It’s Guys Like You Mickey

by Dan H

Dan writes another article, because the Education secretary has opened his mouth again.
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Hey Mickey, you’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind. And by “so fine” I mean “such a narrow-minded hypocrite.” But that wouldn’t have scanned well.

This has been a fun week for the man with the easiest job in government. A few days ago, it came out that the champion of educational standards, the bright white knight of the fight against dumbing down, was getting his information from surveys on UKTV Gold. Somehow this did not lead to his being publicly ridiculed, and the BBC ran the story under the remarkably noncommittal headline “Hunt Doubts Gove on History Evidence”.

Let’s just take a second to get our heads around this, shall we. The man in charge of the education of basically everybody in Britain is basing his policy decisions on polls carried out by TV stations. It would be funny if it wasn’t so unbelievably fucking terrifying. This man is really in government. He is a real Secretary of State and people really voted for him. Michael Gove is a walking argument against democracy.

To be fair to Michael Gove, and by “fair” I mean “insulting”, it isn’t really true that he’s basing his policy decisions on TV shows. He’s basing his policy decisions on a combination of his own preconceptions and his (I suspect very well researched) understanding of what will play well with floating voters in Middle England. But he’s using information from TV shows to back it up. While complaining about declining standards in education. I really try to avoid indulging in glib conspiracy theories and shallow hyperbole, but sometimes it really does seem like the Tories are deliberately running the educational system into the ground so that the next generation will grow up ignorant enough to vote for them.

Mr Gove’s other triumph this week was a speech in Brighton in which he attacked the “infantilisation” of History teaching. He reserved particular ire for the materials on Active History - a website full of interactive, active learning materials designed to facilitate the teaching of history throughout secondary school. This website, for what it is worth, has received extremely positive coverage in the TES, the Guardian, and the New York Times. To Mr Gove, of course, the website is a veritable blasphemy. Full of hands-on, student-focused, learner-led activities catering to a variety of learning styles it’s a far cry from the enormous lists of “heroes and heroines” that Mr Gove wants us to ram down childrens’ throats. For a man who seems to think that “good education” means “children sitting in rows, writing things down from the board” the idea of teaching history through roleplay, class debate, or online activities must seem perilously close to madness.

The lesson that Mr Gove singled out for especial criticism was this one in which Year 11 students, having studied the rise of Nazi Germany for six weeks, making a detailed study of Nazi social, economic, and religions policies, their use of propaganda, their youth movements and the position of women in the Nazi state, with class activities including debating the moral justifications of Nazi eugenics and producing group presentations on Nazi policies towards undesirables and untermenschen, are then asked to synthesise their knowledge into a Mr Men style book and present it to a Year 6 class in a way which will be understandable to those students.

Let’s be very clear about this. This is the opposite of dumbing down. This is an activity which requires students to synthesise their knowledge into a new form, to articulate their understanding of a complex topic to a specific audience, at a lower level of understanding, after which they are assessed on how well they have imparted their knowledge and understanding to that second group of students. Yes, it might involve brightly coloured cartoon characters, but it is still actually a very high level task. It involves peer teaching, group work, creativity and class discussion. It also, incidentally, requires the students to know quite a lot of facts. Part of the point of the Mr Men approach is to provide a way in which the year eleven students (who, let us not forget, have made a detailed study of this topic lasting over a month) to communicate the key figures in Hitler’s rise to power to year six students (that is to say, ten to eleven year olds) in a way that will be clear an memorable. It’s a way of getting ten year old kids to have a clear idea of who Hindenburg, Franz Papen, Marius van der Lubb, Ernst Rohm and Heinrich Himmler were. It’s about finding a clear way to communicate names, facts and dates – all of which Mr Gove allegedly approves of.

It isn’t even as if using cartoons to examine complex issues is an outlandish idea. From Charley Says to When the Wind Blows to Maus, comics and animations have always been used to communicate difficult concepts. Visual media are very flexible, they can be subtle and understated, or they can make a clear, vivid impact. And a clear, vivid impact is pretty much what you want when you’re teaching history to ten-year-olds.

Gove seemed particularly outraged that the lesson plan “suggests spending classroom time depicting the rise of Hitler as a Mr Men story.” I should pause here to admire the Education Secretary’s grasp of rhetoric. “Classroom time” is like “taxpayers’ money” – you talk about its being spent in order to reduce the perceived value of the things it is spent on. You can try this trick for yourself, take the most innocuous, most sensible, most bog-standardly ordinary thing you can imagine a teacher doing in a classroom and then say, out loud, in your best Radio 4 phone-in voice “some people actually suggest spending class time [doing the thing you have just thought of]”.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Now the thing is, you could raise reasonable objections to the proposed lesson plan. You could make a reasonable argument that “Mr Men do Hitler” is an inappropriately frivolous approach to a serious subject, you could argue that it insults the intelligence of the target audience (although let us remember that while the lesson is for 15-16 year-olds, the actual Mr Men books are for ten-year-olds). And I suppose if you were Michael Gove or one of the teachers at the Pimlico Academy, you could argue that it’s an inappropriate lesson plan because it involves teaching twentieth-century history to Year 6 students, and that this will cause problems because it is being taught out of chronological order. And interestingly, when Gove defended his statements later he seemed to be trying to recast his complaints in terms of sensitivity or appropriate handling of difficult subject matter:


"The striking thing about it is that while there have been some people who've been offended, or who've disagreed with the thrust of the argument, no-one has disputed that it's a popular resource, no-one's disputed that it was material that was aimed at 15- to 16-year-olds, and opinion divides on whether or not it's appropriate."


Although actually, while this is the quote that has been widely circulated it isn’t immediately clear what on earth Mr Gove is actually trying to say here. Again, I am forced to admire the man’s effortless command of empty rhetoric. I particularly like the device of claiming that people agree with you on the grounds that “no-one has disputed” the parts of his speech that were utterly uncontroversial. This is sort of like me saying that Michael Gove, Education Secretary, is a child molester and then defending the assertion on the basis that nobody has denied that he is the Education Secretary.

Again, it would be easy to dismiss Gove as a buffoon, but he most certainly isn’t. He’s a man with his eye on party leadership, and he is an absolute master politician. He zeroed in on the Mr Men example because he knew, with unerring political instincts, that it would make a fucking excellent soundbite. The fact that the Mr Men lesson is actually a fantastically sophisticated one which in all likelihood produces excellent learning outcomes (in both the sixteen-year-olds who are expected to deliver the lesson and the ten-year-olds who are expected to receive it) is neither here nor there. Using the Mr Men to teach history is wrong because it doesn’t look like what Mr Gove, and the narrow minded middle-Englanders who he quite correctly expects to support him, think a lesson should look like.

To put it another way, Gove isn’t really interested in education, he’s interested in something which I can only describe as “schooliness.” Learning about Hitler from a thick book full of small print is schooly, learning about Hitler from a man with a beard who stands at the front of the room and tells you what happened in the Weimar republic (in chronological order) is schooly. But learning about Hitler by actively teaching younger children about the Weimar Republic using cartoon characters is unschooly. Educational outcomes are clearly, transparently, one might almost say explicitly absent from Gove’s thinking. The criticisms he levels against the Active History website, and for that matter against the Historical Association, and against anybody who doesn’t teach in an “academic” style (by which he seems to mean “standing at the front of the room and talking”) have everything to do with the form the lesson takes, and nothing whatsoever to do with what the students actually learn. This is roughly equivalent to a layperson criticising a doctor’s treatment of their patients, purely on the basis of the colour of the pills they prescribe.

The full text of the speech is littered with examples of Mr Gove’s fixation on the form of education and his utter disregard for its actual consequences. Eager to be seen as having the backing of real schools and real teachers, Gove is always quick to cite anecdotal evidence from institutions that are already doing the sorts of things that he is insisting should be made mandatory nationwide. For example, he is very keen to share stories about:


Ark's King Solomon Academy, also in one of the poorest parts of London, where all children - all children - are expected to read the Bible, Jane Austen, Shakespearean pastoral comedy such as As You Like It, a Shakespearean tragedy and Primo Levi alongside George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Erich Maria Remarque and Malcolm Gladwell.


Note the key words here “are expected to read.” Not “are expected to understand”, “are expected to meaningfully engage with” or even, for that matter, “are expected to enjoy reading”. You can expect children to read anything you damned well like, it doesn’t mean they will. And it certainly doesn’t mean they will get anything out of reading it.

I’d also note that if you actually look at the website of Ark’s King Solomon, the primary curriculum makes no mention of half the things on that list. And that it does include an awful lot of the kind of bad, non-rigorous topics-based learning that Gove seems to despise (they spend the first Autumn Term in year two studying “games”). Not only that but they – horror of horrors – study the Vikings in year two, the Tudors in year four, the Ancient Greeks in year six and the Romans in year five. It's a wonder they learn anything at all.

Digging deeper into this school that expects “every child” to read the Bible, Jane Austin, Primo Levi, George Orwell and Malcom Gladwell, I’d note that the only reference to the English curriculum on their actual website is a list of “excellent books for children to read by the end of year 7” a list of books from which it asks parents to encourage their children to read as many as possible. This list includes The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, and for that matter Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (a book which Gove singles out for especial criticism – presumably because girls like it). It does not include any of the texts that the school allegedly expects “every child to read”. And funnily enough, Mr Gove didn’t feel the need to crow about how the Ark’s King Solomon is raising standards by insisting its children read The Adventures of Captain Underpants.

Again, I should stress that I’m not dissing the Ark’s King Solomon, or suggesting that they’re anything other than perfectly capable professionals delivering the very best education they can to their pupils (nor am I dissing Captain Underpants). But the English curriculum they describe on their website (a very sensible mix of well-respected popular fiction – including J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer – and the more accessible classics like A Christmas Carol) is a far cry from the reactionary, elitist focus on “transcendent Victorian novels” which comes across in Gove’s speech.

The speech that Mr Gove made to the conference in Brighton was called “What Does it Mean to be an Educated Person”. At the start of his speech, he declares that he and his detractors will never see eye to eye, because they are arguing from different premises. This is very true. Mr Gove claims that this is because he believes in high expectations and academic rigour while his opponents believe in low expectations and “dumbing down”. This is entirely untrue.

In fact it’s far more problematic. Michael Gove simply has a very, very different idea from most educators about what being an educated person even means. His entire speech is a list of things that children should be made to do in school, so that when they grow up, they will be the sorts of people who have been made to do those things.

This isn’t even the old (fatuous, false) debate about knowledge vs skills. As far as Gove is concerned, whether a person is “educated” depends not on what they can do, or even on what they know, but on how they learned the things they know. Apparently if you learned about Weimar Germany from a teacher who used innovative teaching methods incorporating a variety of learning activities, you are fundamentally less educated than somebody who learned the same things from a teacher who used an “academic” style of teaching that involved reading pages out of a textbook. You are less well educated than this person even if you know more about the period than they do, even if you are better able to explain it to others, even if they don’t actually remember anything about it at all.

Gove, it seems, is completely freaked out by any but the most traditional teaching methods. He lambastes the Historical Association because:


In their Autumn 2012 issue of Primary History, the Historical Association suggest students learn about the early Middle Ages by studying the depiction of King John as a cowardly lion in Disney's 'Robin Hood'. If that proves too taxing then they are asked to organise a fashion parade or make plasticine models.


The first thing I’d point out is that the publication Gove is complaining about here is fairly clearly a magazine focusing on new and innovative teaching methods as well as real solid feedback from actual classrooms. Citing lesson suggestions from this sort of publication as evidence that children are spending their entire time in school watching cartoons is rather like citing this recipe for vinaigrette as evidence that Jamie Oliver wants us to eat nothing but salad dressings.

The Historical Association also points out that Gove has once again completely missed the point of the content in question and that, for example, the cartoon lion was cited as an example of the ways that portrayals of historical characters may be inaccurate. But this fails to understand the deep-rooted ideology behind the complaint – Gove’s problem is not that he feels that a cartoon lion is not an effective means of teaching primary-aged children about the Middle Ages, it is that he feels it is not an appropriate method. The fact that you could probably do a really effective history lesson based entirely around the Disney Robin Hood - one which would leave the students with a strong understanding of both the real history of the period, and the way in which historical events are portrayed differently in different eras – is wholly irrelevant to Gove. As far as he’s concerned, what matters is that children are taught the “right” facts in the “right” ways. Where “right” means “ideologically right” rather than “most useful” or “most effective” or indeed even “factually correct” (he seems, for example, very keen that children learn that Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar, despite the fact that he … umm … didn’t).

Gove likes to justify his outdated, elitist obsession with shibboleths in terms of “knowledge”. The current curriculum, he insists, is too focused on “skills” (because perish the thought that children spend their time in school learning to actually do things) when it should be focusing on “knowledge”. And a lot of sensible people agree with him, particularly in History where there has, arguably, been too much focus on analysing sources and identifying bias, and not enough focus on learning real historical information. But you only have to read the Mr Men speech to realise that the Education Secretary doesn’t actually care about knowledge at all.

Organising a fashion parade, for example, would be an excellent way for students to acquire knowledge about history. Knowing (there’s that word again) what kind of clothes people wore, and when, and what those clothes said about the person, is exactly the kind of detailed historical knowledge that separates a historian from a layperson. But of course, knowing what kind of clothes people wore in a particular historical period isn’t the right sort of knowledge (like Twilight it has the nasty taste of something that might appeal to girls). History means Knowing When Things Happened and nothing else. English Literature means Knowing About Old Books and nothing else. An “educated” person does not need to understand context, or indeed to understand anything at all. They need only to be able to recite an approved list of facts, and to remember to sneer appropriately at people who recite the list less well or less quickly.

I feel, as always, deeply fortunate that I teach a scientific subject. Even Michael Gove, arrogant as he is, can’t quite convince himself that he knows how to teach Physics better than I do. Indeed, the moment you take Gove’s arbitrary, unsubstantiated “standards” and start trying to apply them to a scientific subject, you see how absurd the whole thing is. He’d be making complaints like “I was appalled to realise that nearly half of the physics taught on the A-level course was discovered in the twentieth century” or “this lesson plan actually suggests that children should spend class time dropping objects on the floor and seeing which ones hit the ground first.”

Not that science is immune to criticism. I’d note that some universities have complained that A-level sciences don’t contain enough maths to prepare people for degree-level study, but Gove has been curiously silent about this. Again, I could be wrong, but this looks a lot like his keen political instincts coming to the fore. If you want to win votes by slamming the school system, you have to focus on its failure to teach young people trivial things that your target audience thinks they know themselves. So you can complain about people not knowing the six wives of Henry the Eighth, or not knowing their times tables, because those are the things that people remember “doing in school” and which they will therefore feel aggrieved that their children are not “doing in school.” You can’t complain about students not learning to do second-order differential equations, or to analyse the status of Lutheranism within the Holy Roman Empire circa 1540 because a lot of your potential voters might realise that they don’t know that stuff either. And then they might feel stupid instead of clever, and that defeats the purpose of the exercise.

To put it another way, Gove seems not to give a damn what students learn in schools, but to be obsessed with what they learn about. The more things the students learn about, the better educated they will be, even if all they learn about Hitler and Churchill is that Mr Hitler was a Bad Man who wanted to Make Us All Speak German while Mr Churchill was a Good Man who stopped him.

And perhaps therein lies the greatest irony of this whole sad little débâcle, because you can make a strong argument that “Mr Men History” perfectly sums up the kind of teaching that Michael Gove is working so hard to bring back. By placing so much emphasis on long lists of bite-size, easily quotable factoids he is, in the end, advocating an approach to education which reduces all of the major figures in history, literature, and the sciences to little more than Mr Men.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
http://baeraad.livejournal.com/ at 13:42 on 2013-05-23
I have very little to say about the bulk of the article. This Gove fellow sounds like your standard-issue reactionary asshat - the kind that thinks that the root cause for any problem is that someone, somewhere, isn't miserable enough.

But since you managed to bring it up twice, I'd like to state the following opinion: saying "girls like Twilight" is kind of like saying "boys like Conan the Barbarian." It is probably true in the sense you mean it, but it is far from universally true, and the subset of the mentioned group for which it is true is probably not the subset that the entire group should be judged by.

Or to put it another way: most "girls" I know hate, hate, HATE Twilight. They consider it not only some amazingly horrible literature (which it is) but also a horrific anti-feminist tract (which it also is). Just because someone hates Twilight it doesn't have to be because they are a chauvinist asshole, is what I'm saying. I mean, don't get me wrong, that could be why. But it could also be because they have either taste or morals or both.
Dan H at 16:13 on 2013-05-23
Just because someone hates Twilight it doesn't have to be because they are a chauvinist asshole, is what I'm saying. I mean, don't get me wrong, that could be why. But it could also be because they have either taste or morals or both.


Gove, however, transparently has neither. Or rather he does have morals, but they're exactly the kind of normative, ultraconservative "values" that books like Twilight are actually rather good at championing.

More generally, the problem with Twilight bashing is that while there are a lot of very sensible reasons to dislike it, you have to hang out in the right parts of the internet to hear them. Mainstream complaints (and you don't get more mainstream than Tory MPs) are invariably of the "lol sparkly vampires lol stupid girls and their stupid girl fantasies" variety. You get the same thing with Fifty Shades - Gray's relationship with Ana is flat out abusive in a lot of places, but all you get from the mainstream press is either "lol women are reading books with sex in lol frustrated middle aged housewives lol" or "omg BDSM is teh ebil!"

When Michael Gove chose Twilight as his exemplar for the kinds of books we don't want our children to grow up reading, he wasn't trying to make a subtle and sophisticated point about the way our educational system can reinforce harmful notions about gender and relationships. He was deliberately exploiting the fact that Twilight is widely disparaged for having a female target audience. There were dozens of other books he could have reached for instead but he went straight for the one that has the reputation for being a stupid girl book for stupid girls.
Fishing in the Mud at 19:03 on 2013-05-23
If you want to win votes by slamming the school system, you have to focus on its failure to teach young people trivial things that your target audience thinks they know themselves.

I have noticed that whenever I try to criticize education, I end up sounding like the kind of jerk who laments that kids today just aren't as smart and knowledgeable as I am. I actually get a rush of that feeling, and now that I notice it it disgusts me. I have to wonder how many people who enjoy trashing education are doing it to give themselves that rush of superiority.
Dan H at 12:14 on 2013-05-24
I have to wonder how many people who enjoy trashing education are doing it to give themselves that rush of superiority.


I think it's very difficult because education is obviously extremely important and extremely political, and people quite rightly feel very strongly about it. I mean there's an extent to which I get a rush of superiority out of criticizing Gove, I don't think that means I'm wrong to criticize him.

I think part of the problem here is that education is one of those things which is far, far, far more complicated than people think, so everybody has very clear, very firmly held ideas about the right way to do it but those ideas (even amongst educational professionals, and certainly amongst politicians, journalists, and journalists-turned-politicians) are often based on very little apart from their own vague memories of school. Confirmation bias runs absolutely rampant in this kind of situation - ultimately my belief that the Mr Men lesson is Good is no more evidence-based than Mr Gove's belief that it is Bad.
Dan H at 09:23 on 2013-05-30
I just don't understand how that man is an actual person with an actual job who has actual power.


I think you'll find the reason is that he's *very good* at his job. It's just that his job is to push for policies that will get his party reelected, not to push for policies that will actually help anybody learn anything.
Jamie Johnston at 15:55 on 2013-06-15
I had a lot of thoughts about this and started writing them in a comment but then I thought that, being a civil servant and having worked in the Department for Education not too long ago, I probably shouldn't. But in reference this this —

The man in charge of the education of basically everybody in Britain...

— I can offer the observation, which some may find comforting, that by and large nowadays the Secretary of State for Education only runs education policy in England, and occasionally Wales.
Dan H at 21:54 on 2013-06-15
I had a lot of thoughts about this and started writing them in a comment but then I thought that, being a civil servant and having worked in the Department for Education not too long ago, I probably shouldn't.


You're no fun, Jamie, no fun at *all*.

I can offer the observation, which some may find comforting, that by and large nowadays the Secretary of State for Education only runs education policy in England, and occasionally Wales.


True - and of course weirdly since he's hellbent on turning schools into academies, he's only partly in control of England.
Arthur B at 22:26 on 2013-06-15
True - and of course weirdly since he's hellbent on turning schools into academies, he's only partly in control of England.

Aaaah, suddenly the strategy's become clear: he's making the central education policy shittier and shittier so as to prompt schools to become academies in order to escape it.
http://mr-x01.livejournal.com/ at 21:07 on 2013-07-01
The criticisms he levels against the Active History website, and for that matter against the Historical Association, and against anybody who doesn’t teach in an “academic” style (by which he seems to mean “standing at the front of the room and talking”) have everything to do with the form the lesson takes, and nothing whatsoever to do with what the students actually learn. This is roughly equivalent to a layperson criticising a doctor’s treatment of their patients, purely on the basis of the colour of the pills they prescribe.


Not really, because whilst the colour of a pill has no bearing on the pill's effectiveness, the manner in which a teacher gives a lesson has a great impact on how effective he is at imparting knowledge. (If it doesn't, and the differences between teaching styles are actually as irrelevant as the colour of a pill, why bother writing this essay in the first place?)
http://mr-x01.livejournal.com/ at 21:11 on 2013-07-01
Also--

he seems, for example, very keen that children learn that Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar, despite the fact that he … umm … didn’t


Erm... yes he did.
Arthur B at 23:20 on 2013-07-01
Erm... yes he did.

Actually, what with Nelson being incapacitated once battle was entered and dead before its conclusion, command passed to Cuthbert Collingwood, who actually saw the battle through to victory.

He is not celebrated because a) dying in battle is sexy, b) it was, to be fair, Nelson's game plan which was followed, and c) "Cuthbert's Column" sounds silly.
http://mr-x01.livejournal.com/ at 23:58 on 2013-07-01
I was aware of that, but if we're going to be pedantic, why not go the whole hog and say that no-one can be described as "leading an army to victory" unless they walked out in front of the battle-line and literally led their soldiers to where they were supposed to go.
Melanie at 08:30 on 2013-07-02
why not go the whole hog and say that no-one can be described as "leading an army to victory" unless they walked out in front of the battle-line and literally led their soldiers to where they were supposed to go.


Saying someone is "leading" something when they're not physically escorting that thing, but are in charge of and directing it, is still a standard (and very common) usage of the word, though. Whereas I think it is pushing it to say that you can really still be "leading" anything from beyond the grave.
Arthur B at 08:31 on 2013-07-02
I was aware of that, but if we're going to be pedantic, why not go the whole hog and say that no-one can be described as "leading an army to victory" unless they walked out in front of the battle-line and literally led their soldiers to where they were supposed to go.

Well, if we're going by that definition Collingwood's ship, leading one prong of the British fleet, engaged the French forces just before Nelson's ship leading his prong did.

I don't think it's pedantry though, you can't really be said to lead anyone to victory if you aren't actually alive when the victory happened and stopped being in charge some time before that. If a US presidential candidate is gunned down partway through an election and their VP nominee ends up winning, you wouldn't say the dead candidate led their party to victory in the election, would you?
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 14:16 on 2013-07-02
And if we are being pedantic you shouldn't keep calling them the French fleet when just under half the ships present were Spanish.

But in any case, as I understand the common usage is to assign credit to the commander who started the battle no matter the state in which they ended it. Wolfe is credited as leading the British to victory at the Plains of Abraham despite being mortally wounded in the initial exchange of musketry (much like Nelson, it was his plan which was followed), while his french opposite number was killed in those opening volleys and is still credited with commanding the french forces.
Arthur B at 14:20 on 2013-07-02
This is a case where I am happy to stick two fingers up at common usage.
Dan H at 14:58 on 2013-07-02

Not really, because whilst the colour of a pill has no bearing on the pill's effectiveness, the manner in which a teacher gives a lesson has a great impact on how effective he is at imparting knowledge. (If it doesn't, and the differences between teaching styles are actually as irrelevant as the colour of a pill, why bother writing this essay in the first place?)


The colour of a pill actually *does* have a bearing on a pill's effectiveness, not only because of the placebo effect but because different colours of pill are quite often different pills. If a doctor prescribes the wrong drugs, that's a serious problem. But deciding whether a doctor is or is not prescribing the wrong drugs is not something that a person with no medical experience can do just by looking.

Similarly, it is wholly impossible for a person with no teaching experience to decide whether a lesson causes students to learn effectively merely by focusing on superficial details of the way the lesson is structured.


Erm... yes he did.


As scipio points out below, it's certainly correct that Nelson is conventionally *credited* with leading the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar, and that crediting him with the victory is in line with military and historical tradition (and is, to an extent, practical - it isn't always immediately obvious when command of an army passes over, or who it passes to, if the original commander is killed).

But this misses the wider point, which is that the gap between knowing that "Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar" and knowing actual, detailed historical information about that era of the Napoleonic wars is vast, while the gap between knowing that "Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar" and not knowing it is simply a matter of memorising eleven words.
http://mr-x01.livejournal.com/ at 21:42 on 2013-07-02
Arthur B:

This is a case where I am happy to stick two fingers up at common usage.


Maybe, but it's a bit odd to claim that Michael Gove is happy to teach inaccurate facts just because he adheres to common English terminology.



Dan Hemmens:

Similarly, it is wholly impossible for a person with no teaching experience to decide whether a lesson causes students to learn effectively merely by focusing on superficial details of the way the lesson is structured.


On the contrary, it is possible to learn which sorts of lessons are unlikely to be productive. Whilst you may not be able to tell with 100% accuracy whether an individual lesson is effective, you can make quite a good guess.

As scipio points out below, it's certainly correct that Nelson is conventionally *credited* with leading the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar, and that crediting him with the victory is in line with military and historical tradition (and is, to an extent, practical - it isn't always immediately obvious when command of an army passes over, or who it passes to, if the original commander is killed).


Then why on earth use it as criticism of Gove? Is it really so heinous for a government minister to speak about history in a manner which accords with convention and military and historical tradition?

But this misses the wider point, which is that the gap between knowing that "Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar" and knowing actual, detailed historical information about that era of the Napoleonic wars is vast, while the gap between knowing that "Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar" and not knowing it is simply a matter of memorising eleven words.


So do you think Gove doesn't want children to know "actual, detailed historical information about that era"?
Arthur B at 22:10 on 2013-07-02
Maybe, but it's a bit odd to claim that Michael Gove is happy to teach inaccurate facts just because he adheres to common English terminology.

Nobody was claiming that. What you could claim, though, is that reducing history to a list of rote facts to learn (like "Nelson led England to victory at Waterloo") is massively reductive, doesn't resemble the actual practice of studying history, and in itself introduces wild inaccuracies through its glossing over of fine detail.

So do you think Gove doesn't want children to know "actual, detailed historical information about that era"?

Given how chronic Gove is when it comes to trying to appeal to dull reactionaries who believe the practice of learning history at school should consist of learning lists of Kings and important dates and glossing over uncomfortable truths about British colonial history, can this be in any doubt?
Shim at 22:44 on 2013-07-02
Dan: Similarly, it is wholly impossible for a person with no teaching experience to decide whether a lesson causes students to learn effectively merely by focusing on superficial details of the way the lesson is structured.

mir-x01: On the contrary, it is possible to learn which sorts of lessons are unlikely to be productive. Whilst you may not be able to tell with 100% accuracy whether an individual lesson is effective, you can make quite a good guess.

Looking back to the original quote:
The criticisms he levels against the Active History website, and for that matter against the Historical Association, and against anybody who doesn’t teach in an “academic” style (by which he seems to mean “standing at the front of the room and talking”) have everything to do with the form the lesson takes, and nothing whatsoever to do with what the students actually learn. This is roughly equivalent to a layperson criticising a doctor’s treatment of their patients, purely on the basis of the colour of the pills they prescribe.

I'm sure it's possible to learn (some of) what kinds of lessons are unlikely to be effective. I very much doubt, though, that much of the evidence can be found in the superficial structure of the lesson. Factors like subject, topic, teacher's personality, class personalities, cultural background, age, even time of day can all make major differences to how pupils respond to any given approach, for a start.

You can sometimes make a guess that a particular lesson hasn't been effective, such as when half the class were larking about and the other half asleep - but that's after the fact. Judging anywhere from "okay" to "life-changing" really isn't that simple, and certainly can't be done purely by seeing what style of teaching someone uses.

But in any case, "[making a good guess] whether an individual lesson is effective", with its implications of context and observation, is very different from, as Dan's original quote implies, making a blanket judgement against all but one style of teaching based entirely on formal structure, with no sense of context, and without producing any evidence.

As far as he’s concerned, what matters is that children are taught the “right” facts in the “right” ways. Where “right” means “ideologically right” rather than “most useful” or “most effective” or indeed even “factually correct” (he seems, for example, very keen that children learn that Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar, despite the fact that he … umm … didn’t).

I think I'd agree with mr-x01 here that Gove is correct as far as common knowledge and pub quizzes go - "Nelson led the British to victory at the battle of Trafalgar". But I'd also agree that in terms of actual history, this is a soundbite that doesn't do anything to improve understanding of history and glosses over important details.
Dan H at 09:43 on 2013-07-03
On the contrary, it is possible to learn which sorts of lessons are unlikely to be productive. Whilst you may not be able to tell with 100% accuracy whether an individual lesson is effective, you can make quite a good guess.


It is certainly possible to learn what sorts of lessons are unlikely to be productive. That process of learning is called "teaching experience" or at the very least "a sound grounding in educational theory" and a person who possesses it, by definition, ceases to be a layperson.

It is *also* possible to cobble together a vague set of preconceptions about what sorts of lessons are unlikely to be productive (much as it is possible to cobble together a vague set of preconceptions about what sorts of medicines are effective) and on the basis of these preconceptions you can indeed "have a good guess" about whether an individual lesson will be effective. It doesn't mean you will be right, and it certainly doesn't mean that your "good guesses" have sufficient weight or authority to form the basis of national policy.

I'd also point out that even amongst trained, experienced professionals, opinions are divided about what constitutes an effective lesson (Mr Gove was directed at the Active History website by a blogger calling himself "Mr Old" - a teacher who I strongly suspect has little patience for these sorts of modern, trendy teaching methods). I'm sure a lot of teachers really would look at the Mr Men lesson and say "wow, there is no way in hell I could get my Year 11s to go along with this". But there is a world of difference between an experienced professional arguing that a particular lesson plan would be impractical in some contexts and a politician pillorying a lesson plan merely because it has Mr Men in it.

Going back to your original comment - you started this discussion with a false dichotomy, asserting that either Gove was right to slam Active History on the basis of superficial elements of lesson delivery, or else that all differences between teaching styles are meaningless. This fairly clearly isn't the case.

Whether a lesson contains Mr Men or not is as meaningless as whether a pill is red or blue (that is, it matters a very small amount, mostly for psychological reasons). Whether a lesson is structured, planned, and delivered in an appropriate way is as important as whether a pill contains SSRIs or antibiotics. It's perfectly possible to criticize the Mr Men lesson on the basis of its actual *content* (it wouldn't work at my school because our students wouldn't have a damned clue who the Mr Men are, and because we don't have a Year 6 for them to present their books to) but Gove was criticizing it purely on the basis of its colour.

Then why on earth use it as criticism of Gove? Is it really so heinous for a government minister to speak about history in a manner which accords with convention and military and historical tradition?


When he's complaining about educational standards, yes. Because precision of language is important.

It is perfectly factually correct to say that Nelson *is credited* with the British victory at Trafalgar, but to say he *led* the British to victory is to oversimplify a complex situation. I know scipio was only joking when he said that we should stop calling it the "French Fleet" when it was actually a combined French and Spanish Fleet, but he's actually dead right.

Education, or popular perception of education, is full of these little misleading soundbites. Factoids and snippets of information which many people know, and look down on other people for *not* knowing, but which are actually false or misleading. "Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar" is one example. From my own specialism "every action has an equal and opposite reaction" and "hot air rises" are similar - they're just sentences people memorize without having any understanding of what's underneath. My brother is a mathematics teacher, and he gets really annoyed when people say that "two negatives make a positive" because while it's pithy and easy to remember, it's sufficiently misleading that it actually makes it harder for people to learn how negative numbers work.

The way Michael Gove talks about education (and I appreciate that he is a politician, but politicians shape the public debate) reinforces a model of education which is based on the rote memorization of shibboleths. The specific educational policies he is pushing for support that model, focusing on breadth of recall rather than depth of knowledge.

So do you think Gove doesn't want children to know "actual, detailed historical information about that era"?


If he does, he's got a funny way of showing it. The reformed KS 1-3 history syllabus requires students to cover such a large amount of history in such a small amount of time that there's unlikely to be much room for detail.

More generally, he's gone fairly explicitly on record as believing that education is all about "cultural capital" - that is, about creating a shared set of reference points for people to draw on. To be fair to the man, I think he honestly believes that this will be a net social good. He believes (not *completely* without justification) that if people grow up knowing the right facts and using proper grammar and having read the right sorts of books that they'll ultimately find it easier to get jobs and have generally better lives.

It's fairly openly a social engineering project. Actual understanding of academic subjects doesn't really factor into things at all.
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