Women: Know Your Limits.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about gender inequality. As far as I was concerned, I could run just as fast, shout just as loud, and be just as smart as my brother or any of the boys I knew at school. My dad was a Judo coach, so from about the age of 8 I spent weekday evenings throwing boys twice my size around a hall in the local community centre. Of course I had heard about gender inequality, but I saw it as a thing of the past. From my perspective, the women  who fought for women’s rights had given me the chance not to have to do the same for myself. Through their chastisement of the status quo, I was liberated from the limits that had been imposed on them for millennia, and for that I was grateful.

 

Over the last few years, as I creep steadily towards my 30s, a few things have helped me to see that perhaps I was naïve to believe that women were unquestionably equal to men. The usual stuff kept cropping up: woman are ‘emotional’ and ‘bossy’, must be married with kids before 35, should weigh no more than 8 stone, and should spend more money on hair cuts than rent to avoid being considered a slob. Bla bla bla. But I was most shocked when, recently, at an event hosted by an older man, I sat myself between two guys I know well and respect deeply; the host engaged sincerely with them, shifting his eyes from the man on my left to the man on my right, and yet overlooked me completely. I was more than a little annoyed. My inner Judoka wanted to leap up and thrash him to the floor in the names of feminism and good manners. Of course, I didn’t. I sat there politely and nodded along, trying occasionally to squeeze a word in or earn a second of his focus, to little avail. His loss. I’m great.

 

Explaining these lurking concerns to a devout feminist acquaintance, she declared: “Yes, Katie. Welcome to the Patriarchy!” She’s right. The Patriarchy does exist and it is terrible that women aren’t as equal as they ought to be. But I fear that looking at the world through this lens is problematic. I fear that too much acknowledgment of ‘the patriarchy’, and all the evils that go with it, renders women less powerful. In doing so, we place subtle, damaging limits upon ourselves, and I am not about to let that happen to me.

 

Maybe it wasn’t because I’m female that the host was rude. Maybe he was just rude! Maybe he didn’t like me because he disagreed with something I wrote in a blog once. Maybe I’d accidentally said something that annoyed him. Maybe he thought I was an arrogant idiot (a fair assumption). I’ll never know the truth, but by instantly jumping to the conclusion that his rudeness was a response to my gender, I actually did myself a disservice. Gender inequality isn’t the answer to all of life’s woes. I blamed abstract ideas – ‘society’, ‘the patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’. Ideas are easy to blame, but very difficult to change if they come to define us. It’s like we are all standing around pointing to a massive neon sign saying ‘PATRIARCHY’, giving it more credit than it deserves. By viewing the world through this prism, we subtly impose further limits on ourselves.

 

I may be great, but I cannot control the minds of others. I cannot control their thoughts, their prejudices, their attitudes, their ignorance. I cannot change history, either. Yes, men have had the power since time immemorial, but I cannot change that. Focusing on the fact that this is unfair won’t change it either. It’s a huge leviathan composed of an infinite number of moving parts. It’s extremely hard to pin down. Focusing on it too much risks removing women of their agency and ability to overcome the lingering barriers that society will inevitably present.

 

So I urge women not to allow the problems in society to limit them, but instead to move beyond them. So the next time someone says something that triggers your inner feminist, don’t allow that thought to limit you. Overcome it. Realise that you cannot change what is not within your control. Carry on as you would have, had misogyny never existed. Be brilliant, and work to improve the things about you that you can control. There are things that all of us need to work on, but don’t let gender inequality posses you. Know the limits that lie within, and ignore the limits that lie beyond, and perhaps one day the apparent need for ‘Feminism’ will cease to exist.

Advertisements

The ‘Show Sentence’

The Michaela approach to writing about literature involves building up sentences by combining pupils’ knowledge of poetic, theatrical and rhetorical techniques with memorised quotations, memorised facts and academic vocabulary. Through lots of guidance, we are able to elicit some pretty good sentences from the class, before letting them loose to write their own. I call this a ‘Show Sentence’. I do these pretty much every lesson so they get plenty of writing practice.

 

Below is a demonstration of this approach in action in a lesson. To provide a context, this would take place after they have read, discussed and annotated the text, and have memorised key quotations. I would most likely be scribbling this on the whiteboard as they go.

 

Year 8 (lowest set) Lesson: Shakespeare’s Macbeth

 

Teacher: “Fair is…?”

 

Pupils [chanting in unison]: “…foul and foul is fair: hover through fog and filthy air.”

 

Teacher: Super! Which techniques does Shakespeare combine in this quotation about supernatural sorcery? [Wait for hands up] Charlie?

 

Charlie: Shakespeare combines alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus, Miss.

 

Teacher: Excellent response. Who can spell chiasmus? … Rachel?

 

Rachel: C H I A S M U S

 

Teacher: Nod if you think Rachel is right. [Pupils nod] Well done, Rachel!  Okay, so Charlie said ‘Shakespeare combines alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus’. That was a great start. I’d like us to use a synonym for combines to improve this sentence. Anyone have any ideas? Ushra?

 

Ushra: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus, Miss.

 

Teacher: Excellent. I really like the use of the word ‘fuses’ there. But now I want us to turn this into a Show Sentence. So what does Shakespeare fuse these three techniques to show? Turn to your partner for 30 seconds.

 

[30 seconds pass- teacher gets class’ attention again] Okay hands up- what does Shakespeare fuse these techniques to show? Ray?

 

Ray: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to show the witches’ sorcery.

 

Teacher: Love it! Can we use a synonym for ‘to show’ though, Ray?

 

Ray: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the witches’ sorcery.

 

Teacher: Superb! Okay, this is looking good, but I think we can do more to it. I’d like to add an adjective in here before the word ‘sorcery’. I’m thinking of a word beginning with ‘s’ that means something that’s unnatural, or to do with magic. [Lots of hands go up]… Karl?

 

Karl: Supernatural sorcery!

 

Teacher: Brill. Next, then, I’d like us to add another adjective, perhaps before the word ‘witches’. Who can think of an adjective to describe the witches? Sarah?

 

Sarah: evil, miss?

 

Teacher: you’re right. They are evil, but can we think of a synonym for ‘evil’, maybe? Jon?

 

Jon: Malevolent!

 

Teacher: Good! Carrie?

 

Carrie: Satanic?

 

Teacher: Fabulous! Okay, I think I’m going to choose malevolent this time, but you could choose any of those synonyms. So let’s have a look at the sentence now: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery. This is looking so excellent, but I think we can do even better. I reckon we could add something about the audience or the context, maybe? Hmmm… can anyone think of the word beginning with a J that describes people living during the time that Macbeth was first performed? Jake?

 

Jake: Jacobean, Miss!

 

Teacher: superb! Who was the monarch during Jacobean times? And when did their reign begin? Farsha?

 

Farsha: It was James I and he was the monarch in 1603 after Elizabeth died.

 

Teacher: goodness me! What a cracking answer! We need to get that into our show sentence somehow. Let’s have a think. Perhaps I could add a relative clause at the end of my sentence. I could finish the previous clause with a comma, and open the next clause with ‘which’. When I write a relative clause, I’m adding information. I want to add some extra information about the noun I’ve just talked about. So I want to say something about the witches, and I want to try and link them to Farsha’s excellent point about James I. What link could I make? Tasha?

 

Tasha: Miss, you could say that the Jacobean audience would have been scared by witches, Miss.

 

Teacher: You’re right! That’s a really good link! What did James I think of witches? Was he a fan? Lee?

 

Lee: No, Miss! He wrote a book called Demonology and said witches were illegal.

 

Teacher: Superb knowledge! He did indeed write Demonology and outlawed witchcraft. Okay, so we could say something like this: “which would have scared the Jacobean audience.” But you know what… I think we can do better than that! Who can make some suggestions? Prem?

 

Prem: Change it to ‘which petrified the Jacobean audience’, Miss.

 

Teacher: Excellent. Now we are really getting somewhere with our show sentence today! I think we could add one more thing. We know that the audience were petrified by the idea of witchcraft, but we also know that they found it quite entertaining to watch. So I could say, ‘who petrified, yet entertained the Jacobean audience’. Anyone want to suggest how I could improve that? Kaynath?

 

Kaynath: Instead of ‘entertained’ could you say ‘enthralled’?

 

Teacher: Yep! ‘which would have petrified, yet enthralled the Jacobean audience’. Superb! But we know lots of words for petrified, such as ‘terrified’, ‘disturb’, ‘frighten’, and we know lots of synonyms for enthralled, such as ‘engaged’, ‘enraptured’, ‘captivated’. So when you write your own show sentence, you’ll be able to choose some of your own synonyms to put in there. Right, so let’s have a look at the whole show sentence together now:

 

Shakespeare fuses alliteration with rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery, which would have petrified, yet enthralled, the Jacobean audience.

 

I think that’s pretty good work, team! Now you’ve got ten minutes to have a go at writing your own show sentence about the quotation ‘fair is foul and foul is fair: hover through fog and filthy air’. Ready? GO.

 

Below is an example of one Michaela pupil’s Show Sentence.

 

Show Sentence

“Please teach my daughter to read”

In the midst of the open day crowd, a young father taps me on the shoulder. He carries a toddler in one arm and pulls a pushchair along behind him. He’s sporting a sweatshirt covered in splotches of white paint, a pair of old, grey Nike’s, and large dark circles under his eyes. His other daughter, who looks about secondary school age, trails behind him, transfixed by her phone.

 

“Excuse me, Miss,” he says.

 

“How can I help?” I beam. “Are you interested in sending your daughter to Michaela this September, Sir?”

 

“Yes, Miss,” he replies. “They said you was the one who I can speak to about special needs, Miss.”

 

I nod, smile, introduce myself. He glares at me for a moment as he gathers his thoughts. Shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot, his eyes scan the floor briefly before returning to mine.

 

“The thing is, right,” he begins, “my daughter, yeah, she’s got special needs, innit, Miss,”

 

“Okay, well you’ve come to the right person! What is the nature of your daughter’s needs?” I reply.

 

“Well, she can’t read, Miss. She hate reading. She don’t like it and I can’t never get her to do no reading ever.”

 

“Right. I understand. Lots of parents struggle to get their kids to read. It’s not unusual. There’s a lot we can do to help. I’m really glad you came to speak to me, Mr…?”

 

“Daniels. My name is Shaun. My daughter here is Georgia. Come here, Georgia, and say ‘hi’ to this lady what’s gonna be your teacher next year at Michaela.”

 

Georgia lifts her head momentarily from her iPhone and throws me a brief smile. Her eyes dart back to Whatsapp.

 

“The thing is, right, she’s got special needs. So I’m not sure if there’s anything you can do because it’s her special needs what stops her from learning to read. Me and my wife are so…. frustrated because we really want her to do well at school but she don’t do no reading ever and we knows its important, you hear me?

 

“I didn’t do so well at school myself, you know, and I don’t want that for my daughter, Miss. You understand? I am desperate for her to learn reading, Miss. Can you help? Please teach my daughter to read. Do whatever you can. Honestly, I am really meaning this right now.”

 

His speech is passionate. I sense that he’s delivered it before. There is an air of desperation behind his words.

 

I ask him, “Does Georgia have any other needs, other than her difficulties with reading?”

 

He looks baffled. “No. She can’t read. That’s it, Miss.”

 

The conversation continues and I try to reassure him. The reality is that I can’t make promises. I can’t say that his daughter will definitely learn to read in the next few years. I simply don’t know what her needs are. I tell him what we do, how we teach reading, the programmes we use, the number of hours of support she’ll receive each week, the homework requirements, and so on. I tell him what I think will happen, but I avoid making any concrete predictions at this stage.

 

And yet, looking at Georgia and her father, I have a hunch. I’ve met a number of children with all sorts of special needs in the past, and I am yet to meet a child who can’t be taught to read. I’ve never met a child in mainstream education whose needs are so profound that they cannot be taught to decode the 120 or so graphemes of the English language with proper instruction. Whilst Georgia may have another special need that presents her with various challenges, I cannot shake the thought that perhaps she has been labelled as ‘SEN’ because she hasn’t been taught to read properly. I know I’m making assumptions, but I think of all the people on Twitter who stand by their whole word approaches to teaching reading, and all the primary schools I have visited where mixed methods are still the norm, despite vast swathes of evidence to the contrary, and I wonder whether Georgia is yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes. I wonder how many of the 1.3million ‘SEN’ children in the country have no genuine cognitive disability, but have simply been let down by poor reading instruction over the years. I wonder how many fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents and carers have trusted schools to do their job and have been catastrophically let down.

 

And it is catastrophic. I don’t have to convince you of the consequences of a child not learning to read, but here’s an interesting article that I found particularly enlightening on the subject.

 

18 months later, and Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousands of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress. I’m not suggesting that we are superheroes who have a unique ability to cure the illiterate. Rather, I’m trying to point out that it is incredibly easy to teach a child to read if you use the correct methods. It’s a downright disgrace that kids like Georgia are let down in primary schools, and whilst I know lots of primary teachers who do teach reading properly, many still don’t.

Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

 

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

 

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

 

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

 

Take the following examples:

 

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 

He wore a bright red coat.

 

Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

 

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

 

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.

 

Sequencing

Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

 

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speech, syntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 

Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

 

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

 

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

 

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

 

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 

Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

 

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

 

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

 

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 

To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James Murphy, Eric Kalenze and Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

 

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

 

Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.

 

On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.

 

In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.

 

Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.

 

It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.

 

I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.

 

I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.

 

Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?

 

But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?

 

I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.

 

 

 

20 Months’ Reading Progress in 10 Months

This week, we carried out our first set of nationally standardised assessments. These show the progress our pupils have made throughout the year in reading, English and Maths.

 

Pupils are delighted with their results. The average Michaela pupil made 20 months’ reading progress in 10 months. Over half our year 7 pupils now have a reading age of 14 or above, and our SEN pupils have made rapid progress, catching up quickly with their peers.

 

Of course, there are many factors that have contributed to these outcomes, and we are very much aware that we still have a long way to go, and that we must maintain this as the school grows. However, a few people have been asking us how we achieved these results, and whilst I don’t think there is one formula to rule them all on this one, here are a few ideas that have played a part in making this happen.

 

  1. How to get them reading: which diagnostic assessments are useful? How should pupils be grouped? Which intervention programmes work best? What are the key focus areas in reading instruction? This blog provides a broad overview of our approach to reading at Michaela.

 

  1. How to motivate reluctant readers: in this post, I argue that habits, a feeling of success and increased challenge are important levers to pull when trying to motivate reluctant readers.

 

  1. How to read texts in lessons: At Michaela, pupils read thousands of words every day, in subjects across the curriculum. How could teachers go about this? What should reading look like in a lesson in any subject? This blog gives some examples of what this might look like.

 

  1. How to increase a pupil’s vocabulary: Vocabulary acquisition and extension is complex and boggling at times. In this post, I summarise some approaches we read about in Beck et al.’s excellent book, and a few other things we do to build vocabulary.

 

  1. One Hundred Classics for Every Child: The simplest way to improve pupils’ reading is to get them to read loads. Here’s how we will give every child a minimum of 100 classics over five years.

 

 

I should add that nothing here is revolutionary or new. Everything you will read about in the above posts has been pinched from stuff we’ve read, seen or heard about over the last few years.

 

Like I say, we aren’t experts, nor do we think that these are necessarily the best ways to get results. I’d welcome others’ tips and views on all of this, so please feel free to add what you do in the comments below.

 

Finally, whilst this is all very encouraging, I’m mindful of Kipling’s profound words:

 

            If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

            And treat those two imposters just the same

 

Results most certainly are not everything, and I wouldn’t want us to pin all our hopes on them or grow complacent. It’s important to see this triumph as a bit of an imposter, and not to let it distract us from doing our best by the kids every single day. That is, after all, what we’re all in this for!

 

Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joined Michaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.