The Problem with Teacher Training

The Problem with Teacher Training
(tpsdave, Pixaby)

When I visited Michaela in January of 2016, Katharine Birbalsingh, the Head, told me that she thought trainee teachers were being brainwashed. I was taken aback – until I reflected on what I had seen in my own and other schools. Here is the text of the letter I wrote to her days after the visit.


Dear Katharine,

Thank you for hosting me on Monday and being so open about and with your school.

I can’t really describe Michaela, in the same way that in the adage, six blind men fail in their attempts to describe an elephant.

Whenever I try to describe what I saw to people, they latch on to parts – “ah,” they say, “this means the school is this.” And, “oh no, that means the school is that.”

You must get this all the time.

I saw too little of the school to describe the whole elephant. But elephants are my favourite animal. I love the idea that Michaela is an elephant in the room of education. You asked for a letter that you might share with teachers or students.

Here’s my listing of parts:

  1. Teachers and students at Michaela are desperate to show off their learning and their knowledge. The children really do want to learn, they are not afraid to make mistakes and get answers wrong, and they keep volunteering to be tested to get answers right.
  2. In all four of the lessons I saw, and all the students I spoke to anywhere in school, vocabulary was really important. Students were searching for ways to find the best vocabulary to express what they meant. Vocabulary really mattered.
  3. It felt as though everyone believes in the future adult, the child who will have a rich cultural knowledge, high aspirations, an understanding of how and why things work. Knowledge is power not just for passing exams, but for all the connections and ideas it will make possible in the future.
  4. Everything is the curriculum, and every moment is a teaching and learning opportunity. Students and teachers at Michaela have to be part of a community in which children learn to be caring, considerate of others, polite, keen to make the best of themselves and their peers. Despite the conformity of behaviour, this did not manifest as conformity of thought – children are required to think and have ideas. This was not just rhetoric, but something visible even in my short visit.
  5. No one pretends anything is other than it is, and so everything is evaluated all the time. My shorthand for this is The Toyota Way, where everyone carries out small experiments, immediately monitors the results, and finds ways to improve things. In only a couple of hours in the school I saw this happen on at least three occasions – and that was only what was visible to me – it must be going on all the time. Everyone is encouraged to do better tomorrow, but not to wait for tomorrow. In schools, perhaps this will become The Michaela Way.


You focus on what matters, everything else is a distraction. You revisit what matters every day.

There are a hundred questions I still have.

But two experiences this week have been interesting. I have an interview in a new school next week, to lead teaching and learning in a teaching school. Just as at Michaela, two students led me round the school, and took me anywhere I wanted to go. Anywhere except one place that is: an actual lesson.*

In that small fact is a world of difference in the belief about what teachers and lessons are for. At Michaela everyone wanted me, a complete stranger, to come and see students learn. That’s what lessons are for; they are places in which you should be able to actually see children learn.

Yesterday I observed four lessons from four English candidates, and I took two seconds in department with me. All the applicants had been learning to teach since September. They jumped through all the hoops they’d been taught to jump through, and in a proscribed order. My fellow observers had all sorts of opinions about the merits of each of these hoops, the teachers’ levels of confidence, the choice of their clothing, their selection of resources, etc. I listened to all of these with a patience I did not feel.

Then I asked just one question, again and again. What are the students actually learning? Even though these teachers had heard me repeat this again and again in all sorts of staff training, and could repeat it back to me without hesitation, they hadn’t understood it until I asked them at several points during a lesson.

Because the answer was, “the children are learning nothing”. In three of the four lessons, the teachers had actually taught the children nothing in a whole hour. This is a national tragedy – they came from three different counties, three different SCITTs, and their lessons were rubbish.

But here’s the greater tragedy – none of them knew it. None of them was going to change, and whoever was training them wasn’t going to make them. Last week we interviewed three maths teachers, and the picture was exactly the same. My two observers could see it instantly, but only after I had stopped them looking at everything else, and got them just to focus on what students were learning.

Both immediately began to question their own teaching. One immediately returned to her room and got rid of her grouping of tables and placed them in rows.

You described the process of teacher training in England to me as brainwashing. This is sadly a sensible conclusion – highly intelligent people, often qualified with excellent degrees, believe in all kinds of hocus pocus about teaching methods and activities because they rarely ask – what are my children learning? Why are they learning this, instead of that?

So, this is a long winded way of saying thank you for welcoming me to Michaela, for your time, and for your openness. There are many things about Michaela I don’t yet understand, and about which I’ll keep a very open mind, and I would love to return next year to learn more.

I look forward to Michaela growing, the elephant growing larger till the sitters are nudged off their sofas and their armchairs, and the room begins to notice why you are there.


*I didn’t get the job. I think the final nail in my coffin was finding out that the TAs had iPads to personalise learning and constantly assess their students. I asked innocently, “do all the teachers have iPads?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How do they use them in lessons?”

“In lessons…oh, they don’t use them in lessons.”

When I had the pupil panel one student genuinely asked me what animal I would be.

“Well, I think I am probably the elephant in the room. Is it true that all your teachers have iPads? Have any of them used them to photograph your work…?”