A guide to this blog

I’m Assistant Head and Head of English at Michaela, a new school in London. I write about teaching, research, curriculum and assessment, teacher training, leadership and the education system. puzzle MICHAELA

Here’s what I think would improve teaching:









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Hornets and Butterflies: How to reduce workload

Butterfly      Hornet

When teachers were asked about workload, 44,000 responded. Teachers work 50-to-60 hour weeks, often starting at 7am, often leaving after 6pm, and often working weekends. Some 90% of teachers have considered giving up teaching because of excessive workload, and 40% leave the profession within 5 years. There are teachers out there working 90 hour weeks.

For a school, there are great benefits to leading the way on reducing workload. Teachers who aren’t exhausted teach better. We contribute more over a longer time period. We are far happier to invest time in building trusting, caring, affirming relationships with children. We stay calmer in difficult confrontations, and are less likely to be short-tempered in everyday interactions. We support and encourage each other better. New teachers improve faster, veteran teachers stay longer, and everyone works smarter. A school that pioneers healthy work-life balance is more likely to attract teachers to join – and little matters more in a school than recruiting and retaining good people.

As a school leader, it’s worth asking: “what do you want teachers to say about the school when they’re with friends and family?”

In the school I work in, what I’d most like teachers to say is this: “We work smart. We focus only on what most improves learning. We stop ourselves from doing some good things, so we can put first things first.” 

What it takes to reduce workload is a shift in the mindset and culture of school leaders and teachers.

You won’t spend very long at Michaela without hearing teachers mentioning hornets or butterflies. I first borrowed the analogy in 2012 from Sir Tim Brighouse, who said that hornets are high-effort, low-impact ideas, and butterflies are low-effort, high-impact ideas. Barry Smith has advised teachers for years to think about ‘learning return on time invested’. Since then it has become a part of our everyday chat at Michaela. EffortImpact We can view everything we do at school through this lens. The idea is to get rid of the biggest hornets and search for the hidden butterflies.

Seeking out Hornets As senior team, we think ferociously hard about every decision through the lens of the impact-to-effort ratio. We encourage all middle leaders and teachers to do the same in their own arenas. Here’s what we’ve decided not to do:

  • No graded or high-stakes observations
  • No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
  • No appraisal targets based on pupil data
  • No individual lesson plans at all
  • No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
  • No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
  • No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
  • No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
  • No extensive photocopying of worksheets
  • No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
  • No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
  • No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
  • No unnecessary manual data input or entry
  • No unnecessary paperwork
  • No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
  • No time-wasting, temporary display
  • No split timetabling
  • No long-winded written reports to parents

It’s such a relief not to have to do any of these things and be free to focus on what matters most: our subjects and our pupils.  

Searching for Butterflies


Knowledge organisers are the ultimate renewable resource: they can be used by every future year-group and every teacher who teaches them. A knowledge curriculum, teacher-led instruction and strong textbooks reduce workload by eschewing differentiated or personalised resourcing. I’ll write about this idea of renewable resourcing in another post.  


We replace the hornet of setting, chasing, checking, marking and logging homework with revision, reading and online Maths – three of the most beautiful butterflies out there.  


Written marking is the ultimate non-renewable resource. By contrast, multiple-choice questions and icons are butterflies. I’ll write about our feedback approach and minimalist marking in another post.  

Two-Week Half-Term

Teaching teenagers full-time is an exhausting job in itself. The simple decision to have a two-week Autumn half-term has a powerful impact on staff energy in the longest term of the year.


We replace the hornet of transient, temporary display with the butterfly of permanent, enduring display.  


We replace the hornet of highly labour-intensive written parental reports with online access to subject, behaviour and attendance data so parents can see online anywhere, any time, how their pupil is doing. WorkloadImpact ***

If you are blind to the hornets in your school, you are allowing your teachers to get stung. Hidden butterflies improve learning and reduce workload, burnout and turnover. At Michaela, we are just getting started, and we are confident that there are many more butterflies to find.

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A 5 year revision plan

 Revise with self-quizzing books for every pupil across all subjects

What should teachers do about homework? And what should pupils do about revision?

Homework and its Discontents

Homework is a tough ask for pupils and teachers. Pupils have five hours of lessons, then more hours of work loaded into their evenings. Teachers teach 20 lessons a week, then have to set, explain, check, collect, mark, track, sanction, and chase homework.

Revision and its Discontents

Revision is often crammed into a few weeks from Easter in Year 11, and rarely coordinated across the school. Each teacher thinks that their own subject is most important, and expects pupils to do some ‘20-25 minutes a night’, mostly uncoordinated with other subjects.

The science of memory

When I read Make It Stick, 11 cognitive psychologists’ applied scientific research, this insight struck me:


What would that look like across a whole school? What if we combined revision and homework?


A Long-Term Revision Strategy: Self-Quizzing

At our school, from Year 7 onwards, homework is revision: self-quizzing for all pupils across all their subjects. Revision lasts not five weeks, or five months, but five years.

Self-Quizzing Books 

Every pupil is given a self-quizzing book with every subject’s core knowledge. The book is organised in subject sections, with numbered pages. Knowledge organisers from each unit are stuck into this exercise book. For instance, in English by the end of Year 7, there are organisers for parts of speech, syntax and punctuation, vocabulary, spelling, myths, rhetoric, poetry, poems to be memorised (Ozymandias, Invictus and If) and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: everything they study that year. Organisers for Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography and Religion) and Art are all kept within one beautifully organised book that pupils take home to revise every evening.

Practice Books

Pupils self-quiz from one subject’s knowledge organisers every night for homework, as guided by their teacher. For this they use a separate practice book that they take between school and home. They cover up one side of the knowledge organiser, write it out from memory (in a black pen), then self-check and correct any spelling mistakes, omissions or inaccuracies (in a green pen). They learn the most valuable knowledge in every subject by heart.

There is a timetable in the front of their self-quizzing books with five weeknights for the five main subjects: English, Humanities, French, Science and Maths. Every pupil in the year is revising the same subject on the same night. Everyone has the same five-year revision plan. This is important if pupils are absent for a day or two, or longer-term – they still know exactly what revision to do, precisely which subject to prioritise, every day. Self-quizzing becomes a daily, automated habit for the long-run.

Practice Book Checks

We aim for 100% of pupils to complete their self-quizzing every evening. It’s a high bar, and this is what we do to reach it.

Teachers check the practice book to see if the self-quizzing practice is of sufficient quantity and quality. On quantity, pupils must complete at least one page of self-quizzing for prep, with no spaces left on the sides or at the top or bottom of the page. On quality, it must be neat and accurate, with no uncorrected spelling mistakes. We turn knowledge organisers into online and in-class quizzes, so we can see precisely whose self-quizzing is ineffectual, and support them to improve their revision.

Because it is the same revision strategy each evening across all subjects, it becomes an automatic routine. Last week, for instance, we had 98% quality completion: out of 600 hand-ins, only 10 instances were of insufficient quality, and those pupils were put into detention to remind them of the importance of quality revision. The week before it was 97%. We track those who struggle and contact their parents to support them.

The other benefit of combining knowledge organisers, self-quizzing books and practice books is this: they reduce the effort teachers spend on extensions and cover.

Extensions as Revision

Pupils can use self-quizzing books to revise key concepts, definitions, dates and events whenever they have finished a task. In a Maths lesson, the fastest pupil might finish an exercise three to four minutes before the weakest pupil. That’s four minutes they can be revising, which means far less work for teachers providing extra extension resources.

Cover as Revision

No teacher at Michaela has to email in cover work or proforma when they are away. Pupils can simply self-quiz for the lesson, testing themselves on previous terms’ or units’ topics, writing from memory, self-checking and correcting, to help them remember what they’ve learned.

Extra Reading, Extra Maths

Subject self-quizzing is not the only homework pupils do. They quiz themselves online or on their phone with Quizlet flashcards and other multiple-choice apps. They also read for 30 minutes every evening. They also do 30 minutes of Maths practice online on IXL, guided by their Maths teacher as to the topic. All three habits (reading, Maths practice and self-quizzing) are habits that are sustained over five years.

This homework-revision strategy requires coordination:

  • Department Heads and teachers must agree on and create organisers for each unit
  • Teachers must check all pupils’ practice books once a week and set detentions if not done
  • Maths Teachers must check IXL each morning and set detentions if not done
  • The Maths Department displays pupils’ rankings (in the year) by effort on IXL every day

Here’s what I like about this homework and revision plan: it’s long-term, (spread over 5 years) memorable (just 3 things to do each night: self-quiz, read, IXL), habitual (always the same strategy every day) yet still subject-specific (one subject’s content to self-quiz on each night), collective (all pupils in the year do the same subject on the same night), research-based (based on 100 years of science), inexpensive (a few exercise books a year per pupil), and minimalist (one sheet to photocopy and stick in for each unit in each subject every four weeks or so).

It’s still evolving, and we’re open to ideas, suggestions and alternatives. But I think this application of cognitive psychology could reinvigorate homework and revision in schools.

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Knowledge Organisers

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail

What’s the difference between a knowledge curriculum and other curricula? A knowledge curriculum specifies, in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. Many teachers underestimate the value of specifying (and sequencing) such detail. It is rare to find an English, Science or even History scheme of work that sets this out. The most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer is the knowledge organiser. These organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a single page. Here is an example for Year 7: the timeline, activists, quotations and political and legal vocabulary for a unit on apartheid South Africa. KnowledgeMapSA There are two reasons they are so useful: clarity for teachers, and memory for pupils.

Clarity for teachers

Knowledge organisers clarify for everyone, from the Headteacher to brand new teachers, exactly what is being taught. At Michaela, Heads of Department think deeply about the difficult trade-offs between breadth and depth. If, for instance, you only have one religion lesson a week, what exactly about the Bible should your pupils study, and what will you omit? A broad range of stories, or fewer stories in greater depth?

We try hard to choose the most valuable content that we want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. And for each unit, we discipline ourselves to distil it onto a single page.

When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.

Now, any teacher can pop into anyone else’s lesson, look at the unit organiser, and see what every kid is working on. I love seeing the fantastic knowledge they are learning: from astronomy in Science, to European geography in Humanities, to grammatical structures in French. I love asking them questions about their subjects, and seeing their eyes light up as they see others love science, geography and history too.

Memory for pupils

Knowledge organisers are given to all pupils at the start of each unit to help them remember what they’re learning. No longer out of sight, out of mind: instead of leaving behind previous units’ content, teachers can recap quickly and easily in lessons. Instead of forgetting all about it, pupils continually revisit and retrieve prior learning from their memories.

Every lesson, across all subjects, we use knowledge organisers printed off as a pack of in-lesson quizzes. The numbers and columns here help turn the grids into simple in-class quizzes. Emboldening key words allows pupils to peer-mark the complex definitions, working out which terms are vital in them: KnowledgeQuizSA1 KnowledgeQuizSA2 Lastly, knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.

Next time, I’ll write about our five-year revision strategy across subjects.

UPDATE: James Theobald has started this brilliant collection of knowledge organisers across subjects.

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Combining Tradition and Innovation

Teachers who think knowledge, memory and practice have been neglected in schools, tend to be seen as adamant traditionalists – to quote one blogger recently, “the shock-troops of neo-traditionalism!”

Whilst I think it’s important to bring the best of tradition into education, I also think we should try to bring the best of innovation in too. In fact, I think that combining traditional subject knowledge-led instruction with innovative digital online technology has great potential – as long as we are selective, and not seduced by transient vogues.

Here’s how we combine tradition and innovation at Michaela:


The danger of innovation, as Daisy Christodoulou points out, is that ‘nothing dates so fast as the cutting edge’. Algebra and the alphabet have existed usefully for hundreds of years, and will continue to be useful for hundreds of years to come; iPads and interactive whiteboards have been around for ten or so – and are less likely to be around in a hundred years’ time.

So how do we decide on the best innovations to pursue? Which are most likely to endure? The best guide is the findings of 125 years of scientific research into learning. The research is unequivocal: learning requires long-term memory retention, and what most aids retention is frequent retrieval practice – put simply, quizzing.

Take smartphone apps like Quizlet. These allow pupils to quiz themselves anywhere, anytime online – on the bus on the way to school, on the bus on the way back from school, on weekends, in the holidays, or when they are absent. Such technologies are most powerful when combined with the strong tradition of tough subject knowledge, selected and sequenced carefully for schemata in long-term memory, by Department Heads and other subject experts.

Advocates of traditional knowledge see the benefits of innovative technology – we just set a very high bar of scientific evidence for selecting among its applications.

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Which knowledge?

I often ask pupils at family lunch at Michaela what their favourite subject is. Many of them reply, ‘I love every subject, sir!’ What we choose to teach plays a big part in how much our pupils love learning. 

At Michaela, we decide which knowledge to teach based on three principles: schemata, challenge, and coherence.


Our aim is to help pupils remember everything they are learning, and master the most important content. To this end, subject content knowledge is best organised into the most memorable schemata. So we organise history and English literature chronologically. We start in Year 7 with classical antiquity: in History we study Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Roman Britain; in Religion, we study polytheism, The Old and New Testament, Judaism and Christianity; in English, we study Greek mythology, The Odyssey, Roman Rhetoric, epic poetry and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; in Art, we study Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, sculpture and architecture. Chronological, cumulative schemata help pupils remember subject knowledge in the long-term: not for ten weeks or ten months, but for ten years and beyond.

EngHums Dovetailing hidden bodies of knowledge in 5 hours of English and 5 hours of Humanities


The subject knowledge we choose to teach our pupils to master is the most vital and the most challenging content. The pupils we teach often arrive at school far behind, unable to read fluently or multiply. Many have a vocabulary of under 6,000 words, while wealthier pupils often have over 12,000. So the opportunity cost of anything other than the most challenging subject content is high. Only the most challenging topics with the most stretching vocabulary, combined with high support so all pupils understand and use it accurately, will allow them to compete academically with the 96% of private school pupils who reach University. We dedicate extended teaching time for mastery of grammar, spelling and vocabulary, the hidden bodies of knowledge that make for accurate writing. Our pupils will have vivid memories of reading some of the most complex and beautiful texts ever written: Shakespeare’s Othello, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Orwell’s 1984, Malcolm X’s autobiography, Duffy’s The Worlds’ Wife, and Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom.


Subject knowledge we select dovetails cohesively across and between subjects. At Michaela, our pupils will remember Year 7 as the year they learnt about classical civilisation. Across subjects, they are making exciting connections. Sacrifice, for instance, recurs in the stories of Abraham and Isaac in religion, with Agamemnon and Iphigenia or Minos and Theseus in Greek mythology. Across English and Science, the planet Mercury is named after the swift Greco-Roman messenger god as it is the fastest-moving planet, taking 88 days to orbit the sun. A dovetailed knowledge curriculum allows pupils to make these fascinating connections for themselves, and understand the ideas of democracy, dictatorship, hubris, nemesis, tragedy and monotheism from their early origins.

In short, we select challenging, sequenced, coherent schemata within and across subjects, so that our pupils remember what they’ve learned for years to come.

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A Knowledge-led School

A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality.

One of our ambitions at Michaela Community School, which opened this year in Wembley, is to place knowledge at the heart of education.

We believe, as Francis Bacon did in 1597, that knowledge is power: it empowers all children to achieve, choose their future and decide what legacy they’d like to leave.

We believe that broad cultural and historical knowledge improves all pupils’ academic achievement, especially poorer pupils. Even the very weakest pupils can study the greatest books ever written, such as Frankenstein, Oliver Twist and Animal Farm. All pupils deserve the chance to see Shakespearean theatre, fine art and classical music as accessible to them, not alien to them: access which richer pupils take for granted. Knowing about democracy, its origins, evolution and discontents empowers pupils to make their own minds up as citizens in politics, referenda and elections.

We believe that powerful mathematical and scientific knowledge empowers pupils to choose among the most competitive and selective vocations, such as (to name just a few) medicine, finance, engineering, technology and law, as well as to appreciate how the world works, in all its wonder.

Science backs these beliefs. Over a century of research into memory, learning and the mind has produced conclusions that are not scientifically challengeable:

WillinghamKnowledge   LongTermMemory

As cognitive scientist John Anderson says, ‘All there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition.’ Our logic is as follows:

The more knowledge you remember, the more curious you become.

The more knowledge you remember, the more intelligent you become.

The more knowledge you remember, the more you achieve academically.

The more knowledge you remember, the more choices you have for your future.

That is why we place the liberating force of knowledge at the heart of our school. Only a cohesive, cumulative, carefully sequenced knowledge curriculum will close the 10,000 word vocabulary gap between the poorest and wealthier pupils aged 11, narrow the 28% gap in GCSE attainment between poorest and wealthier pupils aged 16, and reduce the 80% gap between poorest and private school pupils attending University aged 18. The reason we want all pupils to have secure subject knowledge is because we think it is the best route to social justice.

A knowledge curriculum can be a powerful force in combating educational inequality. We hope that in time, knowledge-led schools will win the hearts and minds of the teaching profession.


Next blogpost, I’ll turn to the question: which knowledge?

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The Signal and The Noise: The Blogosphere in 2014


It felt like the blogosphere increased in ‘noise’ in 2014. The Echo Chamber went from under 2,000 blogposts in 2013 to over 6,000 in 2014. Teacher voice online is proliferating, spurred on by the astonishing energy of the edubloggers’ commander-in-chief, Andrew Old (who unmasked himself in 2014).

Here is my small effort to tune into to the ‘signal’ of some of the best blogposts and bloggers over the year.

My Top 14 bloggers of 2014

  • Andrew Smith
  • Cazzy
  • Daisy Christodoulou
  • David Didau
  • David Thomas
  • Harry Fletcher Wood
  • Harry Webb
  • Heather F
  • Jo Facer
  • Kev Bartle
  • Kris Boulton
  • Phil Stock
  • Sam Freedman
  • Tom Sherrington

Top 14 posts of 2014 on this blog

Top 14 books I read in 2014

Moonwalking    RobertPeal


I’ll end with 3 of my highlights of the year, 3 trends I see, and 3 of my hopes for 2015:

3 Highlights of 2014

Starting a free school with an amazing team – Katharine, Katie, Bodil, Jonny, Olivia, Barry, I am so lucky to work with you!

Visiting Trinity Dixons Academy with its inspiring leadership – thank you so much Dani, Wes and Luke!

Meeting Doug Lemov and his wonderful family with Bodil and Jo – thank you Doug!

3 Trends in 2014

The Rise and Rise of ResearchED: amazing energy from Tom, Helene and the team

OFSTED Reach Out: edubloggers have been holding their feet to the fire

Core Knowledge gains influence: Daisy Christodoulou, the tide is with you!

3 Hopes for 2015

OFSTED stop grading teaching

Research(ED) Leads forge a network to lead the teaching profession

Michaela develops a powerful knowledge-led curriculum, pioneering mastery assessment system, unprecedentedly effective CPD, unusually low-burnout staff culture and habitually kind, motivated pupils!

Here’s to finding the signal amid the noise in 2015!

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