Cognitive dissonance and the Michaela phenomena

cognitive dissonance

  1. the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

For those of you in Australia who don’t read any of the English education blogs, follow twitter or read “The Times”, Michaela Community School is an English Charter School in London. It is a free school that takes in a largely poor and ethnically diverse cohort of students. Michaela has been labelled “The strictest school in England”. It has generated widespread acclaim or loathing depending on your notion of how a school should operate.

Tom Bennett described the Launch of Michaela’s book here in a wonderful piece of writing about the light and dark of 2016.

What have the Michaeleans done for us?

bennet michala.pngFew educators on social media could have failed to notice that the Michaela Community School/ Factory For Turning Children Into Glue and Tears (delete as your ideology dictates) ran a book launch that doubled as a rally for their unconventional blend of traditional teaching and 21st century learning- ultra trads, if you will. Live streamed, tweeted in real time, and punching so far above its weight that David and Goliath look like a fair fight, it represents a new model for how schools face the world. Scorned by people who have never visited, and often admired by those who have, I have yet to see an institution that, in the face of such antipathy, exposes itself so candidly to scrutiny, challenge and frontal attack. It’s almost as if they knew they were doing something extraordinary. Twitter sizzled with their battle cries, and it was inspiring to see so much positivity for a school that has worked hard to earn it. All credit to their head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, who has two settings, as far as I can see: combine harvester, and dead. 

He also posted this contender for Tweet of the Year.

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How many schools have published their own book? The Michaela PR machine is an amazing beast.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Michaela’s results are outstanding.

So what is it they do that is different?

This is the impression one gets of Michaela from listening to what the staff and others have said about the school.

  • Very high behavioral expectations. – They sweat the small stuff. Classroom default position is silence. Corridors between classes; silence. Demerits given for slouching in your seat, not having correct equipment, top button undone, calling out in class. No Excuses Discipline.
  • Pedagogy is “Teacher centered” – Constructivist= no, Instructivist = yes. Just tell them. Here is a school that says “No, we don’t want our teachers to be a ‘guide on the side’ or ‘a facilitator of learning’. We want our teachers to teach.” They seem to have taken much from the Lemov, “Teach Like A Champion” playbook. Lots of drill and practice and didactic instruction.
  • Differentiation: Not much – Lots of whole class teaching. High expectations for all. They don’t want teachers to design three levels of instructions. They want everyone to get it.
  • Group work: Not much. Think pair share seems to be as close as it gets.
  • Project based learning -No
  • Inquiry learning. – No.
  • Personalized Learning – No.
  • Technology – Not much. They had tablets in year one; electronic ones not stone ones as some would suggest,  but they decided the benefits were outweighed by the loss of learning time keeping them running. Now they proudly say they don’t even use powerpoints for instruction. Having said that the common homework involves the web based IXL , a maths drill program and Quizlet a vocab drill program. Students don’t have 1:1 devices in class but are expected to use them for homework.
  • Curriculum – The schools motto says it all. “Knowledge is Power”. Very content rich curriculum. Content matters at Michaela.
  • Reading – There is a huge focus on reading across the curriculum. The expectation is that children will read at home each night. There is a big reading program of classic literature unashamedly based largely around “Dead White Men” authors.
  • Work hard, Be kind. – What a wonderfully simple and all encompassing four word slogan. The things most valued at Michaela are hard work and kindness. A common vision and purpose and everyone rowing in the same direction are the hallmarks of any successful organisation. Michaela seems to have that in spades. Work hard, be kind. This applies to staff and students.
  • Dynamic, charismatic leadership – Principal Katherine Birbalsingh seems a little manic but no one could doubt her passion. Watch this  unscripted rant to see her in full flight.

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I’m still chewing the food for thought.

My stomach is full.

Cognitive dissonance gives me indigestion.

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Classcraft Review and the search for the GUSITS

Teachers should try something new every term. With the plethora of IT related products out there in the education industry now, this is not a difficult proposition.

This term I have been trying Classcraft.

classc7Classcraft is a game that helps you establish and reinforce a positive classroom environment. You sign up your class. The students log in at take on a character in the game. Some are warriors, some are healers and some are mages.

My initial difficulty with Classcraft is my lack of knowledge of games. What is a Mage ? I didn’t know the value of experience points, activity points, health points and gold pieces but as usual, often your best resource to learn from is a student in your class. A couple of my students were hardcore gamers and they came to my rescue. I may even hand control of the game over to them at some stage.

You use the game to establish classroom routines and expectations initially. When students are in class ready to work before the bell they are given gold pieces or reward points in the game. This allows them to do different things like move up a level or earn rewards both game based and real life ones. These include the ability to change the appearance of their character in the game or to ask a question during a test. Some of the preset rewards in the game, such as “You can listen to music in class”, I deleted.

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You can also be punitive and take health points away from students who do the wrong thing.

The behaviours lists, both positive and negative,  are completely customisable. One of my “pet peeves” is students packing up early. I added this one to my Remove HP list. I also added “Non charged netbook” for students who don’t have their computer charged to avoid the risk of falling over a chord.

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There is a great phone app so when you are teaching you can easily allocate points from your phone or from your computer.

Another feature that I use regularly is the impressively named “Wheel of Destiny”. It is just a random generator of student names but it is great for cold calling students. Students can see you are not picking on anyone and they know their name will be drawn at random eventually to answer a question. There is no escaping “The Wheel of Destiny”. Eventually a question is coming your way.

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There are other features that I have not made much use of yet. The site has a built in class countdown timer for timed activities and a stopwatch.

You can start your lesson with a random Classcraft event that is sometimes funny and other times just lame. The other day a student had to sing a song for 20 gold pieces. One of her teammates took on the challenge when she refused. The team aspect of classcraft does appeal to students.

Classcraft also has a quiz module for class quizzes. It also looks like developing into a Learning Content Management System. You can put assignments and quizzes into class craft and make the results of these part of the game as well.

Here is where I begin to hesitate: So often in education I see IT applications developing what in the IT industry is known as “scope creep”. A system designed to do one thing well starts to try and do other things too. The scope of the applications creeps ever outwards.

We already use Moodle as our content management system and as our gradebook. We don’t want Classcraft doing that but we love the slick game like interface that Classcraft brings with it. Quizlet and Kahoot are amazing apps for quizzes. I want Classcraft to be able to use a quiz from Kahoot rather than have to write my own quiz in Classcraft. I want it to integrate with Moodle as well so I don’t have gradebooks in two places.

In Science we have searched for the GUT; the Grand Unified Theory. The theory of everything. The theory that unifies quantum mechanics and classical physics. In education we need the Grand Unified School Information Technology Solution (GUSITS); a school system that includes timetable, attendance, student behaviour management tracking, markbook, learning content management, reporting and assessment including quizzes and online testing, . The system would be online and open to students and parents 24/7. It would have built into it “gamification” elements just like Classcraft is doing. A school IT system that does everything? Such systems are developing. We use Sentral to do some of these things. Many Victorian schools use Compass. These systems lack any gamification elements at the moment and they fall short of the GUSITS we seek. The ultimate GUSITS would incorporate some gamificaton and these system designers could look at Classcraft and borrow some ideas from it.

There is great potential in Classcraft. The interface is slick. It is easy to use. The behaviour management aspect of the program is great. You are quickly and easily able to identify and reward positive behaviours for students. This explicit recognition and acknowledgment of positive classroom interactions has a powerful motivating effect on most students.

Reward systems only motive students if they are motivated by the reward. Some of my students are not motivated by the game at all. They could not care less about being able to change the appearance of their character or being able to ask me the answer to a question in a test but they still respond to being recognised for positive classroom contributions.

I would like to try Classcraft with a teacher who is struggling to maintain a positive classroom environment. I am the Assistant Principal who teaches one class a semester and students do tend to respond to positional authority. “They are very good in my class.” is something no teacher who is struggling with a student wants to hear. I would like to see if Classcraft would make a difference to the battling first or second year out teacher who has a challenging Year 8 class.

My other hesitation with Classcraft is the investment of time in playing the game. You do need to devote five or so minutes of class time a couple of times a week to it. Every minute counts in the classroom. Is this too much time out of the regular teaching and learning program? It could easily be argued that investing five minutes a lesson on establishing and maintaining a positive and engaging classroom environment is time well spent. It could also be argued that this is equivalent to four hours of instructional time lost over the course of a semester to playing a game. This time could have been better spent on covering the curriculum.

I will continue my trial and let you know how it goes after a full semester.

So many toys. So little time to play with them all.