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.


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.


I’m still chewing the food for thought.

My stomach is full.

Cognitive dissonance gives me indigestion.

2 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance and the Michaela phenomena

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