I spent last week in the UK, presenting a workshop and, on Wednesday, visiting the very successful and faintly notorious Michaela School in London. I learned a lot there and have found myself reflecting on a few ideas in particular in the days since- ideas that have the potential make schools– in the UK, the US and elsewhere—better. I’m going to describe them in a series of posts over the next week or so, but first I want to do a bit of framing first because (for UK readers at least) a visit to Michaela just possibly requires it. Michaela is a controversial school, the controversial school in the UK, if many of my colleagues are correct. It’s unapologetic- unapologetically knowledge-based in its instructional approach, proudly socializing students to memorize important facts, for example, and it has unapologetically built a culture that prizes orderliness, gratitude and even deference by students-a word many schools would shy form. It’s engendered skepticism and, occasionally, animus.
Some of that animus consists of smug ‘experts’ who work in the aerie of private schools and posh neighborhoods judging a school that makes a tremendous difference for London’s poorest kids—but on the other hand Michaela also courts some of the notoriety it receives. The staff have written a book about their methods called The Battle Hymn of the Michaela Teacher– a deliberate nod the Amy Chua book that caused its own firestorm—and have defiantly defended decisions that some find questionable in the newspapers. The fact that its daily decisions are in the papers at all gives you a sense for the hue and cry that surrounds the school. (If you want salacious details you can read more at the bottom of Tom Bennett’s blog, here).
But honestly I want to skip over all of that. Because the first question everybody asks after you’ve visited is ‘What’d you think?’ And by that they mean- did you like it? Or more specifically, did you approve of it? And that, my friends, is the wrong question- which is the topic of this post.
When I say ‘wrong’ I mean the question assumes that the important thing to do is to pass judgment on the school and say whether it’s right or wrong- whether one loves it or hates it, whether the school is villain or hero.It’s all a bit lacking in… I don’t know… humility is maybe the best word for it. And for an alternative I offer Ruth Robinson.
Ruth is the head teacher at Swindon Academy, a school I visited on the day before I visited Michaela. It’s a rigorous and engaging school tucked into the toughest section of a working class town and getting results. I found it intentional and orderly, but also child-focused in a broad sense. There were cooking classes—the smell of curry wafting into one stairwell. Students transitioned efficiently but on their own and at one point a group of girls came skipping out of dance class in the middle of the class, off on a happy errand. At Michaela students don’t leave class. Every minute of class time is deemed too important for errands. They move from class to class in lines and jog to fill in any gaps- the better to maximize time for learning. In general you wouldn’t mistake Swindon Academy for Michaela. Both were bright and warm and orderly but in different ways.
Michaela is a Swiss watch, engineered at the smallest most minute and technical levels. Every spring clicks into place to ensure maximum learning. Swindon Academy is a very good school but also a work in progress, defining itself and its vision of rigor as it learns to push kids to achieve more than schools in Swindon have previously done, socializing teachers to push students a little further as they maintain their nurturing tone..
So they’re two good but very different schools. I guess you get that. And that’s why I am telling you about it. Because when I walked into Ruth’s office on the day of my visit she listed for me three things she “took away” when she visited Michaela and that she was now implementing or adapting. She didn’t talk about whether she liked or approved of the school. She talked about what ideas she stole.
Anyway- that’s it, right there. The core insight I think I can offer. She had visited and she hadn’t asked herself: How shall I judge this place? She asked herself: What’s useful to me here? What can I borrow or adapt to make my own school better. She set out not to be a critic so much as a practitioner.
That seems trivial but it’s not. It can teach us a lot. Ruth’s purpose in going wasn’t to find out what was right or wrong with the model -but rather what ideas could be right when applied or adapted 60 miles to the west in a different place with different kids. Never mind the rest.
Again, I think this is important. We spend too much time critiquing—what’s the flaw in the ‘other’s’ argument? Unless you’re thinking of sending your child to Michaela, what is much more important is to find something you can steal, because our job is to do– to find the things that will make a difference in the tiny corner of the world where we try to make a difference in the lives around us. Or job is to make classrooms and schools that change the lives of students- especially those of poverty, and doing is the only thing that matters. I am thinking here of Micaelangelo’s admonition to his student: “Draw, Antonio; draw, Antonio; draw and don’t waste time.”
I visited Michaela and saw things of immense value from the tiny to the massive. Like I said I am going to blog about some of the most important among them. Did I also see some things that are different from how I would do them if I ran the school? Of course. But what is much more important is the way they organize their lessons, the way the take a very simple approach to marking student work that dramatically reduces teacher workload, the value they place on gratitude and how transformative it can be in building a culture-these are the things I will be blogging about in the coming days- things that schools could borrow and adapt, whether they “liked” Michaela or not. In fact I would argue it is the high-water mark of professionalism among educators to be able to visit s school you find you disagree with more than you agree with but to still be able to find something you can use.
So, I end this post with a challenge. Go and see Michaela and find what can be useful to you. The farther the ideas you steal are from your original premises, the better.