Original Article, published Sunday 12th May 2013
By Russel Tarr, author of www.activehistory.co.uk
On Thursday 9th May 2013 I was the subject of an attack by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in what’s being called his “Mr. Men” speech. According to Mr. Gove, my approach to teaching is apparently symptomatic of all that is wrong with UK secondary education in general, and history teaching in particular. The following morning I found the story all over the national newspapers including the front page of The Times [image]. Today, Mr. Gove repeated his criticisms on the BBC's Andrew Marr show.
If you want to hear Gove's argument on that show, and hear my reponse to it in BBC Radio interviews later, here they are:
Mr. Gove focuses on a particular activity on my website www.activehistory.co.uk in which students are required to produce children’s stories in the style of the well-known ‘Mr. Men’ books to explain the rise of Hitler. For Gove, this provides irrefutable evidence of the ‘infantilisation’ of history teaching and a 'culture of low expectations' (although as AaronStebbings puts it, "I imagine Michael Gove would have a go at George Orwell for using farmyard animals to explain the rise of the Soviet Union").
Gove and his advisors - either through stupidity or mischievousness - failed to place me, my website, or the lesson into its appropriate context. His criticisms betray a lack of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation that would make a GCSE History student blush with shame. Ironically, given Mr. Gove's supposed commitment to rigorous academic standards, it appears that much of his research comes from dodgy marketing surveys from Premier Inn and UKTV Gold (I kid you not)!
Moreover, other commentators have inferred that these books address "Nazi Germany" and thereby repackage World War Two and the Genocide into bedtime stories for primary school children. Not so. To clarify, I do not teach the Third Reich - with all its attendant horrors - through children’s storybooks. The actual topic in question is “The Weimar Republic 1918-33” with a focus on why democracy failed in Germany after World War One: in other words the topic does not begin, but instead ends, with the declaration of the Third Reich. This is not a 'lesson about Hitler' in that sense and I think this is an important point.
General Points about the website Mr. Gove is attacking, and its author
- ActiveHistory is a well-established and highly respected website which has been in continual development for more than 15 years. Its resources and interactive simulations have been praised in the press, used by tens of thousands of teachers all over the world, many of whom have provided glowing testimonials about its effectiveness. It was awarded first prize in the previous Guardian/BECTA Awards as early as 2002 for its innovative Head2Head interviews with historical characters.
- Russel Tarr graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, in 1993 with a 2:1 in Modern History (in a strange quirk of fate, this is also Mr. Gove's old college - perhaps I knocked over his gin and tonic in the college bar back in the day...). I have been a full-time teacher of History since 1997, mainly in the UK (at Wolverhampton Grammar School) and more recently in France (at the International School of Toulouse). I've written plenty of academic articles (e.g. for History Review, the Times Educational Supplement, IB World Magazine) and also authored a textbook for A-Level on Luther and the German Reformation.
Particular Points about the "Mr. Men" activity
- The creation of children’s storybooks is an excellent revision exercise, but not the primary method by which I teach any topic whatsoever. My students spend six solid weeks, plus homework time, studying the Weimar Republic through an academically rigorous unit of study. They then write a 1000-word, externally moderated coursework essay (without further assistance and during their holidays) analysing the causes for Hitler’s election as German Chancellor in January 1933. Only then do they (and, indeed, can they) consolidate their knowledge as a revision exercise by converting this sophisticated story into a children’s book.
- I totally agree that the ability to read in depth, take effective notes and memorise facts is an essential part of every child's education. However, I utterly reject the idea that these skills are an end in themselves, and that effective learning should be measured by a teacher's ability to cram as much information, in as dry a manner as possible, into a student's head. The memorisation of dates, events, people and places is merely the first step in helping students to form valid opinions, make substantiated judgements and to argue a viewpoint effectively. The joy of History is its focus on debate, discussion, interpretation and personal reflection. Any teacher worthy of the title knows that the best learning takes place when students are engaged, interested and stimulated in lessons. It is a terrible mistake to assume that academic rigour and creative teaching are mutually exclusive.
- The "Mr. Men" approach is highly effective, but does not provide a 'typical' example of how history lessons are taught in my classroom or anyone else's. The whole idea of taking one activity and using this to illustrate how children are taught in general is laughable. My students will use the Mr. Men approach on just two occasions in their seven years with me: once when revising the rise of Hitler, and once when outlining the Causes of World War One. The approach is easily transferable to other subjects such as science, politicians in general and Mr. Gove in particular. Outside of this they will have an endless range of other experiences designed to appeal to as broad a range of learning styles as possible, at different ability levels, for the appropriate age range under consideration. It's a little trick we in the teaching procession call 'differentiation', Mr. Gove!
- This exercise is highly challenging and in no way represents the ‘infantilisation’ of students ‘on the verge of university’. These are Year 10 students (14 years old). Beyond that important clarification, it is anything but ‘infantilisation’ to get secondary school students (or indeed adults) of any age to produce an effective children’s storybook on a complex topic. The process of transforming a sophisticated historical phenomenon to its essential elements in a manner that much younger students will understand is no easy feat: it requires a sustained handling of analogy and metaphor that is as challenging as it is stimulating and memorable (the picture shown on the page if you follow the link shows my own daughter being read one of the stories, incidentally). The process also forces students to engage in issues of historical interpretation. The activity actually starts with the following discussion point: "If the Weimar Republic was a Mr. Men character, which one would it be and why?". With a projected image of the characters on the screen it produces some interesting answers - for example "Mr. Worry" (inability and unwillingness to take firm action against the Nazis) to "Mr. Bounce" (the dramatic 'recovery' of 1924-28) and "Mr. Mean" (refusing to increase unemployment benefits after 1929 with disastrous results). Similarly, those students who regard Hitler’s speechmaking skills and charisma as the key to his rise to power will choose a different character to represent the Nazi leader compared to those who focus on his ability to merely capitalise upon the Weimar Republic’s weaknesses or those who blame the impact of the Great Depression - and so on.
This week has been the strangest of my professional career, not least because until today I was away on holiday with my family and unable to respond effectively apart from a couple of minutes on the phone with a Press Association correspondent and a few status updates on Twitter. In my absence I was barraged with scores of supportive emails and messages of support on Twitter from fellow professionals. I would like to offer a genuine and heartfelt *THANK YOU* to everyone who offered kind words.
For anyone out there who still doubts the literary power and gravitas of the Hargreaves canon, I humbly suggest you take a read of this page of Mr. Men Amazon Reviews.
And just in case you're reading, Mr. Gove, I'd be more than happy to engage in a direct debate if you are ever interested in shedding your reputation as "Mr. Point". Maybe you can even come and provide me with a few tips in how to engage youngsters in school? From this clip, it really does appear that you do indeed "have every right" to tell classroom practitioners how they should be doing their jobs.... :)
One week on: My update and developing thoughts on the "Mr. Men Wars"
(Sat. 18th May 2013)
During this week’s Education Select Committee meeting, Mr Gove was asked whether - given his supposed commitment to rigorous academic standards - he had any reservations, on reflection, about the way in which his “Mr. Men Speech” had been researched (about 4m into this clip). Predictably, perhaps, he maintained that his attack was justified: but not, however, by addressing any of the numerous misrepresentations made against me in my original web post (see below). Instead, he avoided the substantive criticisms outlined below and instead pointed out - as if it was of any relevance whatsoever - that the ‘striking’ facts were that no-one had challenged his assertions that (a) the resource was aimed at 15-16 year olds, and (b) that my website www.activehistory.co.uk was a very popular resource with UK teachers. So what? Nobody challenged the fact that he made the speech wearing a suit either - perhaps because it was irrelevant to the debate. This was a classic 'straw man' response.
He additionally claimed that ‘opinion was divided’ on whether it was a good lesson strategy or not. This is Govespeak for “I and a small minority of bloggers I choose to listen to have one view, whereas the vast majority of other people with an opinion express the opposite”. What evidence do I have of this, you may ask? Well, just read the comments under any newspaper web article dealing with the “Mr Men” affair. From The Guardian on the one hand to the Daily Mail on the other, the overall impression across the political spectrum is that Gove is out of step with general public opinion (see too the results of the Guardian Poll). More specifically, within my profession I received over 100 email messages, some running over 1000 words, expressing their outrage with Gove’s policies. Moreover, one evening last week I suggested that teachers who did not agree with Mr. Gove could change their Twitter profile image to a Mr. Men character. Within a few hours upwards of 500 people had done so, many sending heartfelt tweets of support as they did so. Has there been any similar groundswell of support similar to this in Gove’s favour? Hardly.
In one evening, upwards of 500 people changed their Twitter image to express opposition to Mr. Gove
I really don't mind that Mr. Gove chose to single my resources out for criticism. His points were so flimsy that rebutting them had all of the academic challenge of competing with a Year 7 student in a school debating society. Instead, the really unfortunate thing about this saga is that the ensuing debate has descended into a pointless battle between "traditionalists" on the one hand, "modernisers" on the other or - in twisted Conservative parlance - "high standards" versus "dumbing down". In terms of history teaching, this is expressed in terms of a "fact-based, teacher led" curriculum versus an "interpretation-based, student-centered" one. However, I argue that this is a false dichotomy. It is not possible to form valid interpretations without facts, so the "modern" approach is necessarily the inclusive and open-minded one. However, it is certainly possible to simply require students to cram more and more politically-selected names, dates and places into their heads without demanding that they develop interpretative and evaluative skills at the same time.
This latter approach, clearly favoured by Mr. Gove and his supporters, would merely produce a generation of people unable to research properly, unable to debate effectively (as outlined above), and unable to listen to any views other than those narrowly nationalistic perspectives drilled into them from an early age and which they have decided are the only ones worth hearing.
A generation, in other words, created in Gove’s own image.
Russel Tarr (@russeltarr)