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 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 alternative 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.


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.

the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies: getting it wrong from the beginning

Alongside a recommendation to read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, came another to read Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Egan’s book is in a different league to Peal’s; it’s scholarly, properly referenced and published by a mainstream publisher not a think-tank. Although it appears to be about Spencer, Dewey and Piaget, Egan’s critique is aimed almost solely at Spencer; Piaget’s ideas are addressed, but Dewey hardly gets a look in. During the first chapter – a historical sketch of Spencer and his ideas – Egan and I got along swimmingly. Before I read this book my knowledge of Spencer would have just about filled a postage stamp (I knew he was a Victorian polymath who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’) so I found Egan’s account of Spencer’s influence illuminating. But once his analysis of Spencer’s ideas got going, we began to part company.

My first problem with Egan’s analysis was that I felt he was unduly hard on Spencer. There is a sense in which he has to be because he lays at Spencer’s feet the blame for most of the ills of the education systems in the English-speaking world. Spencer is portrayed as someone who dazzled the 19th century public in the UK and America with his apparently brilliant ideas, which were then rapidly discredited towards the end of his life and soon after his death he was forgotten. Yet Spencer, according to Egan, laid the foundation for the progressive ideas that form the basis for the education system in the US and the UK. That poses a problem for Egan because he then has to explain why, if Spencer’s ideas were so bad that academia and the public dismissed them, in education they have not only persisted but flourished in the century since his death.

misleading metaphors

Egan tackles this conundrum by appealing to three metaphors; the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies. The curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’ – is often used to describe something of variable quality, but Egan refers to the original Punch cartoon in which the curate, faced with a rotten egg for breakfast, tries to be polite to his host the bishop. The emperor’s new clothes require no explanation. In other words, Egan explains the proliferation of Spencer’s educational theories as partly down to deference to someone who was once considered a great thinker, and partly to people continuing to believe something despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

Aristotle’s flies

The Aristotle’s flies metaphor does require more explanation. Egan claims “Aristotle’s spells are hard to break. In a careless moment he wrote that flies have four legs. Despite the easy evidence of anyone’s eyes, his magisterial authority ensured that this “fact” was repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years” (p.42). In other words, Spencer’s ideas, derived ultimately from Aristotle’s, have, like Aristotle’s, been perpetuated because of his ‘magisterial authority’ – something which Egan claims Spencer lost.

It’s certainly true that untruths can be perpetuated for many years through lazy copying from one text to another. But these are usually untruths that are hard to disprove – the causes of fever or the existence of the Loch Ness monster, or, in Aristotle’s case, the idea that the brain cooled the blood, for example – not untruths that could be dispelled in a few second’s observation by a child capable of counting to six. Aristotle’s alleged ‘careless moment’ caught my attention because ‘legs’ pose a particular challenge for comparative anatomists. Aristotle was interested in comparative anatomy and was a keen and careful observer of nature. It’s unlikely that he would have had such a ‘careless moment’, and much more likely that the error would have been due to a mistranslation.

The challenge of ‘legs’ is that in nature they have a tendency over time to morph into other things – arms in humans and wings in birds for example. Anyone who has observed a housefly for a few seconds will know that houseflies frequently use their first pair of legs for grooming – in other words, as arms. I thought it quite possible that Aristotle categorised the first pair of fly legs as ‘arms’ so I looked for the reference. Egan doesn’t give it but the story about the four-legged fly idea being perpetuated for a millennium is a popular one. In 2005 it appeared in an article in the journal European Molecular Biology Organisation Reportsand was subsequently challenged in 2008 in a zoology blog.

male mayfly

male mayfly

Aristotle’s observation is in a passage on animal locomotion and the word for ‘fly’ – ephemeron – is translated by D’Arcy Thompson as ‘dayfly’ – also commonly known as the mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, named for their short adult life). In mayfly the first pair of legs is enlarged and often held forward off the ground as the males use them for grasping the female during mating. So the fly walks on four legs – the point Aristotle is making. Egan’s book was published in 2002, before this critique was written, but even before the advent of the internet it wouldn’t have been difficult to check Aristotle’s text – in Greek or in translation.

Spencer in context

I felt also that much of Egan’s criticism of Spencer was from the vantage point of hindsight. Spencer was formulating his ideas whilst arguments about germ theory were ongoing, before the publication of On the Origin of Species, before the American Civil war, before all men (never mind women) were permitted to vote in the UK or the US, before state education was implemented in England, and a century before the discovery of the structure of DNA. His ideas were widely criticised by his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything.

It’s also important to set Spencer’s educational ideas in context. He was writing in an era when mass education systems were in their infancy and schools were often significantly under-resourced. Textbooks and exercise books were unaffordable not just for most families, but for many schools. Consequently schools frequently resorted to the age-old practice of getting children to memorise, not just the alphabet and multiplication tables, but everything they were taught. Text committed to memory could be the only access to books that many people might get during their lifetime. If the children didn’t have books they couldn’t take material home to learn so had to do it in school. Memorisation takes time, so teachers were faced with a time constraint and a dilemma – whether to prioritise remembering or explaining. Not surprisingly, memorisation tended to win, because understanding can always come later. Consequently, many children could recite a lot of text, but hadn’t got a clue what it meant. For many, having at least learned to read and write at school, their education actually began after they left school and had earned enough money to buy books themselves or could borrow them from libraries. This is the rote learning referred to as ‘vicious’ by early progressive educators.

The sudden demand for teachers when mass education systems were first rolled out meant that schools had to get whatever teachers they could. Many had experience but no training and would simply expect children from very different backgrounds to those they had previously taught to learn the same material, such as reciting the grammatical rules of standard English when the children knew only their local dialect with different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structure. For children in other parts of the UK it was literally a different language. The history of England, with its list of Kings and Queens was essentially meaningless to children whose only prior access to their nation’s history was a few stories passed down orally.

This was why Spencer placed so much emphasis on the principles of simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown. Without those starting points, many children’s experience of education was one of bobbing about in a sea of incomprehension and getting more lost as time went by – and Spencer was thinking of middle-class children, not working-class ones for whom the challenge would have been greater. The problem with Spencer’s ideas was that they were extended beyond what George Kelly calls their range of convenience; they were taken to unnecessary extremes that were indeed at risk of insulting children’s intelligence.

In the next post, I take a more detailed look at Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas.

systems complexity: what we learn in school

More years ago than I care to remember I taught, briefly, at a parent controlled school – along the lines of Michael Gove’s free schools, but in those days parents had to stump up the cash themselves. One of my first tasks was to draft a curriculum. The experience stood me in good stead when I found myself educating both my children at home.

What had concerned me most about my children’s education at school was not so much what they knew or didn’t know but what they understood about the world they live in. As my eldest put it; “We were taught about the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, but I never understood why, or what they had to do with each other.”

After some trial-and-error (the standard school timetable was a non-starter) we adopted the history of the universe as a narrative spine for our learning. We started with the Big Bang and proceeded from there. We made a timeline of the universe that stretched the length of the house. The periodic table filled one wall of our dining room and the rest of our home was festooned with posters from the excellent Edugraphics. We found out what life must have been like for the young Mendeleev and for the inhabitants of Darmstadt during WWII. We studied evolution and creation stories, unearthed skulls with Leakey and watched our distant ancestors farm and develop city-states. My youngest returned to school just after the fall of the Roman Empire. I must remember to let him know what happened next.

Few teachers would think of introducing an eight year-old with special educational needs to sub-atomic theory, but for my son, that knowledge made sense of everything. Once you have a basic deep structure understanding of the connection between energy and matter, how elements interact, what DNA does, how brains process information and how people tend to behave, you have a broad framework into which all new surface features of knowledge fit. So new knowledge, whatever it is, makes sense.

But the school curriculum (in the UK at least) tends not to start from first principles. It usually begins – understandably and justifiably – with building on young children’s existing knowledge (My Family, Our Town, sand and water play). It’s later dominated by the requirements of academia. What undergraduates are required to know largely determines the content of A level courses, which in turn determines what is learned at GCSE level and so on. Add to the mix what politicians or other interested parties believe children should learn and you have a curriculum that is derived neither from the deep structure of knowledge nor from how children learn.

Using deep structure as a starting point has a number of advantages. It enables you to understand:

-how everything is related to everything else (however distantly)
-how skills and knowledge are related
-the importance and relevance of different skills and different types of knowledge

Schools have always had a problem with non-academic skills like plumbing or painting and decorating, partly because they are non-academic skills but also because of their social status. Because fewer people have the skills needed to become lawyers or doctors, these professions command high salaries and high status. Schools tend to measure their success by the number of their graduates who go into high status professions. Not on how happy those graduates are with their work or how useful they are to their communities.

We are frequently reminded that our knowledge about the world is growing at an exponential rate and that specialists can’t hope to keep on top of their own field, never mind others. This has led to increasing specialization and as a consequence there is pressure on the school curriculum to become fragmented and unconnected. Increased specalisation might be inevitable but it doesn’t follow that economists don’t need to understand human behaviour, or that doctors don’t need to grasp the principles of nutrition or that journalists don’t need to know how the brain works. Nor that it’s OK for politicians to understand only politics and not the principles that link everything together.