Visiting Michaela

As with many things, I find myself somewhat behind the curve when visiting Michaela Community School in Brent this morning.  Without doubt, more has been written about this school in the 4 years since it opened than any other school in the country.  I found this recent post from Adam Boxer useful, it contains links below to blogs written by the staff – seemingly a part of the job description for working at Michaela.

The school prides itself on “being different from other schools” which was the message being delivered to Year 8 by the head Katharine Birbalsingh within a few minutes of my arrival. Being “different” inevitably attracts attention in itself, but it is also part of the mission of the leadership to “spread the word”.  They are not content with creating a great school in a corner of London, the bigger goal is to revolutionise the system.  And so, I joined the steady stream of daily visitors wanting to know more.

Having read so much about the place, much of what I saw was what I expected. Impeccable behaviour in classrooms, and seamless, silent transitions between lessons. The chanting of Invictus at lunch time, followed by the daily topic for discussion and then an “appreciation”. What struck me most was the relentless focus on oracy (not that they call it that) with not a single mumble being allowed to pass unchallenged in lessons or elsewhere.

But my main reason for visiting was to see the maths in action and in particular to get an insight into teaching of lower attaining groups at KS3.  The sets are given different names and at no point is anyone allowed to utter the words “bottom set”. I was told in hushed tones which set I was seeing.  The approach makes sense although in my experience it doesn’t really matter what you call them, kids work out pretty quickly which set they are in.

Central to the maths curriculum is a set of booklets that have been created by Dani Quinn and her team. They become the structure and central resource for the lesson.  I saw them being used in the following ways:

  • As a reference for the instruction part of the lesson where sections might be read out aloud by the teacher or the pupils.
  • Some parts were fill-in-the-blanks, scaffolded tasks as a lead-in to independent work.
  • As a source of individual questions to be modelled by the teacher
  • As a source of individual questions for pupils to do on mini-whiteboards
  • As sets of questions for pupils to work on independently
  • And, as I was told by a student, as a revision resource

Although they are used as a core resource, teachers were using the booklets very flexibly, not in any way seeming to be constrained by them and often veering off-piste to do some additional mini-whiteboard questions, for example.

All groups have the same booklet but the lower set(s) would be expected to proceed at a slower pace and therefore not cover everything in there.  I don’t see a way around this. If you are going to set students then of course the lower groups will have to either learn fewer topics or cover them in less depth.  Bart sums it up when he joins the remedial class in a new school:


I have many thoughts on setting in maths still flying around but that will have to wait for another day. In the case of Michaela, what was interesting was that the lower sets are no smaller in size.  I counted 24 in a bottom set Year 10 and was told that there must have been some absent.  There are simply no behaviour issues in these groups and the insistence of seeing every single whiteboard means that nobody is left behind. I realise how much I rely on circulating the room and providing individual instruction with my smaller bottom sets.  I saw little of this. Instructions and corrections were mostly being given from the front of the room even if they were targeted at individuals.

Another component of why this works was the use of self-reporting.  I have all but given up asking questions like “who didn’t understand that?” or “who got that right/wrong?” I would always prefer to see actual evidence of understanding on whiteboards or in books rather than asking students to self-report by putting hands up or by using Red-Amber-Green cards to show level of confidence. But what I saw at Michaela was a classroom culture where pupils seemed to be showing honestly where they were at. There was no stigma attached to being right OR wrong.  “Is there anyone in this room that doesn’t understand that?” Two hands shot up immediately. A short whole-class discussion ensued based on the student articulating clearly what they didn’t understand with another whole-class example. To have this quick verbal check in addition to formative assessment of student work is very efficient. In another lesson, when a student just said,“I don’t understand” this was immediately thrown back with “you need to ask a specific question”.

What I didn’t see was any use of Powerpoint.  Michaela teachers are masters of the visualiser. Everything I saw on screen was skilfully projected snippets of the booklet or some other printed material or their modelling of solutions using pen and paper under the visualiser with the occasional show-call of student work.  PowerPoint is not banned and they would use it for particular images or animations that benefit from it, but the point is, there is no “clicking through” a presentation as the structure of a lesson.

Visiting any school is refreshing and enlightening – I am very grateful that I am being allowed to use some of my Year 11 gain time to do so.  We can learn so much from each other, but mustn’t get carried away with the notion of “it works there so it will work here”.  Contexts vary, and as I discussed with Ms Birbalsingh before I left, the fact that Michaela has started from scratch with both its pupils and its teachers is a unique situation very different from trying to improve an existing school, especially when it comes to expectations on pupil behaviour.  It’s inspiration for making changes at your own school, not an instruction manual for how to do it.

Would I want to work there? Well yes, who wouldn’t want to work in an environment with impeccable behaviour, excellent resources that the team has created and continually refine, and therefore has a strong sense of ownership in. The relatively low contact time (13 hours per week on average, 19 max) is somewhat offset by the high amount of “duty” time – the high presence of staff is key to maintaining the behaviour. But that still leaves quality time for collaborating as a team, especially as time is not spent creating PowerPoints.  My current school won’t be seeing the back of me anytime soon, though – a daily commute from Wandsworth to Wembley Park is certainly not what I’m looking for right now!



Knowledge Organisers in Maths – the journey part 1

I am instinctively cynical about any “latest new thing” in teaching. As a profession, we have been teaching kids things for centuries, and I feel it it is highly unlikely that anyone will suddenly stumble upon something genuinely new that will have a significant impact on learning.  Knowledge Organisers feel a bit like they are the latest new thing, so I have to say my heart sank ever so slightly when I was asked to join a middle leaders meeting this week to discuss our plans for introducing them next year.

In reality, I’m sure there is nothing particularly new here.  If I could go back 30, 40, 50 years, I would probably find examples of these being used in schools even though they may have gone by another name.  And I think the name is part of the problem.  To me, “Knowledge Organiser” doesn’t really describe what they are.  Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember the Filofax of the 1980’s which were called Personal Organisers. Filofax The Original Organiser

There was a whole world of wonderful inserts which you could buy and arrange how you desired, clipping them into the 6-ring binder, a wonderful way of whiling away your day! The name “Knowledge Organiser” implies to me that the learner will compile some sort of folder themselves over time and decide how to organise their own knowledge.

From what I’ve seen, that’s not what they are.  They are Fact Books.  I’d like ours to say “Maths facts you need to know in Year 7”.  I feel that is more descriptive of what they are and how they will be used.

I’ve decided to write this because I left my meeting feeling much more positive about them than I was at the start.  This is a whole-school initiative – surely the only way to introduce them so that pupils and parents see a consistency across subjects.  Although I agree with a lot of what Kris Boulton says (Why Maths Teachers Don’t Like Knowledge Organisers) I think it is right and proper that we support the whole-school initiative and don’t fall back on the refrain “but Maths is different” thus risking acquiring (reinforcing?!) a reputation as the awkward squad!

So why am I becoming more convinced of their possible merit? In our meeting we had a good discussion on the principles of what Knowledge Organisers are and how we should use them, namely:

  • They list the base level of facts that pupils need to know to achieve in this subject in this term.  They are not intended to cover everything. They are not to be seen as a syllabus or a revision guide.
  • Their core purpose is to enable pupils to engage in self-quizzing. We will need to explicitly teach pupils how to do this.
  • They will form the basis for fortnightly quizzes.  It is this retrieval practice which creates the change in change in long-term memory.

There are plenty of examples of excellent Knowledge Organisers out there (Jo Morgan has a collection on this page.)  I intend to lean heavily on these when creating our own.  After all, there is nothing new about these facts, although inevitably we will want to tweak and adapt to fit our Scheme of Work and format.

So my starting point is to sit with the team and see what we think.    It’ll be interesting to hear their thoughts..,

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.



I’ve learned to love routines since I started teaching and this term I am particularly pleased with the results I am seeing with a routine I have established around low-stakes testing, homework and lesson starters.   A game-changer for me this year has been Hegarty Maths which my school uses for homework and has been integral to this routine and to encouraging and enabling pupils to take responsibility for their own learning. I have also been reading a lot more about spaced practice and have been sold on the idea of the testing effect and the power of low-stakes testing.

It won’t work for all: context is everything.  My context is 3 x 1.5 hour lessons a week with a low attaining, small (15) but actually quite mixed Year 9 class with a high level of EAL. There are some pretty significant attendance issues with a handful of students who have been in about half of my lessons this year.  And the usual challenges of lack of confidence / self-belief, reluctance to engage, poor learning behaviours, etc. that go with a bottom set.

It’s taken me a while to realise that the main obstacle to overcome for many learners is not so much understanding of new concepts but the retention of knowledge from one week to the next, one month to the next.  It is not something I think I ever experienced at school, so I suffer from expert blindness and I struggle to empathise. Until recently, I used to get frustrated when I occasionally revisited topics with a class and they had “forgotten everything”.  We want our pupils to see the deep connections between topics in mathematics as this goes some way to helping solidifying learning. But that is not sufficient for all pupils.  Some will struggle to see the connections in the first place, for others those connections may have a transient impact and not have much impact on long-term memory.

This is where spaced practice comes in. Basically going over topics that include:

  • Core skills that will have been taught since primary but are still not secure
  • Topics from that last couple of weeks
  • Topics from earlier in the year

So, our routine looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 10.21.45

Wednesday: 5-6 starter questions on the board that I write.  Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 21.43.16.png

There is overlap between these questions and the tasks that are set as Hegarty Maths homework for the week which is due the following Tuesday. I circulate the class to assess how they get on with these questions, what they have remembered and will maybe spend a bit longer doing some more of those questions on mini-whiteboards if I feel it will be helpful.  This whole process could take anything between 15-30 minutes before reviewing Tuesday’s test (more about this later) and then getting into new learning and the main part of the lesson.

Friday: Knowledge Test 1. A single side of A4 with 12 questions which they do at the start of the lesson.  Here is this week’s example:

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 21.53.53.png

I usually give them about 15 minutes which is long enough for highest attainers to attempt every question.  The lower attainers have often stopped before then so I circulate and will give hints on mini-whiteboards and encouragement to them.  We then review these questions immediately, they mark corrections with green pen and they keep the test paper to revise from.  Each question has a Hegarty Task number on it.  3 of these tasks (the underlined ones) were set as the homework. They are encouraged to look up the other tasks if they need to revise them.  The homework is set on Tuesday, due for the following Tuesday but I always make a point to praise pupils that have done the homework early, before the Friday test as they will have more success in the Friday test.

Tuesday: Knowledge Test 2. These questions are exactly the same topics / Hegarty tasks as Test 1.  Here is the example from this week:

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 22.00.22.pngSo they know exactly what is coming up and should be able to get over 80% in this test.  I tell them this and about two thirds of the class are now getting 70% or more. They do this one in silence, closed book. I offer minimal support, take them in at the end and mark them after school that day, which takes about 20 minutes.

Wednesday: Feedback on Test 2 after Starter questions as described above.  This is usually pretty quick, around 5 minutes at most.  After looking at their scores they  then make corrections in green pen as I model solutions under the visualiser. With the result looking something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 22.02.41.png

The tests are then added to their folders so they are all kept together (rather than in books).


I toyed with the idea of giving detentions based on the result of Test 2, but I know there are some who would be getting a detention each week and that would be counter-productive.  It also goes against the idea of low-stakes testing, i.e. the threat of a detention immediately makes it high-stakes and I already have some pupils with significant maths anxiety which I don’t want to make any worse.  So I set detentions based on effort on homework which I can see clearly on Hegarty Maths.  But I still give them the message that I expect them to be getting at least 10 out of 12 on Test 2.

The most obvious benefit so far has been completion of homework which has improved considerably.  I’d like to think that I am gradually shifting the attitude of “I need get my Hegarty done to avoid a detention” to “I need to do my Hegarty so I can do well in my test”.  Clearly I’d rather the predominant attitude to be “I want to do my homework as it will help my learning” but I think this is a step in the right direction!

Overall I guess this means that about 30% of lesson time is now being spent reviewing previous topics.  That feels about right to me although it is significantly more than I used to do.

Do you do anything similar with your classes? Anything else you think that I should consider tweaking?  Share ideas, please! Get in touch by leaving a comment or via Twitter.  Please DM me if you’d like the full set of Knowledge Tests.

UPDATE: I have put the first 6 weeks’ test into a folder here. I do think the value is in tailoring these to your class, but also that this can be a bit time consuming. So if these are of use, please feel free to download, adapt, etc.  I will try to add more as I make them.