Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Teachers: How One School Puts Knowledge And Self Discipline First
Updated: Nov 12, 2018
One of the most ingratiating sounds in any secondary school is when a teacher blows their own trumpet. Very often this is coded: a far too lengthy description of how a child was disciplined, where the only message seems to be: behold what a great disciplinarian I am. Or there’s the classic “Well, he/she is fine in my lesson.” Or there’s the blogging teacher who mistakenly thinks that he or she has something worth reading. In all cases trumpet blowing is enough to make the teeth itch.
Still, perhaps it is necessary. In finding out that a difficult child can be disciplined it does at least suggest that it can be done. Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Teachers is unashamedly self-promoting. Written by teachers of The Michaela School, Wembley, a free school established in 2014, it is really a treatise for the school’s central vision, Knowledge is Power. The point of education, claims the school’s ethos, is to acquire knowledge. The practical day to day running of the school, from policy to policy, is geared towards this belief that teaching and learning is about knowledge.
In my opinion, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Teachers has two possible benefits to secondary school teachers. Firstly, the teachers, led by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, might be right that knowledge acquisition should be at the core of any formal education institution; if so it becomes the go to book for teaching and learning. Secondly, if the Michaela teachers are wrong, by implication teaching and learning can be understood through what is so wrong about the Michaela vision.
I can’t speak for all subjects but the recently changed linear Psychology A level is fundamentally about knowledge and understanding. True, the term ‘knowledge and understanding’ is only AO1 (AO2 is applied understanding and AO3 is evaluation and interpretation), but it turns out that without a strong sense of knowledge and understanding students will find hitting AO2 and AO3 very difficult. Let me give you the numbers for Psychology. There are three papers (no coursework), each of two hours and worth 96 marks. There are eleven topics to teach in all. In these eleven topics there are some four hundred separate psychology terms and about one hundred and twenty five studies (which require knowledge and understanding to some extent).
Although, on the face of it, knowing this information is worth just under a third of the marks, AO2 and AO3 cannot really be achieved without knowing these four hundred terms. It is difficult to apply knowledge to a scenario if you do not really get the knowledge in the first place and it is difficult to evaluate a theory or study that you do not actually understand. Knowledge is very much the foundation of success. Moreover, if you know every topic thoroughly, students can use one part to evaluate another part. So, in short, knowing about all theories and studies is essential for AO1, 2 and 3.
Before a Psychology student puts pen to paper, he or she has to know things about the brain, research methods, cognitive psychology and so on. They need to rote learn it, but there is no way that they will be able to cram so much content in the month before the final papers. Hence, they need to become highly effective rote learners sooner. The Michaela School makes knowledge in every year group from aged 11 its core priority. The students are tested daily on the content that has been prescribed by each subject. The test results are not recorded, but they are used to highlight which students are learning content and which are not. Every homework is given over to rote learning information and every lesson begins with quizzing on the subject content. Michaela takes in sixth formers for the first time in September and so it remains to be seen if this approach will yield good A level results. However, a student who has become accustomed to rote-learning information from year 7 is likely to do well in Psychology A level especially.
I am unable to think of an answer to the following question. Are you able to provide one argument that marking is an effective strategy for teaching and learning? Marking, to be clear, does not mean assessment or feedback (these remain important). Marking is when written work is collected in, annotated by the teacher and returned to the student. Likely answers to this question include, “because inspectors expect to see it”. This is not marking for effective teaching and learning but because it is expected by authority. Thus “parents expect it” again does not meet the demand for an effective strategy. “Students need feedback” presupposes that the only way to feed back is through handwritten marking on work.
The Michaela School teachers cannot answer this question either. For this reason, their teachers do not mark at all. Instead they have classroom feedback strategies based on the teacher’s reading of student work, but teachers do not put comments onto students’ written work. So, they have feedback, but there is no marking. Marking is judged ineffective because students do not read the comments and, if they do, they do not act upon them. How many English teachers write on students’ work, “you need to use apostrophes for possession” seven or eight times only for the children to make the same mistakes again? This is ineffective for two reasons: the children do not improve and the teachers have wasted their time.
The Michaela School has banned outright talking in corridors at all. Silence (as one thinks about that). Silent corridors provoke a great deal of invective towards Katharine Birbalsingh on social media (whose users, it must be said, would most benefit from saying less). My second teaching post was at a comprehensive school in Essex. At lunchtimes, awaiting period five, the English department teachers and assistants sat in the office eating sandwiches, chatting and drinking coffee. Bizarrely, and with hindsight comically, we sat there and ignored the fact that the roof and walls would periodically shudder to the point where the ceiling panels were dislodged from their sockets.
Outside in the corridor senior students (mainly male) were throwing each other into the wall. No one dared go out. There was little that a mere teacher could do. The likelihood was that an intervening teacher would get told to sexual intercourse off and, frankly, what with the marking, we had enough to do already. So, we sat there pretending it was not happening. It was like a smoking room during the last twenty minutes on The Titanic; ignoring the impending submergence of educational principles as all hell was let loose outside.
So, The Michaela School, and one or two others now, say no talking at all in corridors. It means that students get to lessons on time, in silence and ready to start. I have mentioned this to a number of friends who are parents recently, just to gauge their reaction. “How cruel!” is the general response. I am not sure, to be fair, if parents realise what happens in many school corridors on the way to lessons. True, it might hardly be disastrous, but the low level pushing, shoving and noise is often pretty anti-social and unpleasant.
There is another problem with reacting with liberal disdain at telling students to be silent. We live in a democracy, where people have a vote, where free speech is protected (mostly) and where individuals are seen as sovereign over their own lives. All of this is great, but it describes the allowances that should be made for adults, not children. Schools are not democracies: headteachers are not democratically elected; teachers are not democratically appointed and, when in a school, individuals simply cannot say whatever they want. Freedom for adults is paramount; freedom for children is a disaster.
Children do not enjoy the same kinds of freedoms anyway and have no idea how to operate without boundaries. Telling them that they cannot talk in a corridor is not cruel; it is simply a boundary. Paradoxically, when students reach universities, suddenly their freedoms are restricted through the no platforming of speakers, safe spaces and consent classes. How did Britain get to a point where children are handed more and more freedoms to behave as they like, whereas at eighteen, suddenly, boundaries apply?
It is unlikely that anyone will read Battle Hymn without finding something objectionable. I found it in the chapter called ‘Competition Is Crucial’. Twenty years ago, I was told by English teachers in my then department, “stop putting marks on the sixth formers’ work – stop reminding them where they rank in comparison to one another.” Or words to that effect. It is strange how an early experience can stay with you. Ever since, I have been wary of over applying marks and grades to students’ work. My logic has been that by labelling students with a grade, which often may not change much, you might come to fix them with a label also. The grade, and the student’s place in the rank order, become self-fulfilling.
Interestingly, The Michaela School resists labels when it comes to special needs, as outlined in the chapter ‘Labels Damage Children’. A label can restrict expectations if a child is told that they are not expected to be successful by virtue of a special educational need. However, when it comes to competition the Michaela philosophy is the students should be ranked and their place in the rank order publicly shown. This will inspire competition and a sense of wanting to improve. This very overt form of competition will foster success if the reasons for success or failure are made known.
Where a student succeeds through hard work (not raw talent) they provide a good example for others, just as poor effort leading to failure is its own lesson. My reticence with reminding students of their rank order status is that a lazy student can actually do rather well if they are naturally gifted. In addition, when it comes to exams, the only rank order which really matters is nationally amongst all of the students in the exam cohort. The scores of a school cohort do not given an accurate representation of the necessary standards nationally.
In her chapter, ‘No Nonsense; No Burnout’ teacher Jess Lund pointes out that: If I could go back three years and strip away just a few elements of my teaching practice – time-consuming, low-leverage components that led to boredom and frustration on the part of my pupils and myself – some of the biggest would be games, technology, display and lesson plans. Briefly, the “games” refers to the hours spent turning lessons into, for instance, panel game shows, like the Head of English I worked with who turned his entire lesson on affixes into a version of Have I Got News For You and was frustrated when inspectors gave him a mere ‘satisfactory’ grade. “Technology” refers to the way that ICT is shoehorned into teaching for the sake of it. “Display” is obvious: the hours spent on preparing wall displays; I am less convinced that teachers should stop doing this.
I am interested here in the lesson plans. I always write one if I know that I will be observed. Why? No one reads it, certainly not the lesson observer, and only the lesson will make it make sense. Why would you write out what you are about to do (successfully or unsuccessfully) in the lesson? Retrospectively, this is as bizarre as The Globe handing out copies of York Notes prior to a Shakespeare play.
I do it because I was trained to do it: scribbling out mindless plans that no one else will ever read instead of doing something useful. I got quite a shock when the first headmaster that I worked for took my lesson plans in the first week from the desk and said, “forget those; what are you going to do period 1, Monday?” His point was, either you know in your head what you are doing or you don’t. Jess Lund is right about this: the ability to write out a neatly constructed lesson plan has no bearing whatsoever on the ability to teach that lesson well. If anything, the lesson plan is a distraction.
Katharine Birbalsingh has been widely criticised, not least for her association with The Conservative Party after she spoke at a conference about her education vision. When it comes to actually working in a school, most teachers are conservative (with a small ‘c’ perhaps). Discipline matters, rules matter and authority matters. In that sense, some of these policy ideas simply represent what many secondary teachers are thinking anyway. Outside of lessons, you can be as liberal left as you like; inside, if you are not an authority figure with something worth teaching, then what are you?
In terms of knowledge acquisition, there is something more important than exam results and it is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is not that creativity doesn’t matter or that divergent thinking isn’t relevant. It is simply that without knowing things, very little else is possible. When Sir Ian Mckellan played King Lear recently he was being creative; before he can be creative, he has to know his lines. This means rote learning. The final point to make about Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Teachers is that it will almost certainly offend every reader at some point. Good!
How knowledge-based should a curriculum be?
What does it mean to say you know something?
In terms of teaching and learning, why is marking an effective strategy?
Do children learn better with or without competition?
Birbalsingh, K. (ed.) (2016) Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Teachers (John Catt Educational Ltd: Woodbridge)