So dear reader, blog number two on the journey to the opening of Trafalgar College. Since the last one we’ve had the election – you know the one Martin Freeman told us about in a manner most five year olds would find offensive – and now purdah is done and dusted we can get properly get things going with the new school. I have been saying full steam ahead but needed a better phrase so went to my dad for advice and he suggested setting full sail so that’s what I’m going with.
Planning a school when you don’t know where it is going to be or what it will look like sounds like a strange concept but as Jim Bob says, “the school is not the buildings, it’s the children.” Admittedly we don’t know them yet but the principle is there and one that I’ve been working towards.
I don’t want to sound like I’m basically sitting around all day pontificating as there are lots of other aspects to my role at the moment involving supporting schools and teachers and writing curriculum models starting at year 1 and working through along with preparing and delivering leadership training (see, I am doing stuff) but there is also time to really consider a wide range of ideas and philosophies as we formulate the right one for Trafalgar.
I think that educational debate has recently become too polarised and, as I mentioned on my personal blog when I introduced the first Trafalgar piece, I think this is unhelpful. I always try to read around as much as I can and although I can have the same reactions as others to things on first sight or experience I think it’s important to reflect more and look for a bigger picture and a wider sense of what’s going on. I don’t mean that we need to embrace every single thing and know that there will be some ideas or approaches that won’t be part of the final picture but to give an ear to people or thoughts in order to see what things can be taken away is important.
This was particularly in my mind when I visited Michaela last week to speak to Joe Kirby and see the curriculum and the lessons there. The approach to teaching that I’d been told Michaela used prior to my visit was one that seemed to be quite removed from my own but I went with a genuine interest and an open mind. People often talk about effect sizes and what ‘works’ or doesn’t but I’m yet to be convinced that there is a way to teach that covers everything and is bullet proof. Tait Coles who wrote the brilliant PuNk Learning has written about the difference between the style and the code, making analogies between teaching and football, and suggesting that we get too hung up on looking for the right way to teach and lose sight of the reasons why we do so. Equally, while people might look at me as a TEEP trainer and suggest that it advocates a specific way of teaching (you often hear of people saying they or their lessons have been ‘TEEPed’) I have always seen it as way to bring together a range of approaches and provide a framework for discussing and sharing these underpinned by some pretty universal stuff.
So here I was, someone who delivers a course that has collaborative learning as one of its ideas visiting a school where I was told on arrival that there is no group work or talking and that pupils are told what they need to know, tested on it and if they don’t know they learn it again. I know that some people have picked up on this or other things they’ve heard about Michaela and really ran with them, especially after David Didau’s blog but as you’d expect, and I’d hope we’d all realise, things are never quite that simple.
We were delayed on the train so unfortunately we only got to the school for the end of Family Lunch but managed to catch the idea. The pupils were in tables of five or six and took turns to serve each other food, cleared the tables and engaged in discussions around a topic of the day. As we were there on election day the topic was pretty much unavoidable and I managed to join a table at the end where I introduced the idea of tactical voting to the conversation. After everything had been cleared away the pupils and staff had an opportunity to give each other ‘Appreciations’ that consisted of thanking someone for something they had done or recognising a kind act and clapping twice in recognition. Now this is where I can see hackles being raised in response to terminology or prescribed actions. I have to say it was unusual to me, but look deeper than this and see what was happening. Each day these children sit around a table together with an adult, share out tasks and responsibilities and help each other and the community out and then show their gratitude towards each other for acts of kindness. Remember the style and the code.
And then we were into lessons. And do you know what? The kids sat in rows, they were polite, they were quiet when it was asked for, they were tested regularly to check their understanding and all the other things we can decide to look at and dismiss because it must lead to x or y and can’t help them to be balanced individuals. But that’s just looking at the surface and possibly wilfully no deeper. What I saw were classes where students were completely engrossed in their learning because they wanted to be and because they wanted to do well. And they were doing incredibly well at incredibly high levels. In a French lesson for example the pupils weren’t just able to answer questions in the target language and demonstrate a fantastic vocabulary and ability to apply the language learnt they could explain exactly why the words needed an extra vowel or dropped a consonant in French. They had a real grasp of the grammatical rules and could explain them – and help each other out when someone went astray – in the target language. Rote learning with no real understanding? Not here.
English next, and again pupils were engaged, interested and enjoying the lesson. The focus was on Julius Caesar and the class were looking at a piece of extended writing and discussing (yes, discussing – while Joe Kirby who was teaching the class feels that group work can lead to too much freeloading he is a massive advocate of the benefits of paired discussion and sharing ideas in a class) the strengths and weaknesses of it as well as answering questions of the play overall and which characters said what and what this told us about them. As an English teacher I was interested in whether or not the students explored their own interpretations. The notion of a knowledge based approach seemed to me to suggest that they would be learning a set way of doing it with Core Knowledge equating to learning one way at the expense of others – I didn’t say I didn’t have prejudices just that I try to keep them in check! Having seen a reference to Tyger Tyger in their books I asked the two girls showing us round what the poem was about and what it told us about Blake’s view of creation and mankind. Not only were the responses impressive in terms of showing understanding of a poem they had studied some time ago (and yes, I picked one from a while back to see if there was residue of thought) but the two of them had a variation in their interpretations that showed a sense of critical autonomy developing and were able to justify their thoughts based on the text.
I also want to stress how comfortable, balanced and happy the students appeared. Again in responses to David’s post there has been comments that these children can’t be happy if they are working hard and challenged and almost as if the focus on learning means that they will lose the chance to enjoy themselves and be children and I have to say that this was certainly not the case in the lessons we saw during our visit or the children we spoke to. The French, English and Art lessons we went into were characterised by happy (which to some seems incompatible with learning), focused and hard working (which on the other side of the fence for some reason must mean they are stressed and unhappy) students who were fully committed and engaged (ah, need another side of the fence for those who baulk at the word engagement as if you engage students at the expense of them learning).
No excuses has been raised a fair bit as well and I can see how, if we equate no excuses with not being allowed to make mistakes, this could be seen as fairly oppressive, stress inducing and scary. To me though, and the impression given by the pupils, no excuses means to keep going, to redefine failure as a learning experience to build on and dare I say it was a way to develop resilience. You know one of those ‘soft’ skills that apparently have no place in schools and yet contribute a fair bit to developing what we might call ‘character!’ Flippancy aside if we can build classrooms where pupils don’t laugh at other’s mistakes and as a result feel comfortable to put ideas and answers forward – as it was expressed to me by the children – I’d be happy.
So what had we learned (Jerry!)? Well it was obvious that there was a very extensive knowledge base to the curriculum. Looking at the books the girls were working from you could see how much material they had covered and this was also evident in the French lesson where they had such an in depth knowledge of the grammatical rules. What was evident though was that this knowledge base was a starting point not a destination and that it didn’t restrict or limit the pupils but gave them a firm and impressive foundation to explore and question from.
In a wider sense (conscious that I’m verging into Martin Freeman patronising land here) the main thing going forward is that we need to be careful of how our preconceptions frame our explorations. We need to be aware of our own need for confirmation bias and be able to put it to one side, look beyond the obvious, no matter how readily it confirms what we expected – or hoped – to find and see what is really happening. I don’t intend for Trafalgar to be a recreation of Michaela any more than I want it to be Norwich School on the beach. I also think that Joe could have made more of Paul Ginnis’ work than he did when writing about it in fairly dismissive tones as being all about style and lacking content (it allows for content and knowledge to develop through engagement with high levels of challenge and it’s misuse rather than inherent problems in the thinking that are the issue in my opinion – Paul’s response was that he was flattered it was still being read) but I’m confident that with the wide range of ideas out there we can find something valuable in a wide range of them as we look to develop the curriculum and ethos of Trafalgar College. It’s not, as a friend expressed to me this week, about choosing between E.D. Hirsch and Ken Robinson but finding which bits of both can contribute to creating an education for our pupils that will be more than the sum of all the various edu-parts.
Lots of Love