Last week i visited London’s faintly notorious Michaela School. A few days ago I wrote an overview framing the visit in the ‘big picture’ sense. Now I propose to begin sharing a series of posts–the Michaela Files–describing some of the useful things I learned there.
As I walked through London’s Michaela School I was struck suddenly by a strong intuition—call it fear maybe–that recalled my days as a teacher in a high performing urban school. I was in my late twenties then, and my colleagues and I were seeking, like Michaela, to engineer every moment for maximum student benefit. God, we loved those kids. And they needed every ounce of what they had and what we had to have a fighting chance. So we pushed them hard and worked long hours. We were going to do every single thing we could. But the hours were often unsustainably long I can now see.
So when I glimpsed the artful intentionality of every moment in student’s lives, the impeccable designed and executed systems, I feared that this was also true of Michaela. I knew this would challenge the long term sustainability of the school. Those brilliant teachers would tire. Many would leave. Organizational memory, the culture, the will to sustain it all would be diluted. The school would regress to the mean.
But happily like many intuitions which we presume are accurate, mine appears to have been in large part unfounded. And this is very good news, not just for Michaela but for every school seeking long –term, sustainable excellence—because one reason teachers at Michaela told me they leave by five is that they do something brilliant, simple and replicable to reduce workload without eroding outcomes. And you can copy or adapt it tomorrow.
Ready for it?
Teachers at Michaela do not mark student essays and other writing. They read the essays their students write in English and History and French and Religion and they grade them but the grade is all the written feedback students receive.
How could they? you ask- perhaps thinking of the personal dialogue you establish with your students when, late at night or on Sunday morning, you fill the margins of their essays with individualized comments—“Nice, use of evidence, David, but you’ve left out an important piece of evidence from page 62.” “I love this sentence Sarah. You capture Hurston’s vision perfectly.”
This task, as Joe Kirby and Jo Facer described it to me is ‘maximum effort; minimum impact.’ It takes hours. It almost always happens at home for teachers, blurring the lines of the workday and making you feel like you are never done as you stare guiltily at those accusing stacks of essays and writing pieces. Over time you perhaps assign less writing. Or you grade them when you can and give that artful feedback weeks after students wrote the papers—and hardly remember writing them. Or you toil away and just maybe work yourself towards unsustainability. And maybe once or twice you’ve even wondered- do they read them with as much intentness as you put into the writing of them? Do we know whether they read them at all in some cases?
“We seek the opposite,” Joe said, “Maximum impact at minimum effort.” So they re-worked marking. And the solution is pretty logical.
When students at Michaela write essays, their teachers read them all and take notes to inform re-teaching the next day. Instead of marking each paper that needs a better topic sentence, they jot down themes and maybe example: “better topic sentences” and “brilliant example of topic sentence from Gabi.” The next day show up in class and say: “Many of us are struggling with our topic sentences. So let’s look at how to write them better.” and then: “Let’s look at why Gabi’s was so good.” And then: “Now go re-write your topic sentences.” Or perhaps its content focused: “Many of us misunderstood what the results of the battle were. Let’s review the events and then you can rewrite.”
And there it is. Time spend writing comments becomes time spent re-teaching. And students then must be responsible for using and applying what they’ve learned. And the greatest amount of energy can be spent on what’s most important to the group. And then—without the disincentive to assign writing—students can write some more.
Honestly, it’s brilliant. And it actually draws on what many of us already do during class, when we circulate, observe work and then address common misunderstandings. But it asks the question-is a focus on always individualizing feedback for every student always the best use of our time? Or even usually? Especially if it’s in writing? When you consider alternative uses to a teacher’s time, the answer is probably no.
Take three hours spent writing comments, allocate 30 minutes to identifying trends and planning a short re-teach and then do other things, including some non-teaching things. This is hugely important because workload has historically been an Achilles heel in the high performing urban schools movement. To change the lives of students otherwise cut off from opportunity is an immense job and often presents a brutal choice. Do you reduce the hours for the adults—the adults you love and honor and who give deeply of themselves to help others—and know that the cost will be lesser outcomes for the students and families you also love and have dedicated you professional life to serving? Or do you push for maximum outcomes for kids and know that people you care about will sometimes—often—work too hard and suffer?
In the end the core social good—the expectation shifting inner-city school—will only be as expandable as we need it to be if we can unlock large scale efficiencies- ways to continue to get maximum value for kids at more sustainable cost for adults. Insights into game changing efficiencies and synergies are rare. But Michaela School is on to one. And, as I pointed out in my first post, you can borrow it no matter what your school’s approach.