Reflections on Michaela: Knowledge isn’t a dirty word

George Coles
May 12 · 4 min read

Having extensively researched the Michaela Community School over the past few years, I was excited to finally have the opportunity to visit. Based in Brent, North London, it is regularly described by the press as the ‘strictest school in Britain’. I was intrigued to examine what made Michaela so different and how exactly the ‘Outstanding’ school operated under the formidable headmistress, Kathrine Birbalsingh.

By observing lessons and talking to students and staff, I intended to explore aspects that I could consider within my own context. They were:

  1. Knowledge curriculum
  2. Teaching
  3. Assessment
  4. Homework

I wanted to examine the extent to which systems and structures improved students’ learning and how that approach impacted teacher workload and wellbeing. I will touch on each of these 4 themes in 4 seperate blogposts.

Knowledge isn’t a dirty word

Michaela’s school motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’ so it’s hardly surprising they are famous for their knowledge-rich curriculum. They believe that the primary reason for the achievement gap between wealthy students and poor students is because poor students lack this cultural capital.

I think it’s fair to say that knowledge carries a stigma. As a teacher, I have always held a certain prejudice towards knowledge. It is the lowest cognitive domain on Bloom’s taxonomy and I have sometimes feared that transmitting knowledge isn’t really teaching.

At Michaela, the concept of knowledge is elevated; students are required to know facts. Staff reference the work of E.D. Hirsch (American advocate of knowledge curriculum) and describe intelligence as ‘the accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition.’ This, albeit simple, was quite a revelation to me.

To improve students’ knowledge, Heads of Departments are required to understand the science of memory, an idea that is certainly gaining momentum within educational discourse. This made me consider a challenging opening question posed in a recent Teachmeet on cognitive load theory, ‘if knowledge isn’t committed to long term memory, then is it truly learned?’ The answer is no.

The importance of curriculm design

To improve the long-term retention of knowledge, we need to improve our curriculum design. The teachers at Michaela have worked together to write their own book ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’. In the chapter on Knowledge, Memory and Testing, Joe Kirby asks whether teachers and leaders are able to answer the following questions:

Do you meticulously specify every concept that pupils will master in each year, along with precise definitions?

Do you decide and organise every piece of knowledge in advance of every unit you teach?

Do you sequence and revisit knowledge from previous units explicitly and systematically?

Do you test pupils’ knowledge of all of these facts multiple times, even after a unit has ended?

Do you assess whether pupils have remembered those facts even a year later?

Do you know to what extent pupils have remembered or forgotten the precise definitions of those concepts?

I can easily answer some of these questions, however, others are more challenging. I hope to be able to answer all of them by September!

What can I take away?

I am really excited to look at our curriculum within Expressive Arts. I know we teach many inspirational schemes of work; however, I am now wondering how they can be organised into a more logical order that would sequence the curriculum into a more memorable schema. In Art, for example, what might be the impact of studying topics chronologically, starting with classical art and moving through the history of art whilst making connections and developing skills along the way? The same could be said of Humanities, English Literature, Music and Drama.

In Drama, I am always delighted when students refer back to their learning about the Ancient Greek Theatre in Year 7 when they encounter Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Theatre in Year 8. This is effective sequencing in action! I wonder how I can take this further in the pursuit of modifying the curriculum so the accrual of knowledge is more internional.

Each day, I encourage students to think back to what they did the previous year or even a few weeks ago. It’s exasperating when they cannot remember, however it’s not surprising. I intend to revisit key concepts explicitly within projects and use regular low stakes testing to cumulatively and deliberately engineer opportunities for knowledge to be consolidated. This could also be an aspect of how homework might be used to sequence and consolidate knowledge that I will explore in my blog on homework.

George Coles

Written by

Head of Expressive Arts at a secondary school in Nottingham | External Subject Expert (Drama), Ofqual | MA Education, University of Nottingham

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