Reflections on Michaela: The Sage on the Stage

George Coles
May 18 · 3 min read

At Michaela there is an emphasis on a simple, pared back teaching style. Staff reject what they describe as ‘progressive constructivist pedagogies’, instead favouring drill and didactic teaching. The teacher is viewed as the fountain of knowledge with the responsibility of driving the learning. Students sit in rows and face the teacher who teaches from the front, often using visualisers. I didn’t even see a PowerPoint presentation!

Clearly, as a drama teacher, I advocate group led learning. It is an absolutely essential part of the collaborative theatre-making process but I was open-minded and intrigued to watch didactic teaching in action to see what I could learn.

The style of teaching at Michaela instantly diverged from what I learned as a trainee where some lecturers encouraged us to think that the best teachers were learning facilitators. I recall the one piece of feedback I received more than anything else was to ‘talk less’. This advice presumably rooted in the work of educationalists such as Vygotsky and Piaget who believed that teachers should set conditions for students to discover and construct knowledge collaboratively.

Collaborative learning

I spent a year working in a school that fiercely advocated collaborative learning structures as a method to raise engagement and improve student achievement. I remember observing an outstanding practitioner of collaborative learning with a high ability class. The lesson was entertaining to watch, however, it looked absolutely exhausting from the teachers’ perspective. Not only did he have to explain a series of complex tasks, he then had to move about the classroom ensuring the students remained on their individually assigned tasks, providing constant motivation and additional support. The teacher had created packs of laminated cards that students had to organise into various categories in order to learn a basic concept. I remember thinking how much time he could have saved by just explaining the concept rather than leading such a convoluted assignment.

After the lesson I caught up with the teacher, he explained that he enjoyed teaching this way but that he had spent a few hours creating and refining his resources. I then spoke to the students and asked them to explain what they had learned in class. They could talk at length about what they did but they were shaky on the actual content! This taught me something powerful, the ideological stance that students learned better when engaged in these interactive tasks was not only wrong, it had created a huge workload burden for the teacher!

Many of the staff at Michaela have experienced similar expectations within their previous schools. I think the greatest misconception about didactic teaching is that it is boring. However, this stance implies that our subjects are inherently boring. If students are taught the concepts that underpin subjects by passionate experts while seeing their knowledge grow, then I fail to see how they might find work boring!

At Michaela all teaching and learning decisions are scrutinised, favouring approaches that are low effort and high impact. I think this is incredibly refreshing for any teacher.

What can I take away?

I am in no rush to ditch my PowerPoint presentations as I find they are an excellent tool to help keep my lessons ‘on track’. I also believe that as teachers, it’s often best to incorporate a range of teaching styles, selecting different approaches as appropriate to the task. However, I think as teachers, we should feel less guilty about the potential of explicit instruction. As discussed in my last blog on the curriculum, without strong foundational knowledge, students are unable to manipulate that knowledge. I look forward to using simple whole class approaches for recapping, reading and instructing.

George Coles

Written by

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

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade