isn’t going to help students comprehend their role in a democratic society.

the social contract and entitlement
Something noticeable by its absence from The Power of Culture is the concept of the social contract. That’s odd, because Michaela is keen on British culture, and the social contract is largely a British idea (e.g. Hobbes, Bacon, Locke) that underpins our constitution. The term social contract usually refers to a principle of national governance, but can be used to describe any social agreement between an individual and a group. Social contracts vary between individuals and change over time; they’re fluid, flexible arrangements that can be explicit (enshrined in law for example) or implicit (people might not be aware that there is a social contract until someone breaks it).


Why is the social contract missing from the Michaela model? I’d hazard a guess that’s because Locke and Rousseau subscribed to it, and they of course, are associated with ‘progressive’ education – a no-no for Michaela.

Michael claims “the antithesis of duty is entitlement” (p.78). I’m not sure duty has an antithesis as such, although a sense of entitlement can undermine a sense of duty. But as residents of the UK, Michaela students do have entitlements, and it’s OK to feel entitled to them; duties and entitlements can exist side-by-side. The social contract can include entitlements. In the UK, for example, all children are entitled to an education (although in English law it’s framed in terms of a parental duty). Children are entitled to a place at a state school if parents request that. The state recruits and pays teachers to provide a suitable education for those children, which brings us to another key feature of Michaela culture – gratitude.

gratitude
Michaela students are expected to express gratitude for the work their teachers and other school staff do, via verbal ‘appreciations’ at lunchtimes (followed by two claps), and via written postcards (there are examples on pp.129-30 in Iona Thompson’s chapter ‘The Culture of Gratitude’). The emphasis is on how hard teachers work, how many hours they put in, and a question from a student at another school “But isn’t that your job Miss?” is described as ‘obnoxious’ (p.125).

I think it’s appropriate to make children aware they live in a country with a long democratic tradition, where primary and secondary education are free at the point of use, and to be aware this isn’t the norm across the world. And it’s appropriate to hope they appreciate teachers’ commitment. But teachers volunteer for the job and they are paid. Students are unpaid conscripts who are required to be educated, not only for their own benefit, but also for the common good. Most students don’t have any option but to attend school, and their teachers are paid to provide them with a suitable education, so expecting students to express their gratitude formally seems a bit much.

Incidentally, I think It’s reasonable to expect students to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because most cultures use such non-costly tokens to facilitate social interaction. But everyone knows ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are tokens, and they’re are easy to use even if you actually feel no obligation or gratitude whatsoever. If more costly tokens are expected (such as ‘appreciations’ or postcards), some students will be happy to oblige regardless of what they really feel, and students who don’t feel grateful, or struggle to express themselves, will feel under pressure to comply regardless. It reminds me of the little girl being interviewed about Sunday School who said she always answered questions with ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ “because they like it when you say that”.

values, culture and knowledge
Michaela’s explanation of its values highlights a recurring feature of the self-styled ‘traditional’ teachers’ discourse. The teachers, quite rightly emphasise the importance of knowledge in education. They draw attention to the difference between experts and novices, and point out that novices don’t usually have sufficient knowledge to mimic the behaviour of experts or ask the kinds of questions experts would ask, so ‘discovery’ is often an inefficient way of learning; direct instruction is usually more effective.

In the classroom students by definition are novices, and the teacher by definition is the (subject) expert. But many traditional teachers don’t apply the expert-novice distinction outside the classroom to areas where the teachers themselves are novices. So, cognitive science has been cited to justify particular pedagogical methods favoured by traditionalists, but the ‘cog sci’ is often based on snippets of information picked up second- or even third-hand from other teachers. The ‘cog sci’ has often been just plain wrong, because the teachers in question don’t have sufficient domain-specific knowledge.

So, despite Daniel Willingham carefully presenting “just about the simplest model of the mind possible” (Willingham 2009), his model has been wrongly interpreted as representing cognition as a whole. And teachers have been diligent in debunking some educational ‘myths’ (brain gym, discovery learning, learning styles) but have blithely replaced them with others such as;

-knowledge in long term memory is ‘secure’,
-knowledge in long term memory is always available and doesn’t take up any ‘space’ in working memory,
-all schemas are ‘chunked’ so a large schema forms only one item in working memory,
-all skills are domain-specific and can’t be transferred,
-children’s brains are the same as teachers’ brains.

Teachers with expertise in English literature seem especially prone to replacing the principles of cognitive science with principles from their own discipline. So much for skills being domain-specific.

It’s puzzling why the traditional teachers have consulted so few psychology teachers or cognitive scientists. My guess is that’s partly because experts are likely to say “it’s a bit more complicated than that”, and investigating the complications would involve the traditional teachers in more work (they see learning as ‘hard’). Another reason is they’d have to re-think their model of teaching and learning.

Cognitive science is a rather esoteric area, so teachers couldn’t be expected to know much about it (although there’s nothing stopping them getting an overview from an expert, or from an undergrad textbook – traditional teachers are keen on textbooks). But values and British culture aren’t especially esoteric, and are key features of public discourse, so you’d expect a school that’s published a book about them to be well-informed about their provenance. Instead, there are whole facets missing from their model.

I fail to see how Michaela can reconcile its claim that it wants students from deprived backgrounds to improve their life chances via education, with failing to question an inherently inequitable model of society, and ignoring the British history that’s resulted in that very deprivation.

references

Michaela Community School (2020). The Power of Culture, Katherine Birbalsingh (ed.). John Catt.

Willingham, Daniel T (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass.

Michaela: colonising the curriculum?

If all I’d known about the Michaela Community School was its day-to-day routine, I’d have raised little more than an eyebrow. That’s in part because day-to-day life at Michaela looks remarkably like day-to-day life at the grammar school I attended half a century ago. What prompted me to raise more than an eyebrow is the new book from the Michaela Community School, The Power of Culture.

As far as the day-to-day is concerned it’s packed with positive practical ideas. I noted particularly;
-creating liberating pathways for students
-taking a long term view of conduct
-catching the students being good
-not expecting them to ape experts
-presenting knowledge in context
-mini introductions to practical, useful non-academic knowledge
-the outside speaker programme
-whole-class marking
-no targets
-no performance related pay
-all school staff (including admin & cleaners) being involved.

On a day-to-day level, Michaela’s methods are obviously effective. Students learn, raise their expectations, improve their behaviour and get good exam results. It’s when it came to the school’s ethos (beliefs and values) that I felt the framework began to wobble.

The Michaela ethos might reflect the pre-existing beliefs of staff, but the school also appears to have resorted to a bit of post-hoc justification for its practices. Rather than practice emerging from a coherent, thought-through set of beliefs and values, I get the impression teachers have;
1. seen ineffective or counterproductive practices or values in other schools (students learn little, have low aspirations, and their behaviour is out of control),
2. reacted against those practices,
3. tried alternatives,
4. and only then identified beliefs and values that justify the alternatives.

The lack of coherence and thinking-through is important, because beliefs and values are taught explicitly at Michaela and can have a significant impact on students’ lives. In this post I focus on a key feature of the Michaela ethos highlighted in The Power of Culture – British history and culture.

British culture
Michaela has reacted strongly against calls to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, as Katie Ashford explains in ‘Schools should teach Dead White Men’. Although her initial description of the aims of ‘decolonisation’ advocates is pretty accurate, I felt Katie goes on to caricature their position by citing extreme views. Some advocates of ‘decolonising’ might think ‘our society is entirely racist’ (p.59), be calling for the removal of dead white men from the curriculum (p.63), or want only black writers to be included (p.67), but most don’t. What they’re concerned about is the implicit assumptions underpinning the curriculum that can push our thinking in a particular direction without us being aware of it. They’re calling for a restructuring of the curriculum that views its content from an inclusive, egalitarian standpoint, rather than from the point of view of dominant cultures.

Michaela’s view in contrast, is that each of their students is British, lives in England, and in order to participate fully in British/English life, needs to know about British/English history and culture, a point Michael Taylor expands on in ‘National Identity’.

What is Britishness?
Michael understands why schools celebrate cultural diversity. But he claims that is ‘often associated with the rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness’. Despite this, people ‘feel British and people feel English’ (p.74). For Michaela, a sense of British and English identity is engendered by the Union flag, the Queen’s birthday, St George’s Day, ‘important national songs’ (National Anthem, Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee my Country), Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and WW1 battlefields. I wouldn’t question the importance of students knowing about those symbols, but St George’s Day is the only one that pre-dates the colonial era – which lends weight to the decolonisers’ point.

Now, I feel as British and English as the next British/English person, but what makes me feel British/English is older, more egalitarian symbols; leaders being ‘first among equals’ (a principle espoused by, amongst others, Celts and Anglo Saxons), observations such as “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (John Ball, Peasants’ Revolt, 1381) and Civil War battlefields. For me, the symbols embraced by Michaela represent a social hierarchy that has a longstanding tendency to take away people’s stuff and give it to its posh mates, something that all Michaela students need to be aware of. They need to be aware of it because Michaela points its students in the direction of the upper echelons of that social hierarchy (Russell Group and Ivy League universities, civil service internships etc).

Clearly, questions need to be asked about why those from ethnic minorities and/or state schools are under-represented in high status professions. And students from ethnic minorities and/or state schools should indeed be supported to aim high academically. But questions also need to be asked about why certain professions have high status, and why other equally important ones don’t. As a community, we don’t need only high flyers. We need people who can do the nuts-and-bolts hands-on work that keeps the country going. Many of those jobs don’t have much social cachet, but are interesting, demanding, well-paid and essential. I’m not talking about menial work here; I’m asking why farming, engineering, manufacturing, retail management, local government or nursing, don’t have the same allure for Michaela as say, wealthy bankers (p.64) or the civil service (p.115).

Unity and diversity
Michaela, with some justification, wants to shift the focus from our differences to what we have in common, from the individual to the community. But in doing so it overlooks an important principle. One of the functions of a democracy is to safeguard the diversity of individuals; to protect our liberty to live as we think fit, free from arbitrary constraint (see previous post). Human diversity isn’t an optional extra; it’s vital for our standard of living and quality of life. Communities simply wouldn’t be able to adapt or develop if we were all the same.

And although people in Britain do have much in common, we are also inherently very diverse, a point that Michael glosses over. For example, he says “language, law and custom are all concrete realities that link people from Caithness to Cornwall” (p.79). But in Cornwall you might encounter a campaigner for Cornish independence whose child attends a Cornish-speaking nursery. In Caithness you’d be quite likely to bump into an ardent Scottish nationalist, speaking Gaelic, living under Scottish law, and practising customs unique to Scotland. There are historical reasons for that, which Michael as a history teacher must be aware of, but doesn’t mention. (His chapter on teaching history is well worth reading, incidentally).

One thing most cultures throughout human history have in common, is that those with few resources have been exploited by those with more. And that doesn’t only entail some nations exploiting other nations; many have exploited others in their own community. It’s a feature shared by all cultures, and something they all end up trying to prevent. Getting students from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds into high status professions is one way to tackle inequality, but won’t effect much change if those same students are taught to revere symbols of the very system that has exploited in the past – and is still exploiting.

Michaela doesn’t seem to understand the problematic aspects of the political and social hierarchy. It’s as if the school has been so busy reacting against the prevailing focus in education on diversity, context and structural issues, it’s come up with an alternative model that ignores those factors completely.

Colonising the curriculum
There’s a good argument for students focusing on the history and literature of the country they live in, and as Katie points out there isn’t time to teach about all cultures in depth (p.70). But students don’t need to learn everything in depth. What they do need is an overview of world history and culture – from a world, rather than a British perspective.

But Michaela’s wider perspective isn’t a world one, it’s a Western/European one (pp. 53, 69, 71, 172). It’s as if agriculture, city states, administration, industry, trade, and arts and crafts didn’t exist prior to the ancient Greeks. I felt the Western/European perspective is epitomised in two sentences children are expected to learn. One is;

Shakespeare is widely recognised as the greatest writer of all time, and was a great dramatist. (p. 379)

Shakespeare is certainly considered by many to be the greatest writer of all time, but the word ‘recognised’ implies his status is a matter of fact, rather than a matter of opinion. Some ancient Greeks could be contenders for the title, especially if all their manuscripts were still in existence. And who knows what great dramatists preceded them?

The other sentence is the answer to the second of two questions:

What word means ‘the belief that there is one God’?
How were the Israelites different from the Canaanites? (p.197)

My childhood was steeped in Bible stories and my immediate answer to the second question was “the Canaanites lived in the land of Canaan; the Israelites invaded it”. But the answer students are expected to give is “the Israelites differ from the Canaanites because, whereas the Israelites were monotheistic, the Canaanites were polytheistic”. That’s certainly a difference, but it probably wouldn’t have been the one foremost in the minds of the Canaanites at the time – which again reinforces the decolonisers’ argument.

It’s possible Michaela staff are presenting students with a Western/European/British/English history and culture and Judeo-Christian beliefs from a critical perspective, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, teachers appear to accept the current social hierarchy as a given – uncritically. And the criterion for ‘success’ (beyond academic achievement) is attaining high social status rather than leading a fulfilling and useful life. That’s ironic because the criterion for ‘success’ in the street culture familiar to many of Michaela’s students, is also high social status. I’m not convinced that the principles of loyalty to the nation and giving something back (p.78) will eradicate the inequities inherent in British culture.

Michaela culture – a Swiss cheese model?

The Michaela Community School was founded in 2014 by Katharine Birbalsingh (as Headteacher) and Suella Braverman (currently Attorney General). The school’s ‘no excuses’ approach to education generated much controversy, but their first GCSE results outperformed the national average and their Progress 8 score ranked them fifth nationally.

In 2016 the school published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, a summary of the Michaela ethos, with contributions from its staff. I found it perturbing and blogged about it here . But those were early days. The school recently published Michaela: The Power of Culture, which I hoped would offer more insights into its success. I got as far as Jonathan Porter (deputy head) explaining the rationale for the school’s culture, in ‘Michaela – A School of Freedom’. I’ve had to take a break. Here’s why…

Liberty
Jonathan opens by claiming that we have a ‘romantic instinct’ that yearns for “emancipation rather than prescription”, for “a loosening rather than a tightening of the fence” (p.39). He says the romantic instinct has its origins, not in “ancient theory – which understood true freedom to mean virtuous self-government”, but in John Locke’s 17th century proposition that human beings in their natural state are ‘ungoverned and unconstrained’ (p.40). Jean-Jacques Rousseau largely concurred with Locke, and according to Jonathan, Rousseau’s views on education set out in Emile, or On Education (1762) have had a profound and detrimental influence on education in Britain.

Isaiah Berlin revisited Locke’s ideas in the 1950s. Berlin posited two types of liberty: Negative liberty that seeks to minimise the obstacles to people doing what they want to do; and positive liberty, the freedom to self-determine, which might require some input from the state. Berlin was wary of positive liberty due to the potential for state control. But Jonathan agrees with Charles Taylor that “…we cannot erase the view of positive freedom entirely, not least because our ability to exercise any freedom we might have hinges on certain ends” (p.45).

Michaela adopts a ‘no excuses’ principle for behaviour management and Jonathan sees this as grounded in the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government. His reasoning appears to be that children often make poor choices about how to use their liberty (he goes into detail about the temptations of social media), and that the ‘ancient theory’ had stood the test of time until Locke came along. Many of Jonathan’s claims stand up to scrutiny – but some don’t. Also, he tells only half the story – and the other half is important.

Virtuous self-government
As I understand it, the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government recognised that people (individually and collectively) were generally unhappy about external control, hence the ‘self-government’ bit. But self-government alone didn’t guarantee true liberty – that was possible only for those not enslaved to their passions, a thread running through the liberty discourse. That meant virtue was essential for individuals and communities to enjoy true freedom.

Something Jonathan overlooks is that many (at least from Judea to Greece) who subscribed to the ‘ancient theory’ also believed that human beings had fallen from a prior state of grace. The human task was to remedy that fall via sacrifice, rituals, good works etc. Deities and their earthly representatives (prophets, priests, kings et al.) were usually involved. Promoting the idea that human moral status is inherently flawed, put the deities’ earthly representatives in positions of considerable power. But power structures don’t feature in Jonathan’s analysis.

Locke and Rousseau
Locke (and Rousseau) challenged the idea that we’re fundamentally sinful by nature and have to spend our lives making up for it. Instead, they proposed that whatever our moral status, we’re entitled to live our lives as we think fit, not as prescribed by social or religious institutions. Of course if we’re interacting with other people, our right to exercise our natural liberty is likely to conflict with someone else’s right to do the same, so we need some form of government to adjudicate, and some rules we all agree to comply with, to ensure a peaceful co-existence. This is the basis of Locke’s take on social contract theory, to which Rousseau also subscribed. Jonathan refers to social contract theory (p.40) but goes on, I felt, to caricature Locke’s liberty as Milton’s ‘licence’. Milton was right that for some “licence they mean when they cry liberty”, but that wasn’t what Locke and Rousseau meant. What they objected to wasn’t constraint per se, but arbitrary constraint – another point Jonathan refers to (p.40) but then bypasses.

Both Locke and Rousseau had direct experience of the doctrine of original sin being used to justify arbitrary constraint.The English civil war had begun shortly before Locke’s tenth birthday and his father served in the Parliamentary army. John was a bright lad and would have been well aware of what his father was fighting for. Rousseau had grown up in Calvinist Geneva but spent most of his adult life Catholic France, so had seen the doctrine of original sin from two very different theological perspectives. Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas about liberty were responses to major issues of their day, and were popular because the ancient theory of virtuous self-government, and more importantly its implementation, were quite evidently no longer fit for purpose.

Virtue and power
Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but even by the 5th century BCE it had become clear it was feasible only in relatively small, completely independent communities. By then, the population of Athens had grown too large for direct participation in decision-making. Thucydides recounts discussions about whether decisions should be made by only a proportion of the population, or by representatives. And recounts the disagreements over who was ‘virtuous’.

By the 17th century CE, virtuous self-government had been found by many to be a necessary but insufficient foundation for society. You don’t need to believe in a deity to believe in virtue, but if virtuous self-government is the model a society has adopted, somebody ends up deciding what’s virtuous and what’s not. And that somebody is usually whoever has social or political power. After all, ‘virtue’ has been used to justify despotism, genocide, murder, torture and slavery – none of which feels particularly virtuous if you’re on the receiving end. The early Athenians argued that nature itself showed the strong should rule the weak, but unsurprisingly many of the tribes they tried to rule objected, on the grounds that they too wanted to govern themselves.

Of course by definition children don’t have sufficient experience or knowledge to make fully informed life choices. Locke considered the mind a tabula rasa; for him, it was important to ensure children’s early experiences were positive. Rousseau in contrast, had been a student in the school of hard knocks and felt it was important for children to find out about reality for themselves. I think Michaela is right that children need guidance and support from adults, to be taught effective life strategies, and to learn self-control in order to best exercise their liberty. But Jonathan doesn’t ask who decides what’s virtuous, or what the ends of education are – key issues for Locke and Rousseau.

Arbitrary constraints
Jonathan mentions arbitrary constraints, but sees them as political constraints (p.46) rather than social ones. There’s an example in his discussion of character (p.49). He says; “If pupils at Michaela are just one minute late to school, they will receive a 30-minute detention at the end of the day. We do make exceptions, although these really are exceptions. Most days a handful of detentions will be given to pupils who slept through their alarms, didn’t pack their bags the night before, or left home late but didn’t run to catch the bus… Although we are forgiving, a future employer may not be”.

I understand why pupils should be expected to arrive at school on time – it’s inconvenient for everybody if they don’t. But one minute late? And although the school might make allowances for exceptional circumstances, it isn’t forgiving – pupils are punished for transgressions.

The justification for the no excuses approach to tardiness is that a future employer might expect down-to-the-minute punctuality. It’s true that some industries (e.g. transport, manufacturing) do operate at that level of punctuality – but in those industries lateness has direct, real-life, non-arbitrary consequences. It’s also true that many employers require employees to clock in and clock out, but they usually use flexitime, which means arriving a minute later means leaving a minute later to compensate. And many employers, particularly in the type of employment Michaela encourages its students to aspire to, don’t monitor minutes or even hours, as long as the work gets done. So what is the ‘one minute late’ rule really about? There’s a fine line between discipline and control. It was a line Locke and Rousseau were aware of but it’s not clear where Michaela’s line is.

It looks to me as if Michaela has chosen a ‘no excuses’ approach to school culture because it has certain administrative advantages, then justified that choice by appealing to authorities that support their position, such as the virtuous self-government model, Aristotle, Graeco-Roman tradition, 1000 years of history, and Edmund Burke (p.46ff). Rather than use theory from opposing authorities (e.g. Locke, Rousseau, Berlin) to test the school’s model for possible flaws, it caricatures opposing theories as responsible for licence, undermining the British education system, and allowing children unrestricted access to social media.

Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but survived for 1000 years of history largely because it was shored up by religious and secular power hierarchies with those at the top deciding what was virtuous and how far self-government extended – as  Michaela is doing. But Michaela’s students will take their place in an adult world that relies on people negotiating outcomes; at the state level, in the workplace and between individuals. Will a ‘no excuses’ culture prepare them effectively for that?

Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture work for some people and some institutions, but the ancient Athenians, contemporaries of Locke, Rousseau, and Berlin, and state education systems from Prussia to the UK, have found that they don’t work for everybody –  which is largely why those systems changed.  Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture have face value appeal, but as systems of governance they’re as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

going round in circles

Central to the Tiger Teachers’ model of cognitive science is the concept of cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to the amount of material that working memory is handling at any one time. It’s a concept introduced by John Sweller, a researcher frequently cited by the Tiger Teachers. Cognitive load is an important concept for education because human working memory capacity is very limited – we can think about only a handful of items at the same time. If students’ cognitive load is too high, they won’t be able to solve problems or will fail to learn some material.

I’ve had concerns about the Tiger Teachers’ interpretations of concepts from cognitive science, and about how they apply those concepts to their own learning, but until recently I hadn’t paid much attention to the way their students were being taught. I had little information about it for a start, and if it ‘worked’ for a particular group of teachers and students, I saw no reason to question it.

increasing cognitive load

The Michaela Community School recently blogged about solving problems involving circle theorems. Vince Ulam, a mathematician and maths teacher*, took issue with the diagrammatic representations of the problems.

The diagrams of the circles and triangles are clearly not accurate; they don’t claim to be. In an ensuing Twitter discussion, opinion was divided over whether or not the accuracy of diagrams mattered. Some people thought it didn’t matter if the diagrams were intended only as a representation of an algebraic or arithmetic problem. One teacher thought inaccurate diagrams would ensure the students didn’t measure angles or guess them.

The problem with the diagrams is not that they are imprecise – few people would quibble over a sketch diagram representing an angle of 28° that was actually 32°. It’s that they are so inaccurate as to be misleading. For example, there’s an obtuse angle that clearly isn’t obtuse, an angle of 71° is more acute than one of 28°, and a couple of isosceles triangles are scalene. As Vince points out, this makes it impossible for students to determine anything by inspection – an important feature of trigonometry. Diagrams with this level of inaccuracy also have implications for cognitive load, something that the Tiger Teachers are, rightly, keen to minimise.

My introduction to trigonometry at school was what the Tiger Teachers would probably describe as ‘traditional’. A sketch diagram illustrating a trigonometry problem was acceptable, but was expected to present a reasonably accurate representation of the problem. A diagram of an isosceles triangle might not be to scale, but it should be an isosceles triangle. An obtuse angle should be an obtuse angle, and an angle of 28° should not be larger than one of 71°.

Personally, I found some of the inaccurate diagrams so inaccurate as to be quite disconcerting. After all those years of trigonometry, the shapes of isosceles triangles, obtuse angles, and the relative sizes of angles of ~30° or ~70°, are burned into my brain, as the Tiger Teachers would no doubt expect them to be. So seeing a scalene triangle masquerading as an isosceles, an acute angle claiming to be 99°, and angles of 28° and 71° trading places, set up a somewhat unnerving Necker shift. In each case my brain started flipping between two contradictory representations; what the diagram was telling me and what the numbers were telling me.

It was the Stroop effect but with lines and numbers rather than letters and colours; and the Stroop effect increases cognitive load.  Even students accustomed to isosceles triangles not always looking like isosceles triangles would experience an increased cognitive load whilst looking at these diagrams, because they’ll have to process two competing representations; what their brain is telling them about the diagram and what it’s telling them about the numbers.  I had similar misgivings about the ‘CUDDLES’ approach used to teach French at Michaela.

CUDDLES and cognitive load

The ‘traditional’ approach to teaching foreign languages is to start with a bunch of simple nouns, adjectives and verbs, do a lot of rehearsal, and work up from there; that approach keeps cognitive load low from the get-go.   The Michaela approach seems to be to start with some complex language and break it down in a quasi-mathematical fashion involving underlining some letters, dotting others and telling stories about words.

Not only do students need to learn the words, what they represent and how French speakers use them, they have to learn a good deal of material extraneous to the language itself. I can see how the extraneous material acts as a belt-and-braces approach to ‘securing’ knowledge, but it must increase cognitive load because the students have to think about that as well as the language.

The Tiger Teacher’s approach to teaching is intriguing, but I still can’t figure out the underlying rationale; it certainly isn’t about reducing cognitive load.  Why does the Tiger Teachers’ approach to teaching matter?  Because now Nick Gibb is signed up to it, it will probably become educational policy, regardless of the validity of the evidence.

Note:  I resisted the temptation to call this post ‘non angeli sed anguli’.

*Amended from ‘maths teacher’ –  Old Andrew correctly pointed out that this was an assumption on my part. Vince Ulam assures me my assumption was correct.  I guess he should know.

the Tiger Teachers and cognitive science

Cognitive science is a key plank in the Tiger Teachers’ model of knowledge. If I’ve understood it properly the model looks something like this:

Cognitive science has discovered that working memory has limited capacity and duration, so pupils can’t process large amounts of novel information. If this information is secured in long-term memory via spaced, interleaved practice, students can recall it instantly whenever they need it, freeing up working memory for thinking.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as it stands. It’s what’s missing that’s the problem.

Subject knowledge

One of the Tiger Teachers’ beefs about the current education system is its emphasis on transferable skills. They point out that skills are not universally transferable, many are subject-specific, and in order to develop expertise in higher-level skills novices need a substantial amount of subject knowledge. Tiger Teachers’ pupils are expected to pay attention to experts (their teachers) and memorise a lot of facts before they can comprehend, apply, analyse, synthesise or evaluate. The model is broadly supported by cognitive science and the Tiger Teachers apply it rigorously to children. But not to themselves, it seems.

For most Tiger Teachers cognitive science will be an unfamiliar subject area. That makes them (like most of us) cognitive science novices. Obviously they don’t need to become experts in cognitive science to apply it to their educational practice, but they do need the key facts and concepts and a basic overview of the field. The overview is important because they need to know how the facts fit together and the limitations of how they can be applied.   But with a few honourable exceptions (Daisy Christodoulou, David Didau and Greg Ashman spring to mind – apologies if I’ve missed anyone out), many Tiger Teachers don’t appear to have even thought about acquiring expertise, key facts and concepts or an overview. As a consequence facts are misunderstood or overlooked, principles from other knowledge domains are applied inappropriately, and erroneous assumptions made about how science works. Here are some examples (page numbers refer to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers):

It’s a fact…

Teachers’ brains work exactly the same way as pupils’” (p.177). No they don’t. Cognitive science (ironically) thinks that children’s brains begin by forming trillions of connections (synapses). Then through to early adulthood, synapses that aren’t used get pruned, which makes information processing more efficient. (There’s a good summary here.)  Pupils’ brains are as different to teachers’ brains as children’s bodies are different to adults’ bodies. Similarities don’t mean they’re identical.

Then there’s working memory.As the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains, we learn by transferring knowledge from the short-term memory to the long term memory” (p177). Well, kind of – if you assume that what Willingham explicitly describes as “just about the simplest model of the mind possible”  is an exhaustive model of memory. If you think that, you might conclude, wrongly, “the more knowledge we have in long-term memory, the more space we have in our working memory to process new information” (p.177). Or that “information cannot accumulate into long-term memory while working memory is being used” (p.36).

Long-term memory takes centre stage in the Tiger Teachers’ model of cognition. The only downside attributed to it is our tendency to forget things if we don’t revisit them (p.22). Other well-established characteristics of long-term memory – its unreliability, errors and biases – are simply overlooked, despite Daisy Christodoulou’s frequent citation of Daniel Kahneman whose work focused on those flaws.

With regard to transferable skills we’re told “cognitive scientist Herb Simon and his colleagues have cast doubt on the idea that there are any general or transferable cognitive skills” (p.17), when what they actually cast doubt on is the ideas that all skills are transferable or that none are.

The Michaela cognitive model is distinctly reductionist; “all there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition” (p.19). Then there’s “skills are simply just a composite of sequential knowledge – all skills can be broken down to irreducible pieces of knowledge” (p.161).

The statement about intelligence is a direct quote from John Anderson’s paper ‘A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition’ but Anderson isn’t credited, so you might not know he was talking about simple encodings of objects and transformations, and that by ‘intelligence’ he means how ants behave rather than IQ. I’ve looked at Daisy Christodoulou’s interpretation of Anderson’s model here.

The idea that intelligence and skills consist ‘simply just’ of units of knowledge ignores Anderson’s procedural rules and marginalises the role of the schema – the way people configure their knowledge. Joe Kirby mentions “procedural and substantive schemata” (p. 17), but seems to see them only in terms of how units of knowledge are configured for teaching purposes; “subject content knowledge is best organised into the most memorable schemata … chronological, cumulative schemata help pupils remember subject knowledge in the long term” (p.21). The concept of schemata as the way individuals, groups or entire academic disciplines configure their knowledge, that the same knowledge can be configured in different ways resulting in different meanings, or that configurations sometimes turn out to be profoundly wrong, doesn’t appear to feature in the Tiger Teachers’ model.

Skills: to transfer or not to transfer?

Tiger Teachers see higher-level skills as subject-specific. That hasn’t stopped them applying higher-level skills from one domain inappropriately to another. In her critique of Bloom’s taxonomy, Daisy Christodoulou describes it as a ‘metaphor’ for the relationship between knowledge and skills. She refers to two other metaphors; ED Hirsch’s scrambled egg and Joe Kirby’s double helix (Seven Myths p.21).  Daisy, Joe and ED teach English, and metaphors are an important feature in English literature. Scientists do use metaphors, but they use analogies more often, because in the natural world patterns often repeat themselves at different levels of abstraction. Daisy, Joe and ED are right to complain about Bloom’s taxonomy being used to justify divorcing skills from knowledge. And the taxonomy itself might be wrong or misleading.   But it is a taxonomy and it is based on an important scientific concept – levels of abstraction – so should be critiqued as such, not as if it were a device used by a novelist.

Not all evidence is equal

A major challenge for novices is what criteria they can use to decide whether or not factual information is valid. They can’t use their overview of a subject area if they don’t have one. They can’t weigh up one set of facts against another if they don’t know enough facts. So Tiger Teachers who are cognitive science novices have to fall back on the criteria ED Hirsch uses to evaluate psychology – the reputation of researchers and consensus. Those might be key criteria in evaluating English literature, but they’re secondary issues for scientific research, and for good reason.

Novices then have to figure out how to evaluate the reputation of researchers and consensus. The Tiger Teachers struggle with reputation. Daniel Willingham and Paul Kirschner are cited more frequently than Herb Simon, but with all due respect to Willingham and Kirschner, they’re not quite in the same league. Other key figures don’t get a mention.  When asked what was missing from the Tiger Teachers’ presentations at ResearchEd, I suggested, for starters, Baddeley and Hitch’s model of working memory. It’s been a dominant model for 40 years and has the rare distinction of being supported by later biological research. But it’s mentioned only in an endnote in Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School and in Daisy’s Seven Myths about Education. I recommended inviting Alan Baddeley to speak at ResearchEd – he’s a leading authority on memory after all.   One of the teachers said he’d never even heard of him. So why was that teacher doing a presentation on memory at a national education conference?

The Tiger Teachers also struggle with consensus. Joe Kirby emphasises the length of time an idea has been around and the number of studies that support it (pp.22-3), overlooking the fact that some ideas can dominate a field for decades, be supported by hundreds of studies and then turn out to be profoundly wrong; theories about how brains work are a case in point.   Scientific theory doesn’t rely on the quantity of supporting evidence; it relies on an evaluation of all relevant evidence – supporting and contradictory – and takes into account the quality of that evidence as well.  That’s why you need a substantial body of knowledge before you can evaluate it.

The big picture

For me, Battle Hymn painted a clearer picture of the Michaela Community School than I’d been able to put together from blog posts and visitors’ descriptions. It persuaded me that Michaela’s approach to behaviour management is about being explicit and consistent, rather than simply being ‘strict’. I think having a week’s induction for new students and staff (‘bootcamp’) is a great idea. A systematic, rigorous approach to knowledge is vital and learning by rote can be jolly useful. But for me, those positives were all undermined by the Tiger Teachers’ approach to their own knowledge.  Omitting key issues in discussions of Rousseau’s ideas, professional qualifications or the special circumstances of schools in coastal and rural areas, is one thing. Pontificating about cognitive science and then ignoring what it says is quite another.

I can understand why Tiger Teachers want to share concepts like the limited capacity of working memory and skills not being divorced from knowledge.  Those concepts make sense of problems and have transformed their teaching.  But for many Tiger Teachers, their knowledge of cognitive science appears to be based on a handful of poorly understood factoids acquired second or third hand from other teachers who don’t have a good grasp of the field either. Most teachers aren’t going to know much about cognitive science; but that’s why most teachers don’t do presentations about it at national conferences or go into print to share their flimsy knowledge about it.  Failing to acquire a substantial body of knowledge about cognitive science makes its comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation impossible.  The Tiger Teachers’ disregard for principles they claim are crucial is inconsistent, disingenuous, likely to lead to significant problems, and sets a really bad example for pupils. The Tiger Teachers need to re-write some of the lyrics of their Battle Hymn.

References

Birbalsingh, K (2016).  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way.  John Catt Educational.

Christodoulou, D (2014).  Seven Myths about Education.  Routledge.

the Tiger Teachers’ model of knowledge: what’s missing?

“If all else fails for Michaela at least we’re going to do a great line in radical evangelical street preachers.” Jonathan Porter, Head of Humanities at the Michaela Community School was referring to an impassioned speech from Katharine Birbalsingh, the school’s head teacher at the recent launch of their book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way.

Michaela Community School’s sometimes blistering critique of the English education system, coupled with its use of pedagogical methods abandoned by most schools decades ago, has drawn acclaim, criticism and condemnation. There’s a strong, shared narrative about the Michaela Way amongst the contributors to Battle Hymn. If I’ve understood it correctly, it goes like this:

There’s a crisis in the English education system due to progressive ideas that have dominated teacher training since the 1960s. Child-centred methods have undermined discipline. Poor behaviour and lack of respect makes it impossible for teachers to teach. Subject knowledge has been abandoned in favour of higher-level skills wrongly claimed to be transferable. The way to combat the decline is via strict discipline, teacher authority, a knowledge-based curriculum and didactic teaching.

Knowledge is power

“Knowledge is power” is the Michaela motto. Tiger Teachers are required to have extensive knowledge of their own subject area in order to teach their pupils. Pupils are considered to be novices and as such are expected to acquire a substantial amount of factual knowledge before they can develop higher-level subject-specific skills.

Given the emphasis on knowledge, you’d expect the Tiger Teachers to apply this model not only to their pupils, but to any subjects they are unfamiliar with.   But they don’t. It appears to apply only to what pupils are taught in school.

A couple of years ago at a ResearchEd conference, I queried some claims made about memory. I found myself being interrogated by three Tiger Teachers about what I thought was wrong with the model of memory presented. I said I didn’t think anything was wrong with it; the problem was what it missed out. There are other examples in Battle Hymn of missing key points. To illustrate, I’ve selected four. Here’s the first:

Rousseau

Rousseau is widely recognised as the originator of the progressive educational ideas so derided in the Michaela narrative.   If you were to rely on other Tiger Teachers for your information about Rousseau, you might picture him as a feckless Romantic philosopher who wandered the Alps fathering children whilst entertaining woolly, sentimental, unrealistic thoughts about their education.   You wouldn’t know that he argued in Émile, ou de L’Éducation not so much for the ‘inevitable goodness’ of children as Jonathan Porter claims (p.77), but that children (and adults) aren’t inherently bad – a view that flew in the face of the doctrine of original sin espoused by the Geneva Calvinism that Rousseau had rejected and the Catholicism he (temporarily) converted to soon after.

At the time, children were often expected to learn by rote factual information that was completely outside their experience, that was meaningless to them. Any resistance would have been seen as a sign of their fallen nature, rather than an understandable objection to a pointless exercise. Rousseau advocated that education work with nature, rather than against it. He claimed the natural world more accurately reflected the intentions of its Creator than the authoritarian, man-made religious institutions that exerted an extensive and often malign influence over people’s day-to-day lives.   Not surprisingly, Émile was promptly banned in Geneva and Paris.

Although Jonathan Porter alludes to the ‘Enlightenment project’ (p.77), he doesn’t mention Rousseau’s considerable influence in other spheres. The section of Émile that caused most consternation was entitled ‘The Creed of a Savoyard Priest’. It was the only part Voltaire thought worth publishing. In it, Rousseau tackles head-on Descartes’ proposition ‘I think, therefore I am’. He sets out the questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions, that perplexed the thinkers of his day and that cognitive science has only recently begun to find answers to. I’m not defending Rousseau’s educational ideas, I think Voltaire’s description “a hodgepodge of a silly wet nurse in four volumes” isn’t far off the mark, but to draw valid conclusions from Rousseau’s ideas about education, you need to know why he was proposing them.

Battle Hymn isn’t a textbook or an academic treatise, so it would be unreasonable to expect it to tackle at length all the points it alludes to. But it is possible to signpost readers to relevant issues in a few words. There’s nothing technically wrong with the comments about Rousseau in Battle Hymn, or Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse (a core text for Tiger Teachers) or Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education (another core text); but what’s missed out could result in conclusions being drawn that aren’t supported by the evidence.

Teacher qualifications

Another example is teacher qualifications. Michaela teachers don’t think much of their initial teacher training (ITT); they claim it didn’t prepare them for the reality of teaching (p.167),  it indoctrinates teachers into a ‘single dogmatic orthodoxy’ (p.171), outcomes are poor (p.158), and CPD in schools is ‘more powerful’ (p.179). The conclusion is not that ITT needs a root-and-branch overhaul, but that it should be replaced with something else; in-school training or … no qualification at all. Sarah Clear says she’s “an unqualified teacher and proud” (p.166) and argues that although the PGCE might be a necessary precaution to prevent disaster, it doesn’t actually do that (p.179), so why bother with it?

Her view doesn’t quite square with Dani Quinn’s perspective on professional qualifications. Dani advocates competition in schools because there’s competition in the professional world. She says; “Like it or not, when it comes to performance, it is important to know who is the best” and cites surgeons and airline pilots as examples (p.133). But her comparison doesn’t quite hold water. Educational assessment tends to be norm-referenced (for reasons Daisy Christodoulou explores here) but assessments of professional performance are almost invariably criterion-referenced in order to safeguard minimum standards of technical knowledge and skill. But neither Dani nor Sarah mention norm-referenced and criterion-referenced assessment – which is odd, given Daisy Christodoulou’s involvement with Michaela. Again, there’s nothing technically wrong with what’s actually said about teacher qualifications; but the omission of relevant concepts increases the risk of reaching invalid conclusions.

Replicating Michaela

A third example is from the speech given by Katharine Birbalsingh at the book launch. It was triggered by this question: “How would you apply Michaela in primary? Could you replicate it in coastal areas or rural areas and how would that work?”

Katharine responds: “These are all systems and values that are universal. That could happen anywhere. Of course it could happen in a primary. I mean you just insist on higher standards with regard to the behaviour and you teach them didactically because everyone learns best when being taught didactically … You would do that with young children, you would do that with coastal children and you would do that with Yorkshire children. I don’t see why there would be a difference.” She then launches into her impassioned speech about teaching and its social consequences.

You could indeed apply Michaela’s systems, values, behavioural expectations and pedagogical approach anywhere. It doesn’t follow that you could apply them everywhere. Implicit in the question is whether the Michaela approach is scalable. It’s not clear whether Katharine misunderstood the question or answered the one she wanted to answer, but her response overlooks two important factors.

First, there’s parent/pupil choice. Brent might be one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, but it’s a deprived borough in a densely populated, prosperous city that has many schools and a good public transport system. If parents or pupils don’t like Michaela, they can go elsewhere. But in rural areas, for many pupils there’s only one accessible secondary school – there isn’t an elsewhere to go to.

Then there’s teacher recruitment. If you’re a bright young graduate, as most of the Michaela staff seem to be, the capital offers a vibrant social life and  a wide range of interesting career alternatives should you decide to quit teaching. In a rural area there wouldn’t be the same opportunities.  Where I live, in a small market town in a sparsely populated county, recruitment in public sector services has been an ongoing challenge for many years.

Coastal towns have unique problems because they are bounded on at least one side by the sea. This makes them liminal spaces, geographically, economically and socially. Many are characterised by low-skilled, low-paid, seasonal employment and social issues different to those of an inner city. For teachers, the ‘life’ bit of the work-life balance in London would be very different from what they could expect in out-of-season Hartlepool.

Of course there’s no reason in principle why a replica Michaela shouldn’t transform the educational and economic prospects of coastal or rural areas.   But in practice, parent/pupil choice and teacher recruitment would be challenges that by definition Michaela hasn’t had to face because it’s a classic ‘special case’.  And it’s not safe to generalise from special cases. Again, there’s nothing technically wrong with what Katharine said about replicating Michaela; it’s what she didn’t say that’s key.  The same is true for the Tiger Teachers’ model of cognitive science, the subject of the next post.

References

Birbalsingh, K (2016).  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way.  John Catt Educational.

Christodoulou, D (2014).  Seven Myths about Education.  Routledge.

Peal, R (2014).  Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools.  Civitas.

Rousseau, J-J (1974/1762).  Émile.  JM Dent.