The importance of debating Michaela

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Despite Tom Sherrington’s humorous claims, Teach First graduates are not part of a cult. Neither are the staff at Michaela School (Tom didn’t suggest this by the way). They are a team of people committed to what they believe in (pretty much like every other teacher I have been fortunate enough to meet) and are behind their Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh one hundred percent. I can see why sceptics would claim Michaela to be a clique, maybe they are niavely confusing a highly effective, tight knit team (the best kind in my opinion – similar to Manchester United in the halcyon days of Alex Ferguson) for something it is not. Events like Debating Michaela are necessary to help cynics like me understand what the school and the people in it stand for as well as broaden our horizons by experiencing some expert orators in action. There will always be haters but it’s difficult to pass an opinion until you’ve experienced something so I’m reserving my judgement for a little longer. Not to worry, this is not another gushing post about how wonderful the school is, I’ll save that to Toby French who has done that much better than I ever could in his blog post following a recent visit. If I’m laying my cards on the table, then I’m happy to say that fundamentally we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, Michaela and I, so even if it is nirvana, it is still probably not the place for me. The purpose of this post is to share how vital it is to look at the world of education from different perspectives in order to form a balanced view.

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The view from our location, simply stunning

Last weekend I visited City Hall. It is both an impressive and imposing building on the South bank of the Thames and quite a way from sunny Bolton! My mission was to see what all the fuss was about by attending Michaela’s second debate: The Rematch. I had planned to go to their previous event, however, due to unforeseen circumstances had to settle for the YouTube catch up clips (which are well worth a watch and available here). When I booked my ticket, my friends, family and work colleagues thought I was mad. Why would you spend money and go in your own time to listen to someone harp on about education? A few years ago, I would have adopted the same attitude, I worked hard enough for the kids when I was in teacher mode so listening to other teachers talk about education would be a busman’s holiday. Funnily enough, Saturday felt like down time, I really enjoyed it. It was also an opportunity to recharge and refocus my enthusiasm when the last big push with Year 11 is needed. An event like Debating Michaela is the secret garden into other worlds, ones you wouldn’t normally experience. The debates were all interesting and the speakers were outstanding. Watching relatively inexperienced (as pointed out by John Tomsett) educationalists go head-to-head against sages of the stage was enthralling to see. Meeting some of the people who inspire me didn’t disappoint either. I’m always dubious of meeting people I admire after a bad experience with Emeli Sandé a few years ago but we won’t go into that (the mental scars are still too raw), it’s safe to say that this didn’t happen here where my educational heroes more than exceeded my expectations. Katharine herself proved throughout the day why she has managed to pull off something quite unique at Michaela. Her infectious personality and no-nonsense approach, tied up in passionate rhetoric is precisely why her team are willing to go over the wall with her.

For me, the day was about so much more than just debate. It encouraged me to challenge my perspective on a number of things which the motions alone would not have done. First and foremostly, I considered my stance on Teach First graduates. I’ve always been somewhat negative about this initiative as I’d felt it was attracting the wrong type of people for the wrong reasons. On what basis had I founded this view? Little more than anecdotal evidence and cognitive bias. What I found from being in an audience strongly weighted in Teach Firsters was that these people are equally as passionate about working with young people as teachers who had taken traditional routes into the profession. In addition to this though, what was noticeably evident were the characteristics that almost all of them displayed: strong subject knowledge, confidence, commitment and tenacity. Looking back at my progressive education I have a lot to thank my teachers for but I can now see that aspects of it were somewhat lacking. I would have benefitted from a broad and rich curriculum steeped in subject knowledge and cultural literacy. Retrospectively, I question whether we were left wanting because of the programmes of study themselves or my teachers’ lack of subject grammar? It is reassuring to know that the children in the care of the TF army (and the generation of teachers who are coming up through the different ITT routes) will not have to worry about this aspect of their learning. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the talent that comes from Teach First and have softened somewhat in my opinion of this initiative as a result of my experience at City Hall.

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The art of debate itself is not something I am accustomed to, neither my educational background nor subject specialism lend themselves to it, so the opportunity to watch the oratorical cut and thrust was a learning experience for me, something which I could take back and develop further with students. I agree with the sentiments of the Michaela ethos that every child deserves every opportunity, I can see how being able to understand the rules of debate and engage confidently gives students another string to their bow. It is also important to learn how people can passionately disagree in a respectful way (a skill that some adults would also benefit from).

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Joining an audience of unfamiliar faces reminded me of what it’s like to be a student at the beginning of term or starting part way through the year. Even as confident as I am, I was nervous and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. There are established friendships and acquaintances at events like this so it’s important to make everyone feel included just as the whole organisational team did (Barry Smith was a fantastic meeter and greeter). However, once you were in the audience you were on your own. This is where I am eternally grateful to Daisy Christodoulou. We struck up conversation and she made every effort to include me when talking to others. I’m not going to lie, Daisy is an educational hero of mine, achieving so much in such a short space of time, I have the utmost admiration and respect for her. Her book Seven Myths about Education has been one of the biggest influences in my own philosophy of late (I’ve written about this previously here) so her debate was the one I was looking forward to most. Both Daisy and Peter were brilliant. During the debate they argued so eloquently that, had I no bias whatsoever, I would have been almost divided. In fairness, Daisy gave a slightly more compelling argument and I did have a little cognitive bias so it was a done deal.

This brings me onto my next point of learning for the day, cognitive bias. Despite expert execution and convincing arguments to the contrary, my original stance on all of the motions remained unchanged. This was reflected almost unanimously by the rest of the audience which just shows how hard it is to win hearts and minds. The strongest speaker of the day in my opinion was Jonathan Porter but I voted in favour of John Tomsett, choosing to value anecdotes over evidence. Why is this so? Why would my heart over rule my head? I identified with the points Jonathan made, frequently nodding in agreement with his case, yet I still went with some excuses which is ultimately where my own ideology lies, John runs a school with a love over fear ethos which is how I feel all schools should be run. So despite every effort, Jonathan failed to convince me otherwise although I’m sure he won’t be losing any sleep over it as there were plenty of people happily in his camp.

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My unrelenting bias made me think about how we recruit students and staff our schools. Clear vision and purpose are vital. Headteachers have to communicate their ideals effectively and concisely to parents, students and staff (potential and existing). If this is not done well dissent in the ranks will ensue. It’s not about being exclusive, it’s setting out your stall and then giving people choice; your ethos/core purpose will fit with an individual or it won’t, either way is ok but if these individuals find that it doesn’t then perhaps the school is not for them. How much time is spent trying to cajole disgruntled students, parents and staff who want the aspects of the school which suit their needs but aren’t willing to go all in? This was my biggest take away for the day. Katharine and her team have set out their stall. They are professional, warm and welcoming but their way is the Michaela way and it’s not for everyone. People are under no illusions as to who they are as a school. No one is forced to work or study there, everyone has a choice. Rather than condemning something that I know little about I’m keen to know more, take whatever lessons I can and whilst the Michaela way may not work for our school in our setting it does appear to work for them so you can’t help but admire that.

I learned a great deal from Saturday, a great deal about human nature (both from the people who attended and the ones tweeting on the sidelines) and about the importance of different perspectives. Whilst the wonderful speakers didn’t manage to change my opinion, they did manage to get me to consider different viewpoints and accept that whilst I have my bias, it is important to always view the world through different eyes.

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My problem with posters (and other stuff)

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Tom Bennett wrote an article in the TES recently which caused a bit of a furore. He wrote about the ineffectiveness and inappropriate use of activities such as hour-long DVDs and poster work. Having read the article (avaliable here) I struggled to understand why both social media and the press went a little wild. Battle lines were drawn and the gloves were off. Generally, the two tribes of progressive and traditional educators were ready to go to war. Tom seemed to be the recipient of some incredibly inappropriate comments which I didn’t expect from the educational community but hey ho, life throws us surprises every day. Obviously, Tom being accustomed to the odd Twitter spat or two, handled any negative press with his usual calm, collected and sometimes impish manner. What I found mildly worrying was the way in which a number of people on social media failed to recognise the line between debate and personal attack. More so the fact that the majority of these people were linked to education, not the behaviour I would want modelled to the children in my care. I have written about perpetuating the curse of the playground bully on social media previously here. The purpose of this blog is not to preach about that topic (those of you who think we should toughen up will breathe a sigh of relief) and Tom has written an equally eloquent piece in this week’s TES about the wonderful ocean of EduTwitter which welcomes colourfully passionate debate. I am in complete agreement with Tom on this and I don’t feel the need to fight anyone’s corner. The purpose of this blog is about posters and similar activities.

For those people who have their feet firmly planted in the traditionalist camp, I am your worst nightmare. Eyebrows will be raised now and eyeballs will be rolling at the thought of another progressive cry for an active engagement based, child-centred approach to teaching. Again, not the purpose of my blog today. I’m more likely to frustrate those of you who want to label yourselves as true progressives if you read any further. I’m not going to deny the progressive versus traditional debate but my opinion (for what it’s worth) is that you don’t need to be in one camp or the other, a shark or a jet. You can be a shade of grey and I’m pretty positive that I’m not alone in this view. Before traditionalists and progressive alike are furiously hammering their keyboards to tell me that I’m wrong, you won’t change my mind. So let’s talk about posters….

As far as posters go, I’m with Tom and the trads on this one. My viewpoint doesn’t just stem from my experience in front of classes but from those as a student myself. One of the activities I endured under complete duress was the “let’s create a poster on ..” lesson, I hated the whole torrid affair from start to finish. The reason for my unreasonable bias was my perceived artistic ability, I simply had none. These were the days when BBC Micro computers were all the rage and any graphics you wanted to add were down to your own fair hand. Pictures had to be drawn, one aspect where I was seriously incapable. Did I learn anything from the painstakingly laborious hours of below-par, bubble headlined, badly coloured, A4 offerings? Probably not. My lack of artistic expertise ensured that style over substance was the focus of my efforts. The anxiety of how the finished product would look to my peers was always more important than the content itself. For me as a student, these activities were a waste of my learning time. I didn’t see the point nor did enjoy the experience. I saw it as “downtime”. This was compounded by the timing of the activities, generally used at the end of a term, when a display was needed or if our teacher was absent. Poster work wasn’t seen as “real work”. There was never any kudos given to it, I was never assessed on any of my posters at school (thankfully) and I’m sure the majority of my work was filed under B.

I hate to admit it but as a teacher I’m sure there are plenty of times I have perpetuated this waste of students’ time. Posters being a go to when planning has been poor, energy levels low or classes have been challenging. Not all the time but often enough. Again, I don’t think I’m alone in this admission. That doesn’t mean I don’t use posters now. I do but only when they will have an impact on students’ learning.

In the blur that was my degree, one assessment I remember with clarity was a poster presentation I had to deliver. My vivid memory of this experience was because I was out of my comfort zone. I could do exams, they were my thing, but posters, those bad boys filled me with dread. However, unlike my secondary school experience, on this occasion I excelled. Why? There was a purpose to my efforts. Excellence was modelled and clear expectations were given. Content was key and by this time technology could support the aesthetics. This was the only assessed visual presentation of my three year degree. It was clearly not commonplace. It mattered. I had to raise my game and I had a strong knowledge basis on which to build on.

The other influential factor came early on in my teaching career. My HOD gave me anecdotal evidence (I was young and naive then) about a teacher who was an expert at getting students through GCSE resits. He raved that her extremely impressive success rates were as a result of her approach, posters and practise. I began to look into this notion and the examples of her work with these students supported my HOD’s claims. The posters produced by the students were high quality, topic based, simplistic, clear, relevant and always sporting at least two worked examples and exam style questions. The posters consolidated the 11 years of prior learning. They recapped the subject knowledge succinctly and efficiently. Another suggestion of the miracle working teacher was that students stuck the posters they had produced around their bedrooms and would spend time every night looking over them and committing them to long-term memory. The additional benefit being if they could visualise their bedroom during the exam they would be able to recall the posters and their content.

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Applying a critical, discerning analysis of approaches to teaching and learning is vital. Were the extreme reactions to Tom’s words educationally sound or were they in an effort to jump to the defence of something which was being criticised? Posters do have a place in a number of subjects but when they are ubiquitously associated with downtime across school are we doing a disservice to those subjects where poster work and design are an integral part of the course. The dilution which taking the easy option creates results in a depreciation of their value. Observing creative subjects such as Art, Graphics, Drama, Media and Technologies can be telling. There is so much more given to the worth of the humble poster in these disciplines, there is also a much higher expectation on the design work which students produce in these areas. However, a great deal of teachers’ time is taken changing students’ mindset. The approach that the rest of us take towards this type of activity could go a long way to supporting this shift.

Films, DVDS and videos (for those of us who remember what VHS is – my Year 10 had no idea) are similar tools which have a place. Again, we need to think about how and when they are used. Purpose, impact and effect on learning, not just something to bang on when you’ve a stack of marking to do or an imminent deadline to meet. Being a child of the eighties used to having one film every two weeks from the boot of Video Man’s car (superhero figures in St Helens were thin on the ground) I would gleefully welcome (along with my peers) the sight of the TV and video being wheeled out during English lessons and as an occasional treat at the end of term. Adaptations of texts were used wisely, always after we’d read the text and broken down to be discussed. As equipment was not readily available, you had to wait for the next installment, the build up added to the excitement. If you were watching an end of year film you knew you’d been good, you’d worked hard, you were being rewarded. You sat and watched attentively, silently, even the awful productions (Spring and Port Wine scarred me for life) held your engagement. I was somewhat affronted as a young teacher when “treat films” were not appreciated by the students. As Dylan said “times they are a-changin,” I was offering something that the young people in front of me had in abundance, they could access much more interesting material than I could show them at the touch of a button. There were fifty other good intentioned souls like me with laptops and projectors showing them film after film. So how could I be upset at the lack of excitement when I was the fourth person of the day to suggest that they watch a film? A film which incidentally they would inevitably only watch the first hour of. Films a plenty, there was no treat. DVDs weren’t a reward, they became a distraction from students’ desire to communicate with one another. They would happily talk over the feature and I would regularly threaten them with turning it off as they were spoiling it for anyone that wanted to watch, generally this didn’t phase them as it was only myself and a handful of the class who were paying any attention. The behaviours which become patterns then influence attitudes where the film or play is important on the learning, in English and Drama (among others) where it’s a useful teaching device. I understand now why English teachers everywhere dismay when the rest of us get out Kung Fu Panda and Mean Girls, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is never going to compete. I very rarely see a film being played as a treat now. Effective use of visual media can be observed across subjects, sparingly for the most impact on learning.

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Tom’s point about wasting students’ time is pertinent, everything they do should be of value. That doesn’t mean we can’t have occasional treat lessons but they should be of worth, earned as a result of hard work not just for the sake of it. Posters can be powerful, their rhetoric can have significant impact so let’s not devalue this with a lack of preparation, purpose or perspective.