Living proof

One day, I will visit Michaela Community School in London, the trailblazing Free School that employs explicit teaching, a knowledge rich curriculum and a strong behaviour policy to gain outstanding results with inner city students. Chatting to Katharine Birbalsingh, the headmistress, for my podcast, I was reminded of the reason why schools like Michaela are so important.

There are those who would have you believe that, traditionally, education is about stuffing kids full of facts, like some kind of facts-o-matic machine. This is undesirable because we don’t want students who are good at pub quizzes, we want students who can think critically and creatively, as if these capacities are somehow unrelated.

This is why the current review of The Australian Curriculum is obsessing over the proper role of the curriculum’s supposedly ‘general’ capabilities, including ‘critical and creative thinking’. We may see some worthwhile progress if these capabilities become more embedded into subject areas, but the mere existence of them is a big raspberry blown in the face of any teacher of history or science or literature. The assumption is that traditional subjects do not teach critical thinking and that bureaucratic means are required to shovel it in.

The facts do not support such a contention. Anyone presenting a dichotomy between subject area knowledge and critical thinking or creativity needs to properly support such a claim. The available evidence actually suggests that learning traditional subjects generates measurable improvements in critical thinking without the need for any bolt-ons. This is unsurprising because in order to think critically about something, you need to know a lot about it. Facts are not the end-point of education, but they make an excellent start.

And yet, locked in their impermeable paradigms, all exits covered by unfalsifiable logic, everyone from college professors to generalist pundits – who have spent a total of about five minutes thinking about education – will continue to claim that we need a revolution in the way education is imagined in order to better develop critical thinking skills.

Which is why Michaela is important. “When you talk to our kids, my God are they opinionated!” Explains Katharine on the podcast. This is no surprise because these students know things and knowing things is a key prerequisite to having worthwhile opinions.

Living proof cannot easily be explained away.

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19 thoughts on “Living proof

  1. Greg Esres says:

    Do we know anything about attrition rates at Michaela? Many US charters that show success are criticized because they lose half their students by graduation time, suggesting that they weed out bad students & don’t back fill, which is sort of cheating.

    Success Academy, a very successful charter chain in the US, has another strategy: they select for highly motivated parents, according to the book “How the Other Half Learns”.

    I infer that Michaela does backfill, though, and some statements by Birbalsingh indicate that parents are sometimes uncooperative, so it doesn’t look like they’re being choosy about parents.

  2. Carmen Zamanillo says:

    Michaela is oversubscribed and it has always been. The ethos and pride in an oversubscribed school forms a “virtuous circle” which pushes children upwards. Michaela is not the only school that does so, but it seems to be one of the more skilled at using social media.

    • Greg Esres says:

      What do you mean “oversubscribed”? To my US ears, it means more want to get in than they have space available, but some words have different connotations in non-US English.

      • Carmen Zamanillo says:

        “Oversubscribed” means that there are more children applying for places in a school than there are places for students. In effect this means that the school can be more selective with who joins the school and they can afford to expel children if they run out of options.

      • Greg Esres says:

        There are plenty of people who would love to share such stories. Where are they?

        At best, such stories would be anecdotal, but I don’t know that such stories are very newsworthy. I don’t read such stories about any schools, but I don’t look for them.

        I’m really not interested in discussing it further; I was hoping you were aware of some existing investigation into this issue, but it seems that no one has done it. I will have to be cautious in suggesting that this school is the solution to our own problems.

      • Right. So because of allegations that you have imagined, cannot prove and are not interested in proving, you are cautious about Michaela. Well, at least we have established where you are coming from.

    • Greg Esres says:

      school can be more selective with who joins the school and they can afford to expel children if they run out of options.

      In the US, that’s often handled by a lottery system. Weeding out takes place after students are accepted, either by 1) threatening to hold them back a year, or 2) expelling them for behavioral reasons, something which a “zero tolerance” policy makes easier.

      • I am going to stop approving these comments unless you have any evidence that this is happening at Michaels. Otherwise, these are just slurs.

      • Greg Esres says:

        I am going to stop approving these comments unless you have any evidence that this is happening at Michaels. Otherwise, these are just slurs.

        I made no assertion this was occurring at Michaela. How would I know? But I think the question should be asked because we have a lot of schools in the US that are, on the surface, claiming to follow the same sort of teaching strategies as Michaela, but aren’t achieving the same sort of results. I just have a hard time accepting that one and only one school in the English-speaking world has solved the inner city education problem. If it has, I want to replicate it everywhere.

      • Greg Esres says:

        This defence is known as ‘just asking questions’. Clearly, you are attempting to cast shade on a Michaela.

        Your assumption is mistaken. I want Michaela to be everything it claims to be. Asking the sort of question I’m asking is what scientists do when they see the results of an experiment. They don’t say: “I love these results, let’s not allow anyone to question them.”

        I will point out that you don’t know the answers to my questions, yet you attack me personally for asking them; this is not the proper behavior for someone interested in the truth. I’m also rather shocked that no one in the evidence-based education community has asked these questions. A massive failure in critical thinking, IMO.

      • Lots of people have asked these questions about Michaela. It is a common trope. What nobody has done is provide any evidence to show that Michaela is selective or that it selectively kicks kids out. Given the gravity of such allegations, it is up to those making them to substantiate them.

      • Greg Esres says:

        What nobody has done is provide any evidence to show that Michaela is selective or that it selectively kicks kids out.

        You can’t provide such evidence when only Michaela has the data. That’s one of the problems with charter schools, at least in the US, but it varies by state. A number of bloggers have used publicly available data to show that many charters have huge attrition rates, but without student data, you can’t make a strong case for what they’re doing or how.

      • With the sort of intense scrutiny Michaela has been under for six years, if they were kicking kids out then we would have lots of stories from families to this effect by now. There are plenty of people who would love to share such stories. Where are they?

  3. Katharine Birbalsingh is a saint to put up with all that she does. It’s clearly a labor of love.

    This conflict between subject-area knowledge and critical thinking doesn’t exist with a classical approach to education, something that has long been tossed aside by progressive educators and machine politicians in western societies (who think of education as something of a commodity – and no wonder, they live in a professional landscape full of consultants). You spend the early years building subject-area knowledge (developing a command of facts), are taught logic as a pre-teen, and then critical thinking and persuasion in the later years. There’s a reason why that approach to education has been around since antiquity… It works. It builds a rational adult and supports human flourishing. There was also greater emphasis on primary sources. An educated person learned a foreign language to be able to better understand cultural works and history. You can’t skip to critical thinking without having some kind of content and system of organization in your mind first.

    And honestly, many public school teachers (here in the US at least) think “critical thinking” means shoving their political beliefs down a child’s throat. They’ll talk about reparations to 3rd graders who have not seriously studied American history. It’s absolute chaos. I wouldn’t spend 30 seconds considering putting our child in a public school here.

    • “Katharine Birbalsingh is a saint to put up with all that she does.”

      Agree completely. Check out the guy in these comments who is ‘just asking questions’ about whether they achieve their exceptional results by kicking kids out. Katharine has had to put up with this kind of stuff since the very inception of Michaela.

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