Michaela Community School is a ‘Free School’ set up in 2013 and which has gained some notoriety, partly owing to a news story which made the national press and partly because it is evangelical about its ethos, spreading the word via blogs, conferences and a book which is about to be published.
It’s an all-ability school in an inner-city area of north-west London. Its motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’, the curriculum and leadership being highly influenced by the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr of "cultural literacy" fame. It has an above-average percentage of students on free school meals, an indication of its social context. A significant number of students arrive at the school with literacy problems. Students are grouped by general ability at an early stage. Michaela has become best known for its ‘no excuses’ discipline policy, and the high achievement and immaculate behaviour of its students. Anyone who visits the school notes how happy and polite the students are and how well-ordered and aspirational the environment is. I suggest you look at the video in my previous blog to get a flavour.
Its team of language teachers, led in 2016 by Jess Lund with Barry Smith adopt a rather individual way of teaching French. They might sum it up as follows: “Teach like a linguist. Think for yourself, make everything totally transparent, no guesswork, focus on accuracy and ignore orthodoxy.” I've had a few jousts with Barry on Twitter and had the opportunity to talk with him on the phone about how they teach French. Below are the main features of the approach they use with near-beginner and low-intermediate students (Y7 to Y9).
- Focus strongly on reading from the start (in line with the whole school policy).
- Teach from the front; make little or no use of pair or group work.
- Do lots of fast-paced choral and individual ‘call and response’ activity (e.g.giving a phrase in English and getting the answer back in TL).
- Don’t use pictures, since focusing on words improves literacy and leaves no room for doubt.
- Use plenty of TL, but don’t be dogmatic about it. Students will often ask complex formulaic TL questions in class which they have practised repeatedly.
- Use plenty of translation, especially from English into the TL.
- Place a strong focus on phonics teaching, making links between sounds and spelling very explicit. They spend a lot of time working on letter combinations and how they relate to sounds: “yeux”, “deux”, “feu”; “boit”, “noir”, “oiseau”, and so on.
- Don’t worry too much about grading the difficulty of language; expose students to complex language from the start, e.g. beginners will quickly learn examples of the subjunctive in set phrases and be urged to use them.
- Get students to read aloud a lot; correct them very clearly.
- Read aloud a lot to the class and be the sole source of listening input, at least in the first two years.
- Insist on accuracy at all times.
- Avoid text books and published materials; write amusing texts.
- Include plenty of writing but especially later in the lesson.
- Do no creative writing in the early stages (since students can go wrong too easily).
- Use lots of memory tricks to help students retain language.
- Explain French usage by giving literal translations in odd English: “I have a question important”.
- Make very little use of technology since it’s likely to waste time and be less productive. Avoid PowerPoint.
- Emphasise the simplicity of the language at all times; do this by giving clear rules and using English where needed; leave no room for guesswork or uncertainty.
- Make frequent use of parallel texts so students know at every point what the TL means.
- Do lots of ‘low-stakes’ tests, e.g. vocab recall.
- No games; a key point for Michaela teachers is the notion of ‘return on investment’ or ‘opportunity cost’ – which activity will produce the most learning? Games are rejected as a point of principle.
- Use a mix of hands-up and no hands-up ("cold calling").
- Make lessons fun through the pleasure of learning together, not by doing ‘fun activities’; develop strong relationships.
I would pick out in particular the large amount of translation used in order to make everything totally meaningful along with a strong focus on accuracy. Traditional immersion-style TL use is rejected since it is deemed to be confusing and off-putting for students, encouraging guesswork which is discouraged. Similarly, there is no pair or group work since this could lead to guesswork and poor modelling from students. There is little emphasis on creative use of language; even so, a good deal of TL is used and recycled which clearly helps the students remember. Michaela does not use text books for French so all listening is sourced from the teachers.
The decision to avoid visual aids is pretty unique and based on the assumption that pictures are confusing and showing English words aids general literacy. Reading is king!
Technology is avoided since the teachers believe it adds nothing to learning and leads to time-wasting.
The approach is strongly in the skill-building camp, but is a bit unusual in that language is not closely graded by difficulty, moving from the smallest, easiest language features to the more complex. Pupils are exposed to complex structures from the start, including the subjunctive. Observers are struck with how much students can do from the early stages and how much the pupils adore their teachers.
My impression from observing video clips and communicating with Barry and Jess is that achievement and motivation are very high. I also have the feeling that the approach depends on having powerful, charismatic teachers with excellent language skills. Some teachers just could not work in that way. The method also works because the whole school ethos is absolutely consistent, so pupils come along to lessons with the expectation of reading a lot, being taught from the front and being academically stretched.
This is one reason, in fact, why it's hard to judge the methodology in isolation. While I might criticise the overly analytical approach with its constant comparison with English, the focus on accuracy over fluency (Barry argues that the former leads to the latter), the lack of exposure to other models of French, the ideological objection to pictures and lack of opportunities for pupil-pupil interaction and compositional writing, my guess is that the pupils will go on to achieve very well at GCSE. Why? Because essentially they have talented teachers who believe passionately in their approach, the pupils are working very hard and recycling a lot of language in the process.