Michael Gove’s Mr Men Speech

May 9, 2013

I see that there has been a lot of media coverage for a speech today at Brighton College by Michael Gove. You can read the full text here.

However, here I will be ignoring the media coverage and focussing on me. Or rather, focussing on parts of the speech which may be of interest to anyone who reads this blog regularly.

There was this bit:

[Joe] Kirby’s challenge to us in Government is clear. And it is reinforced by the arguments of other influential teacher-bloggers like Andrew Old and Matthew Hunter.

Then there was this bit on the history curriculum:

And I have particularly enjoyed listening to my friend and colleague Tristram Hunt who has, in various degrees, at various times, been both supportive and critical.

This seems to cover similar territory to my recent blogpost on Tristram Hunt’s fluctuating convictions.

And as for the bit that got the most media coverage:

It would be bad enough if this approach were restricted to primary schools. But even at GCSE level this infantilisation continues. One set of history teaching resources targeted at year 11s – 15 and 16 year olds – suggests spending classroom time depicting the rise of Hitler as a ‘Mr Men’ story.

If I may quote – “The following steps are a useful framework: Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.”

I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves’ work but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat.

But I am familiar with the superb historical account Richard J Evans gives of the rise, rule and ruin of the Third Reich and I cannot believe he could possibly be happy with reducing the history of Germany’s darkest years to a falling out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy.

I think you’ll find I got there first, featuring it as the third point in my blogpost on “Attitudes Which Cause Dumbing Down“.


  1. So, so overdue. I remember being castigated by absolutely every other state school teacher in the room at an early GCSE moderation meeting because I’d chosen (with the exam board’s approval) a short story which had won the Faber Short Story competition the previous year.

    The other schools present had chosen… “Danny Champion of the World.”

  2. Yes. You got there first. In fact it’s nice to know where Michael Gove is getting his inspiration from now. I can stop reading his speeches now and stick to reading your blog.

  3. All the discussion over this lesson is so frustrating. People either sying this Mr Man lesson was not representative as it was produced by someone that currently teaches IGCSE or alternatively defending the lesson. Sometimes the same people saying both.
    First it was made by a very well known creator of history resources for a site well used by UK history teachers. Second IGCSE resources don’t tend to look any different from GCSE ones and my memory is that it was produced when the writer both still lived in the UK and still taught GCSE. I have seen this lesson recommended elsewhere online also.
    The point is that this resource was produced by someone well known in ‘history teaching circles’. If you start looking for history resources online his name is everywhere. Look at his biography on his site to illustrate this. Tarr is a good teacher and rightly respected (he also writes the well known class tools website). It is symptomatic of the way ‘fun’ is prioritised over learning that a good teacher didn’t stop to think this lesson wasted time providing more distraction than learning ( as well as being tasteless). As a history teacher I understand where he was coming from when he devised the lesson (and feel sorry for him being picked out in a high profile speech) but the fact an experienced creator of classroom resources could not see the lesson was a bad idea illustrates a real problem within teaching. People are saying this lesson is not representative of what goes on in the classroom but the above information suggests otherwise. The fact it existed on a well respected site and is now being actively defended illustrates questionable priorities within teaching. One hopes there aren’t that many clearly indefensible lessons out there but there are plenty that prioritise fun even when it wastes valuable teaching time and distracts students from the learning they should be focusing on. We al know it is these sorts of lessons that get praised by Ofsted. The Mr Man lesson’s existence highlights the trend in teaching towards infantilsing learning.

    • Indeed. There’s a particularly nasty piece of work calling himself Tubby Isaacs making exactly those points on the Telegraph website. I suspect he’s Rosen hiding behind a silly moniker.

  4. I’m not sure about this one. I like the comedy of juxtaposition. Bill Bailey couldn’t have written his medley of pop songs in a cockney knees-up style without a thorough knowledge of the content of the former and the style of the latter.

    Students couldn’t complete this task well without the necessary knowledge of content, and the style of the Mr Men books is easy to replicate.

    That said, does it make the task worthwhile? As worthwhile as writing an essay? I don’t know. Could it lead to trivialising issues like the holocaust? Possibly.

    Thankfully, I teach maths, not history, so haven’t had to address this first hand yet. Now I’ve said that, I won’t be at all surprised to be introduced to Little Miss Scattergraph at our next faculty meeting!

  5. Yes I agree that the task could not have been completed well without picking up a good grasp of the main characters/events along the way and that was clearly why the task was set. However I think Gove was right to deride translating Nazism into a story about Mr Men. It is also a huge waste of time. It would take ages when there are much more efficient ways of gaining the same outcome. Dan Willingham’s point about questioning what the students actually think about is key also. Much time would be spent thinking about how to draw Mr Men and it is easy to imagine many well drawn stories that have dodgy understanding of events. I think a determined teacher could build understanding through the task but time and taste are still big issues. OA’s post on David Starkey teaching showed exactly the opposite. Rather than reducing history to Mr Men he was at pains to show the past was a real place.
    I do feel a bit torn as when I first taught (nearly 20 yrs ago) I remember being very proud of my imaginative lessons, e.g. I was particulalry proud of my ‘Cook Report’ task, investigating conditions in 19th century factories. However, my bottom line has always been whether the kids learn and History has always been very content heavy as a GCSE so time just can’t be wasted. I think the worrying change is that while I might still set more fun tasks every now and then I am quite honest with myself about the actual gain possible for time expended. The sort of lessons I rolled out as ‘treats’ are now often expected. Not only this but the style of the lesson seems increasingly more important than whether the right things have been learnt. Things like the phonics lessons of my infant age children illustate this. ‘Infantilising’ is not quite the issue here (!) but rather than sytematic cumulative practice the priority is for fun activities that take up masses of time for very little practice and often distract young children from the actual learning point.

  6. There is also ‘fun inflation’. Twenty years ago setting a newspaper article on Becket’s murder was the height of ‘fun’. It is now a standard task and creates no ripple of excitement. Games are now normal lesson fodder not highlights. My colleague, trained recently was told that she should make lessons memorable through novelty and ‘fun’. While I don’t want to teach unmemorable, boring lessons surely you can only win this game by making your lessons more novel than those of your colleagues and down this road is madness.

  7. […] students do after they have acquired the knowledge (although occasionally it is, who can forget the Mr Men revision exercise?) but about how and whether knowledge is to be acquired. There are those who advocate discovery […]

  8. […] use of Lego. I don’t know if the writer missed the controversy over teaching about the Nazis through the medium of Mr Men, but if they did, they clearly didn’t let it affect their choices. The two biggest objections […]

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