Ook het Vlaams lager onderwijs kan een en ander leren van de 'traditionele' stijl en aanpak van de beroemde & veeleisende Michaela- secundaire-school in (Engeland) Deel 1
De klassieke aanpak in het Vlaams lager onderwijs vertoonde/vertoont heel wat gelijkenis met de traditionele, systematische en veeleisende aanpak van de Michaela-secundaire- school in Engeland. Die traditionele aanpak wordt echter geregeld in vraag gesteld - ook in de ZILL-leerplanoperatie van de katholieke koepel.
Deel 1 (later volgt deel 2)
Traditionalism is explicitly knowledge-led.
Imparting knowledge is at the very centre of what it does. Whereas primary schools (in England!), however didactic in their teaching methods, tend to be more skills-focused, with whatever knowledge the skills are currently wearing being seen as more of an accessory than the educational star of the show. That children may acquire some scientific knowledge as a result of learning the scientific skill of analysing results is seen as a fortunate by-product, collateral grace, as it were. Would a shift to the Michaela knowledge-led approach be suitable for younger children?
We first need to tease out what we mean by the Michaela approach. There is
*the advocacy of explicit, didactic teaching,
*the unequivocal stress on knowledge,
* the no excuses discipline policy,
*the commitment to reduce teacher workload,
*the way it works with parents and its professional development ethos.
Let us now consider each element one by one and reflect on whether this approach would work on Michaela Prime. Theres a lot to talk about too much for one blog so Im going to split this up. In this part one Im going to look at didactic teaching and the knowledge-led curriulum.
As I have already argued, as far as I can see, in the primary schools I have visited as well as the ones I work in, almost all of the teaching I see from year 1 onwards involves a teacher, standing at the front of the class and telling, explaining and modelling stuff to children. (De voorbije 15 jaar was er weer meer leerkracht-geleid onderwijs in Engeland; voorheen werd meer een kind- en ontwikkelingsgericht model gepratikeerd. )
After all, sound-grapheme correspondences are hardly going to explain themselves are they? Or what each numeral represents, or the maths operator signs. You cant discover what a fronted adverbial is all by yourself. For all of this you need experts who know what they are talking about.
As a result, in primary schools, we do bucket loads of standing up the front telling children stuff.
Occasionally this might be interrupted to do a special project for a few lessons. B.v. children might respond in a groovy way to initial teacher input, but the input is still teacher-led and imparts facts. E.g. year 1 children are taught didactically by their teacher that in the past, certain materials like plastic had not yet been invented, so toys were made out of other materials such as wood, china and metal. ... If you can do something in a way that is even more interesting than recording knowledge in an exercise book and it doesnt incur huge opportunity costs along the way then why not do the more engaging of the two options. Unless we want to make a fetish of avoiding engaging opportunities at all costs and are phobic about anything that might stray into being fun. ... So with the caveat that the younger the children are, the greater the need to embed some of their reading and writing and occasionally maths in a real world context, then I dont see any problem at all in saying that the vast majority of teaching at Michaela Prime will be didactic. As it already is in most primary schools, most of the time. Especially in the mornings when we teach English and maths. More of afternoons later.
2. A knowledge-led curriculum
Dominating all else in primary schools, warping all that lies within its purview is the accountability field. Since primary schools are held accountable via sats for English and maths and not for all the other subjects we are meant to teach, English and maths get the lions share of everything.
Now I really dont want to get too bogged down in the arid skills versus knowledge debate, which often seems to turn on semantics, but it seems to me that in learning English and maths learning how to use these tools (skills) is just as important and takes up more time than learning the knowledge inherent in these disciplines.
Certainly, previously there has been a tendency to see English and maths as all skill. Whereas reading and writing cannot even get started without knowing what words mean, what the sound-grapheme correspondences are, what the graphemes look like. However being able to blend those phonemes together into an actual word is surely a skill and one that can take some children a really long time to learn. Similarly, children just have to learn that certain numerals correspond to certain quantities whereas other squiggles are instructions (or operators) to do something with the numerals.
And while Id go to the stake for saying that children need to have automatic recall of their number bonds to and within first 10 and then then 20 and excellent times table knowledge, they also need to understand when multiplying numbers might be more useful than adding them. Is this a skill or knowledge? There are limits on transmission teaching especially in maths. I can explain to you again and again why multiplication is a quicker, more efficient method than using repeated addition, but at some point, each individual child has to get why to see it for themselves in some magical internal process that cant be drilled into being, but has to be
dare I say
discovered? But not discovered in a vacuum discovered by scaffolding from an expert other, as Vygotsky put it.
However, it is fair to say that in the stress primary teachers lay on children really grasping what the maths they are taught actually mean, there has, hitherto, been some throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. Not enough time spent on learning times tables, for example although the demands of first the SATS mental arithmetic test and now the arithmetic paper mean that every school I know has been drilling children in these for at least the last 5 years.
10 years ago we would have shied away from drilling until we were really sure the children understood what multiplication actually means these days we get that some children learn by rote and then understand whereas others understand and then learn by rote. My bête noire is poor knowledge of number bonds. How many children become overwhelmed by maths around about year 4 because they are still counting 5+7 on their fingers?! No wonder they find understanding column methods hard because all their working memory is taken up counting on from one 1-digit number to another. I blame the numeracy strategy for over-prioritising number lines over partitioning methods (5+7=5+5+2=12) that involve calculation allied with instant recall. We need to spend far longer on ensuring no child leaves ks1 without all their number bonds in and within 10 secure. Never mind the phonics check, bring in a number bonds check too even more important but harder to learn than times tables. We teach using the mathsmastery curriculum which does devote a considerable amount of time to number bonds. Not enough for all children to have them securely, unfortunately. So we drill the children in them frequently, often using this marvellous game (which also tests table knowledge for those further along the line).
So what with reading, writing and maths dominating the curriculum and teachers perceiving what they are doing as teaching skills (even though in fact they teach a fair bit of knowledge), and knowledge-heavy subjects such as history, geography and science having miniscule amounts of curriculum time, knowledge has taken a bit of a back seat. Or possibly has been relegated to the boot. So in the afternoons when primary schools finally get around to teaching something that isnt English or maths, at that point, it may be that some schools maybe most (who really knows) come over all progressive.
I confess a good few years ago we did have a brief dalliance with the International Primary Curriculum which does operate in a progressive paradigm both in terms of what the teacher does and what is taught; students first researching whatever they are meant to be learning about and then recording it. Its actually really hard for 9-year-olds to research stuff properly. The teacher usually ends up telling them or making resources where the knowledge they need is so explicit that they might as well have cut out the middle man and just told them in the first place. The naturally curious, self-motivated middle class girls quite liked it; everyone else found it frustrating and boring.
The IPC used to market itself by telling us about its exciting year 3 topic on chocolate. The logic seemed to be, because chocolate is nice to eat, learning about the history of chocolate will be more interesting than learning about the history of the Romans.
Actually both are fascinating but which is more important? Which is more powerful in helping you understand more about British and European history, how Christianity became a global religion?
Knowledge may be power, but some knowledge is more powerful than others. Since curriculum time is a precious, finite resource, we must spend it wisely on teaching areas with the biggest pay-offs for the children. The IPC developed in the context of International schools serving Western children of the oil industry employees in Middle Eastern states where learning about the Tudors was irrelevant to, say, Dutch, Swedish and Bengali children growing up in Qatar. So it intentionally had topics that were as generic as possible, focusing on transferable skills.
But for schools based in Britain, surely learning mainly about British history makes sense. And just as importantly, which has more resources readily available to the hard-pressed teacher, Aztecs or Romans? Which is more likely to further skew the teachers work:life balance in the direction of burnout?
I think we can all take it as read that they wont be doing the IPC at Michaela Prime. I think theyll be doing something more like what we started this September influenced a great deal by what I had read about Michaela and in particular blogs written by staff who work there.
I remember being particularly shocked when I read something by the headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh saying that we should expect children to remember the knowledge we teach them so that 5 years after we taught it, they still know it. I was shocked not because I disagreed but because up until then, I hadnt ever thought about what we taught the children except in English, maths and possibly science in that way. Before reading Katharine, if the National Curriculum said to teach year 4 the Aztecs, wed teach it. Whether they remembered anything about the Aztecs by the time they got to year 5 was not something that had ever, in my wildest dreams, occurred to me. But now someone had said it, of course it was important.
Why were we teaching history to primary pupils anyway? (Secret generally understood guilty primary teacher answer: to get them to do more writing, without calling it literacy and maybe to up the amount of art they do I mean writing in role as a soldier stationed at Hadrians Wall and making a papier mâché Egyptian mummy is history, isnt it?) So with Katharines words ringing in my ears, and then reading all about knowledge organisers from Joe Kirby and how they specify, in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory, I took another look at our curriculum and decided we could do better.
The overweening problem in the primary curriculum is time. With the mornings colonised by English and maths, that leaves us with 10 hours a week to teach 10 subjects plus PHSE, or 7 and a half if we want to include an end of day story, which we do. In our school, PE and music take up one afternoon being taught by specialists while teachers have PPA and French another part afternoon. So that leaves geography, history, RE, art, DT, science and computing crammed into 3 afternoons. 171 hours a year or, if we divide time equally between these 7, 28 and a half hours each a year.
Our solution was to divide the year into 3 week curriculum blocks, each fitting into a 12 week term. So in each term a year group will study four different subjects, each for 3 weeks*. When the 3 weeks are over, even if the teacher hasnt finished, they have to start the next block on the next subject. This focuses the mind wonderfully unlike our old block system where topics went on and on endlessly and then we ran out of time for certain subjects altogether. Sometimes these terms are shorter than calendar terms for example in the Autumn term weve just had there were two spare weeks at the end for a mini topic on Christmas which included RE (based on some element of the significance of Christmas for Christians), rehearsing and doing a nativity play, a literacy focus on poems with a Christmas theme and a Christmas party.
Next term is 12 weeks and the final term is 13, giving us a spare week at the end of the year for taking your new class for a couple of days, doing some art for your new classroom, learning some more poems (we have a poetry week at the end of every half term with all classes learning a poem by heart and performing it on the Friday) some extra phse reflecting on the year and having a class party. When Easter is earlier it does mean the second term gets split across the Easter holidays which is annoying. Personally I am all in favour of decimalising the date of Easter but since I am unlikely to be Pope anytime soon, I doubt thats an argument Im going to win.
The teachers like the new system. It makes them feel less guilty. On top of everything else teachers endure, they feel guilt about not being able to teach all the subjects properly because there isnt enough time as if they had any control over that. Now they dont feel guilty. I say you must teach geography for the next three weeks and then stop and they do.
The finite number of lessons and not too distant cut off point make planning a sequence of 9 lessons really straightforward. No timewasting fluffy activities, lots of whole class reading and then some writing but proper geographical writing, not literacy with a vague geographical theme. Yes, Egyptian mummies and Roman shields still get made in art lessons! We can still use a topic approach the artwork just comes after the humanities. Often the humanities learning links to what we are learning in literacy. For example, year 4 study Beowolf in English, learn about the Saxons and Vikings in history and make a fabulous Grendel in art. The children seem to like it too. Certainly it could be dry and boring in the hands of a teacher with poor expository skills, but any teacher worth their salt will be able to bring the subject alive and make it engaging in its own right.
At Michaela they have subject teams who produce subject booklets for each year group. This is not an approach that transfers easily to a one form entry primary school! The main problems with introducing a knowledge-led curriculum into primary schools would seem to be logistical rather than pedagogical. We are not subject specialists.
There may well not be a single person on the staff team who has an A level let along a degree in the subject we want help with. Text books for the topics we want to teach dont exist. Non fiction books are expensive and not always pitched at the level wed want. For art and computing, we buy in expert help. For the content heavy humanities plus science, weve had a go this year. These CGP books for ks2 history were a start but contain far more information that it is possible to cover in the time given but we really need to write better material for ourselves for next year. That will be our job for staff meetings in the summer term.
At Michaela they do two trips a year the whole year group going out at the same time. I dont know whats typical for a secondary school, although I dont think my own children went much more frequently. However, Id want more trips than that. Maybe if the school were situated somewhere remote the cost:benefit analysis would be different, but since we are situated just outside the City of London and have three museums in walking distance (The Museum of London, the Museum of Childhood and the Geffreye Museum) and can get to Tate Modern and St Pauls Cathedral in 20 minutes on a bus and the South Kensington museums in not much longer, it would be criminal not to exploit this, especially since not many of our children visit this sort of place with their families. We tend to do a trip every half term trying to get it to fall within the weeks when that particular block is occurring. On top of that we have visitors into school the London Sinfonia with year 1, for example, or Spitalfields Music with years 3 and 5, or various arts organisations. Where possible we schedule these to happen in the morning to interrupt English and maths- subjects that get plenty of air time, rather than taking precious time away from subjects that do not get enough time anyway. Of course, trips need to be planned well to augment what is going on in class and not just as a diversion.
But how do we make sure that children remember what we have taught them? At Michaela the knowledge organisers are revised for homework. Pupils quiz themselves on one knowledge organiser from one subject every night. They cover up the concept, write out the definition and then check they have got it right, checking themselves again and again for at least 30 minutes until they are sure they are ready for their quiz in class the next day. Would that work with primary pupils?
At primary school, our first priorities are that children learn to read fluently and for pleasure and know their times tables and number bonds. Nothing is more important for their learning than this. So while we do give children their knowledge organisers for homework, it is a lot less intense than the Michaela regime, since we want them reading at home and learning their number facts at home. And doing some Matheletics.
So, the weekend prior to each block, the knowledge organiser is taken home and shared with parents. This is a good way of parents knowing what their child will be learning in the coming weeks. They are encouraged to read their knowledge organiser every day. Then the first weekend of the first week of the block, children do a multiple choice quiz with their parents based on the knowledge organiser, which they are encouraged to consult to find any answers they do not yet know.
The second weekend they do a second quiz, again consulting their organiser if they need to, then on the last Friday they do a final quiz in school without their knowledge organiser. Almost all children score 9/10 or 10/10 in these final quizzes. But here is the important part.
As Joe Kirby reminds us in his chapter on homework as revision, the overwhelming consensus from cognitive science is that we should quiz ourselves frequently on stuff we have learnt as testing, especially testing a few weeks after material has been learnt, interrupts forgetting. We havent been doing this long enough for us to see whether children actually are retaining information in the longer term. But Im certainly going to introduce end of year super quizzes to gauge how well it has worked. One thing I havent done yet is gather all the knowledge organisers and quizzes into one knowledge book; for each year group. This is then used not only for revision but also a source of work for if a teacher is off sick, a child is sent out of class or hasnt got their library book or PE kit etc. Then they read their knowledge book.
In conclusion, then, the didactic teacher-led approach of Michaela is easily transferable to a primary setting mainly because that is pretty much what most primary schools do anyway, at least from year 1 up and with the possible exception of the afternoons. Having a knowledge-led curriculum would have practical challenges given the primary teachers are generalists, and that the primary curriculum is ludicrously over full, but there is nothing inappropriate about a knowledge-led curriculum per se for younger children.
What Katharine and the Michaela gang have done is move the Overton window of educational debate towards the traditional. ...Only a very few of years ago, traditional teaching would have been laughed out of town. Now discussion of it flows through the blogosphere, the Battle Hymn is flying off the shelves and people flock to see Michaela with their own eyes.Kan het basisonderwijs