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Is it even possible to discuss education policy any more?

May 14, 2013

The last few days I’ve been on Twitter a bit too much, mainly arguing over the same couple of news stories. The first is the one I mentioned last time about Michael Gove’s reference to a year 11 lesson based around the Mr Men. The second is the story of the sources for something that he said in a Mail on Sunday article. Both have been treated by the Twitter masses as if they were some kind of incredible scandal. And both have left me baffled as to what is going on.

Put it simply, in both cases Michael Gove developed an argument, at one point in it expressed a particular opinion, and illustrated it with an anecdotal example. In both cases those reacting have ignored the argument, failed to challenge the opinion with any evidence, and then argued incessantly over the anecdote for not being more than an anecdote.

So in the speech we have an argument for high academic expectations. We have the opinion that some of what passes for acceptable in teaching circles is actually just patronising. And we have the example of the Mr Men lesson. There is plenty of meat here. We could argue over whether expectations do need to be raised. We could argue over whether infantalised lessons are common. Instead what I have seen (other than those who see nothing at all wrong with using the Mr Men to teach sensitive topics to 16 year olds) has been attempts to suggest the claim is misleading . There seems to be no detail of the Mr Men story that is not being presented as somehow invalidating the example. Reasons for attacking Michael Gove for condemning the Mr Men that I have heard include:

  • The lesson was for revision.
  • The website is run by a teacher at an independent school.
  • The lesson plan involved getting year 11s to teach year 6s (although I don’t know why anyone thinks year 6s would be the right age for the Mr Men or why that would justify time in year 11 lessons being spent in this way).
  • We cannot tell if the lesson has ever been implemented
  • The lesson mentions IGCSE students not GCSE (although it is on the GCSE section of the website).

Now reading these points, one would expect to see some kind of explicit reference to the lesson being widely used, specifically by state schools for purposes other than revision. I assumed I must have forgotten what was actually said, because I didn’t remember any of these points coming up. if we look back at the speech Gove said:

…even at GCSE level … 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.

Now no matter how many times I look over this, I cannot see one point which contradicts this claim. Not one. Yet those who have been pointing things out have repeatedly used words like “misrepresented” or “distorted” and some have absolutely convinced themselves that they have uncovered some great dishonesty in one of these details.

It is a similar situation with the sources about the Mail on Sunday article. The article was a polemical attack on those who would defend the education status quo. Again, although full of rhetoric it rasied plenty of real issues, particularly about the low expectations and entrenched attitudes of the education establishment. Some examples are given of outcomes we should be concerned about, including historical ignorance. Now, I have repeatedly seen it claimed that Michael Gove had been dishonest by referring to surveys run by commercial organisations. Obviously such surveys are not particularly accurate. If he we to have passed such a survey off as academic research or an opinion poll then it would be dishonest. If he had quoted a result with direct policy implications from a low quality survey then it would be a concern. Again the fuss left me wondering if I’d misremembered the article. But when I read it it turned out the entire fuss is over this sentence:

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a  fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

Now, perhaps it was just me. When I read that originally I thought it was mainly anecdote. I didn’t give it much thought because I had already assumed the Churchill and Sherlock Holmes thing to be a silly statistic with (no direct policy implications) from a survey done for entertainment purposes that I remembered being reported a few weeks or months earlier. I took the claim of “historical ignorance” to be a vague and subjective opinion that was a matter of personal interpretation.

Now clearly I over-estimated the judgement of the Gove-watching classes. Apparently this sentence was serious business. Enough to get Freedom of Information requests made and answered. Enough to imply that he was speaking from authoritative academic research. Enough to be considered the entire evidence base of the new history curriculum. Apparently, it was not in any way a vague opinion and an amusing bit of whimsy and, if his anecdote was not based on sound quantitative evidence, it turns out that it was a scandal that throws all policy-making processes into doubt.

Now to be fair, if people want to interpret claims made by a politician to imply more than their literal content, then they can. If people, having decided that something hugely significant has been implied by a politician’s illustrative example, want to get angry about it on Twitter or in the press then they can. When, during the general election debate in 2010 David Cameron told some non-story about meeting a sailor, I was amused as anyone when people started taking the mickey.

But what gets to me is that the fuss about the anecdotes has completely buried any discussion of policy. Nobody seems to care if teenagers are massively ignorant of basic historical facts, only in the possibility that an amusing example of it did not come from the most reliable source. Nobody seems to care that many teachers see nothing wrong with pointless activities in lesson time (including getting 16 year olds to spend some of their time in history lessons learning about the Mr Men), only whether Michael Gove had fully acknowledged the context in which a particular waste of time was suggested.

If the fuss about the examples had been accompanied by some kind of evidence or arguments that the opinions they illustrated were mistaken, then perhaps there would be some sense to this. Instead, we have a situation where people are angry, furious even, at Michael Gove, not because of an identified flaw in policy; not because of any good reason to reject the opinion he expressed; not even because of any factual inaccuracy in the examples given to illustrate the opinions, but because the anecdotal examples were nothing more than anecdotes.

So what is actually meant to happen as a result of this fuss? Is Michael Gove meant to avoid anecdotes? Are people meant to convince themselves that as the anecdotes got the attention then they must be central to policy-making? As far as I can tell, all that’s happened is that it just because even harder for anyone to address the actual issues mentioned in the speech and the newspaper article. It just became even harder to try to discuss our problems with expectations or with an obstructive body of educationalists. It just became even harder to try to discuss policy and I really don’t know who has gained from this.

59 comments

  1. And on the other side of the Atlantic, it often feels as though that’s about 90% of what we do. Right now we’re sniping at one another as to whether or not it was proper for the audience at the American Education Research Association to boo Arne Duncan.


  2. I have read what you have written. I am incredulous that such an intelligent person as you clearly are, with highly perceptive mind has written this. If I were to quote a statistic that was supporting my policy for a change to the education system as serious as Gove is carrying out I think it would have to have a little more credibility than the two you mention above. I can’t believe you really think that it is ok for him to do so.

    It would be a real shame if it were true that teachers did not want to raise standards. I doubt that is the issue people are so angry about. More likely they don’t like the thought of the duping that Gove was attempting being linked with the teaching profession. We are a reflection, to some extent, of his outpourings. If we said and Tweeted nothing then we are, by our silence agreeing with him.

    If he wants to delivery a policy then he has to back it up with appropriate data – otherwise we might feel it perfectly appropriate to challenge him using Twitter and other mechanisms.

    It became more difficult because Gove used a misunderstood piece of a suggestion on a website. He used that reference to imply that such material was typical of the problem. How many people used that material? How many people were influenced to produce something similar to the Mr Men idea? And, finally, the Mr Men material is using a perfectly acceptable technique – getting students to change the audience for a piece of learning. To do that they have to identify what is important in the material and how it can be represented.

    What he is meant to do is use proper evidence. The John Hattie material is strong enough to do this but he wants to belittle and make a joke of someone who is just a tiny, little fish compared to a Secretary of State.

    If that is the best evidence he has then I might wonder if he is right!

    Please, reread what you have written and ask yourself if you, as a rational, intelligent being, still believe that you have Gove’s intentions and motives correct


    • “I have read what you have written. I am incredulous that such an intelligent person as you clearly are, with highly perceptive mind has written this.”

      And I am grateful for you coming on here and demonstrating that I am not arguing against a straw man and people do actually argue in the way I described above.

      “If I were to quote a statistic that was supporting my policy for a change to the education system as serious as Gove is carrying out I think it would have to have a little more credibility than the two you mention above. I can’t believe you really think that it is ok for him to do so.”

      I think this is the fundamental disagreement. Where do you get the idea that the statistic about Churchill and Holmes was some kind of attempt to provide serious support for policy? It was a bit of rhetoric in a newspaper article (referencing, I suspect, stories in that same newspaper or its stablemate).

      But, of course, you have to over-inflate the importance of the statistic in order to be appalled by the source. If you actually admitted it served as an anecdotal detail rather than the crux of an argument then it becomes really obvious how overblown this controversy has been.

      “It would be a real shame if it were true that teachers did not want to raise standards. I doubt that is the issue people are so angry about. More likely they don’t like the thought of the duping that Gove was attempting being linked with the teaching profession.”

      The whole point is that there was no duping. The duping is imaginary. I haven’t tried to analyse where the anger comes from, but we know it isn’t from duping because he has not actually lied or misled anyone in this. The accusation of dishonesty is a result of the anger, not the anger a result of any actual dishonesty here.

      “We are a reflection, to some extent, of his outpourings. If we said and Tweeted nothing then we are, by our silence agreeing with him.”

      Whereas if we go absolutely crazy, that will help make some kind of case?

      “If he wants to delivery a policy then he has to back it up with appropriate data”

      Since when? The status quo was introduced with no data. Why does any further change need data? And what is appropriate data to justify raising expectations?

      ” – otherwise we might feel it perfectly appropriate to challenge him using Twitter and other mechanisms. It became more difficult because Gove used a misunderstood piece of a suggestion on a website. He used that reference to imply that such material was typical of the problem.”

      I’m beginning to wonder if you read the post. You can imagine what he “implied” or misunderstood all you like, but you shouldn’t go round accusing people of dishonesty for things they never actually said and you only think they implied. That’s kind of my whole point.

      “How many people used that material?”

      Why does it matter? Either the opinion he expressed is right or it’s wrong. What seems irrelevant is whether the example he gave to illustrate it was rare practice, common practice or only a suggestion. It’s an example. Not evidence.

      That said, the masses of people willing to defend the example does provide some evidence that the attitude he described is common.

      “How many people were influenced to produce something similar to the Mr Men idea? And, finally, the Mr Men material is using a perfectly acceptable technique – getting students to change the audience for a piece of learning. To do that they have to identify what is important in the material and how it can be represented.”

      Okay, this is where I find it difficult. If you can’t see what’s wrong on taste grounds alone then it amazes me and it’s hard to work out where to begin to explain. As for educational grounds, I covered that elsewhere. But you need to understand that for a lot of people that example is shockingly bad and if you can’t see that, then you aren’t really in a position to tell us that he “duped” anybody because you don’t understand the point of what was said.

      “What he is meant to do is use proper evidence.”

      For what? My whole point is that people are picking issue with the evidence base for anecdotes. Since when did a politician’s anecdotes require an evidence base?

      “The John Hattie material is strong enough to do this but he wants to belittle and make a joke of someone who is just a tiny, little fish compared to a Secretary of State.”

      He attacked the resource not a person.

      “If that is the best evidence he has then I might wonder if he is right! Please, reread what you have written and ask yourself if you, as a rational, intelligent being, still believe that you have Gove’s intentions and motives correct”

      I have not mentioned Gove’s intentions and motives. Why would I? They could provide the basis for an ad hominem attack but would tell us nothing about the validity of his argument, the truth of his conclusions or the merits of his policies.


      • Andrew, I totally get the objectionable link between Mr Men and Hitler. Hard to think of what one could link such a person to and it not be objectionable. But that is not what Gove criticised. He said that the use of Mr Men was the issue. he referenced Mr Men to exemplify his view of the dumbing down of the curriculum and the poor deal children get as a result. Not a throw away anecdote – in his view a serious piece of evidence to prove his case.

        The use of anecdotal evidence by someone who has a whole army of researchers and advisors as the only evidence is poor. I could cite other politicians who have used such flimsy, or even invented “evidence”. If we just let it go then the situation perpetuates.

        While i was a head teacher in London i worked with the DES, as it was, and quite closely with Labour politicians. One of their filters for policy was, “What will the Daily Mail think of this?”. What they do in any public setting is deliver what they hope will be a reportable sound bite.


        • “He said that the use of Mr Men was the issue”

          No he doesn’t. It’s an example of “dumbing down” (if you like). Like the use of Disney’s Robin Hood to teach about King John quoted in the same article.

          The level of achievement is a pretence. In my subject (ICT) many of the teachers can’t do the practical work, let alone the pupils. This is not an exaggeration, there are regular discussions on TES on how it can be done.

          Whilst I think the usage of Hargreaves’ work to teach about the Nazis is objectionable, it is objectionable on several levels. Even if it wasn’t unpleasant because of the subject matter it would be asinine.


          • The Disney example was part of a lesson to explore how fiction misrepresents historical fact so that children would NOT confuse the two. But why would anyone bother to check facts when a sound bite will do.


          • Surely the best way to avoid confusing fact and fiction would be to teach the facts and keep the obviously fictional out of history lessons?


        • I simply cannot get my head round why people want a single anecdote in a speech to be some kind of firm evidence base. It was an entertaining illustrative example in a politician’s speech. To treat it as more is to create a straw man.


          • Then you probably will never get your head around it. Get more involved with politicians and you might then “get your head around” what the message actually is. Do you think Gove randomly chose such an example? Was he treating it as a light hearted joke?


          • Love it when people patronise me for not understanding politics. I’m quite confident of my understanding of politics, thank you very much. I’m sure Gove picked that example for the same reason I did, it illustrates how far away from common sense things can get (in some cases) in education. If nobody had defended it then I guess it would be a bad example, but as people have defended it, it has served to establish the point very clearly.


  3. I have read some of the commentary on the speech from both sides of the argument. In particular there is a defence of the Mr Men lesson from the originator which contextualises it’s use in a wider series of rigorous lessons about the circumstances leading to the collapse of the Weimar Republic…..the case appears reasonable (but would clearly be open for debate)….it is not a clear cut case of dumbing down or low expectations (which, I think, engages with your main frustration that the substantive issues raised by the Gove speech are not being addressed).

    What is clearly causing great general frustration is the point that you have discounted as rhetorical devices. It’s politics, true. However, it’s not serious debate to use the anecdotes that Gove does in his speeches. You claim that such devices should not be taken too seriously, implying, I think, that they are not important. Unfortunately, I think they are important because they set the tone for the debate and also they become the sound bites around which debate coalesces in popular culture. It would have been entirely appropriate for Mr Gove to have raised his concerns about low expectations in his speech, but without recourse to the rhetorical devices. Agreed, this would have made the speech much more dull. But, these are serious issues and should be debated in a serious and rigorous fashion, I think.


    • I have read some of the commentary on the speech from both sides of the argument. In particular there is a defence of the Mr Men lesson from the originator which contextualises it’s use in a wider series of rigorous lessons about the circumstances leading to the collapse of the Weimar Republic…..

      I think I covered this. You can add all the details you like. There is no context that makes this okay.

      the case appears reasonable

      To whom? I think you have to be pretty acclimatised to the madness of our education bureaucracy to find it anything other than disturbing.

      (but would clearly be open for debate)….it is not a clear cut case of dumbing down or low expectations (which, I think, engages with your main frustration that the substantive issues raised by the Gove speech are not being addressed).

      It’s hard to see how much more clear cut it could be. It is being seriously suggested year 11 history students watch an episode of the Mr Men in order to prepare for an activity dealing with the rise of Nazism. That’s about as clear cut as it gets.

      What is clearly causing great general frustration is the point that you have discounted as rhetorical devices. It’s politics, true. However, it’s not serious debate to use the anecdotes that Gove does in his speeches. You claim that such devices should not be taken too seriously, implying, I think, that they are not important. Unfortunately, I think they are important because they set the tone for the debate and also they become the sound bites around which debate coalesces in popular culture. It would have been entirely appropriate for Mr Gove to have raised his concerns about low expectations in his speech, but without recourse to the rhetorical devices. Agreed, this would have made the speech much more dull. But, these are serious issues and should be debated in a serious and rigorous fashion, I think.

      So you are one for the “Michael Gove must not use anecdotes” camp? Have to say I can’t see why not. Most politicians are allowed to, and nobody can say the non-politicians who get involved in education debates are known for their “serious and rigorous” style of argument.


      • Clearly Mr Gove is free to use whatever examples or rhetoric that he wants to. I am suggesting that use of such rhetorical devices in a speech does not encourage serious debate; debate that appears to be needed…..and which in other ways (e.g. Involvement of Ben Goldacre and debate about the use of RCT’s in education research) Mr Gove appears to want to encourage. Yes, it’s politics, I know, and there appears to be a high level of polarisation in the debate, but the speech did not encourage serious debate, in my opinion.


        • If people want to engage in serious debate, it surely isn’t up to Gove to encourage them?


          • Shouldn’t everyone involved in education encourage, and be encouraged, to engage in serious debate? Including the SoS?


          • I just don’t think that principle should extend to banning illustrative examples in politician’s speeches.


          • Your original blog post was around the issue of ‘debate’, whether it is possible now…..the SoS is free to take whatever approach, and use whatever rhetorical devices he wishes. However, some of those approaches will not encourage serious debate….they will polarise debate (which makes serious debate more difficult).


  4. I’m the eternal optimist and positive-thinker, and I’d be very happy if it were true that Gove’s intentions are very simple: agitate people so much that they actually get passionate about talking about teaching. If that’s the intention, then he’s a genius. I’m with you entirely on your original post. Even though my heckles were raised when I first read Gove’s comments, they were raised further and in the opposite direction (stretching the metaphor somewhat here…) with the boring predictable back-lash response from “the teaching profession” (whatever that is!!).

    I don’t really understand why so many teachers seem so defensive. I say, bring on the criticism, bring on the challenge and reflect, regroup and be better!

    Even though I don’t agree with many of Gove’s analyses and opinions, I admire his tactics. At least he’s an Education Secretary who’s passionate about teaching and wants to talk about teaching. Yes, he upsets, angers and annoys, but so what? If he’s wrong, then at least the arguments will be articulated to prove he’s wrong, and that can only be a good things. And if he’s right… well then we might just get some positive change at long last!


    • I feel the opposite about Gove, I admire his opinions but think his tactics are shocking. when you read his speeches he appears to me to have a genuine passion for education and is quiet convincing in his drive to improve the education of the poorest. However, he’s far too confrontational and quick to announce sometimes unworkable ideas he seems to have scribbled on the back of a fag packet. His approach smacks of arrogance, and his attitude of “you’re either with me or you’re an ‘enemy of promise'” has made his own life far more difficult.


  5. Nothing could ever justify using the Mr Men to teach (or review) a lesson about Hitler or the Second World War.

    To attempt to do so trivialises both the events and the people involved. Consider how you would explain the approach to either an ex POW or a Holocaust survivor.

    Would you? Could you?

    There are still people alive who lived through WW2, if you cannot see for yourself why it is so inappropriate to liken a despot to a children’s cartoon, why not ask them? Perhaps some may be prepared to show you the scars of injuries received at the hands of ‘Mr Tickle’.


  6. As an amateur part time teacher who has decided to preserve my sanity (such as it is) by remaining amateur, I’d like to make a point. The subject under discussion is irrelevant to many people: what matters is whose side you are on: Nice cuddly Marxist-Leninist Lefty progressive, or evil Right Wing slave driving Tory traditionalist.
    It’s a sort of gang mentality. Worse, it’s like party politics.
    I cannot describe how angry it makes me to see the people who are responsible for the education of our children behaving like a bunch of bickering mud-slinging fools. It strikes me that they have long ago decided not to see anything which might challenge their world view. With people like them debate is not only futile, it is impossible.
    I have met many professional teachers over the years. Most see progressive education as a part of The Plan to improve society (or subvert / control / destroy, take your pick). Oppose any part of The Plan and you are assumed to have sold your soul to the Devil and joined the Forces of Darkness.
    I do not believe that any of them would ever for an instant even consider the possibility that any Tory could be anything other than one of the Devils’ henchman.
    Thank God I have no children.

    Sorry folks, but I just had to get it out! I know that the people here are not like that.


    • It’s what I would call Lord McAlpine Syndrome. One believes that the things a Tory does are bad things, simply because that person is a Tory.

      This means, on the one hand, that one can pin anything bad on any Tory and have it believed, and, on the other, that anything a Tory does must of necessity be bad, regardless of its intrinsic value.

      Michael Gove could cure cancer overnight and still find himself attacked, because a) curing cancer had suddenly become a right-wing plot to attack the working classes; or b) because he was doing it solely to benefit the pharmaceutical industry.


  7. Eh?
    A group of academics write a letter full of substantive criticisms to Gove’s policy (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-gove-will-bury-pupils-in-facts-and-rules-8540741.html). There are no citations, presumably because it’s a letter to the papers, but they mention curriculum specifics; curriculum scope; prescription vs. teacher freedom; styles of learning; international comparisons.

    The UK minister for education responds with literal name-calling: “The Blob”.

    And in the world according to OldAndrew, the problem here is that Twitter is shallow.

    You’ve missed the point badly. Twitter definitely is shallow. But Gove shouldn’t be.

    This debate is not just about the arguments (the arguments have been had before; the progressives won), it’s about the people. Not every Tory has the reforming zeal of Michael Gove. It seems fairly clear from the news that a lot of the policy changes are being driven by him personally, not just by general Conservative policy. So the way Gove thinks and his character are relevant. When he makes arguments which are dishonest (like you, I find that he didn’t say one untrue thing in that Mr Man segment; and yet it was still a dishonest argument. Rhetoric is more complex than a SPAG test), that is relevant and important.

    Just as an example, in the Mail article (link in your piece) he says this: “Last week I was talking to the Democrat Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, about his battle with the teaching unions.” He’s fairly explicitly positioning himself as fighting the teaching profession (he has to do a bit of a rhetorical twist because he also wants to claim that only a “tiny minority” of teachers disagree with him). Is that what you want? What anyone wants? Your minister telling the large readership of the Daily Mail that teachers are bad, and it’s up to him to fight them? It just seems like terrible politics to me, bad for teachers and children alike. And that is a large part of why the 3-year old hive mind of Twitter reacts defensively and snarkily.

    Who the hell cares whether Twitter is immature? What pisses me off is that the education secretary is immature.

    PS. Seeing as you seem determined to argue that the Mr Men thing was entirely legit, here’s why it’s not:
    Gove was arguing that there exists in the teaching profession/industry a trend/tendency to dumb down (“the culture of excuses and low aspirations”). He gives lots of examples in his speech of the general state of affairs (“Not a single [Edexcel candidate] studied a pre-20th century novel” “Take the lesson plans outlined in Primary History – the journal of the Historical Association. These are not marginal influences on classroom practice. These are the resources produced by the most influential subject association which speaks for history teachers.”) The entire speech up to that point is all about general practice (the “enacted curriculum”). Then comes the Mr Men example, which does not appear to be a general practice, but Gove treats it in exactly the same way. Careful wording (“spending classroom time” vs teaching) has avoided the explicit lie, but it’s still a misleading segment introduced only for the soundbite.
    I agree that it’s a very minor point, and Twitter’s ire is misdirected. But if you think that Twitter is the place to be having substantive debates, I suspect that your error is greater.


    • >Then comes the Mr Men example, which does not appear to be a general practice, but Gove treats it in exactly the same way.

      Is it important that it’s not general practice?

      Even if this anecdotal example is not commonly used, I can remember this sort of thing being precisely what I was told made a good lesson during my teacher training!

      So, while “Mr Men Hitler”, might not be general, I have little doubt that similar poor activities are delivered all over the country – even if they are only used when the teacher is being observed!

      What’s actually wrong with this lesson is also totally missing from the “noise”.

      It’s not necessarily the poor taste – on a lesson about propaganda, the idea could have merit. (Alongside the use of video clips of Bugs Bunny in “Herr Meets Hare” and The Great Dictator.)

      No, the actual problem is that it’s a poor way to teach History.

      Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School?” includes the example of a lesson apparently teach kids about the US Underground Railroad which doesn’t actually teach them about history, nor slavery, but how to bake biscuits.

      This is the same – in order to complete the task well, the student must expend valuable “cognitive time” working on the problems of understanding Mr Men representation, drawing styles and techniques – and nothing like enough time actually thinking about Hitler, the political situation the led to and sustained his power, etc.

      As a media or film studies lesson about propaganda it could have value.

      But not in a history class! (And I’m completely with Gove on this!)


      • I’m not sure you are right. I agree about the other clips you mentioned, but there’s some depth in them.

        The problem with the Mr Men is it is very very simplistic – characters are completely one dimensional with regard to their “personality”. This is entirely appropriate for the age range it is aimed at.

        Satire has to tell you something about the material. The Great Dictator does, the Mr Men do not.


    • It is unlikely that any specific lesson could be general practice. An example can only ever attempt to illustrate a trend. However, this particular lesson was produced by a well respected creator of history lessons, well know in ‘history teaching circles’. The lesson was on a site that is popular with history teachers. It is not misleading to use it to illustrate a clear trend within history teaching. Although this lesson was particularly indefensible the site is full of ideas to make lessons ‘fun’. I am not saying I never use games and I do use materials from this site but Gove is perfectly correct in his argument that there is a trend in teaching to choose these sorts of lessons and you can hardly blame him for choosing the worst example to make his point. There is an undeniable trend in teaching to prioritise engagement and fun and it is reasonable of Gove to suggest this is dumbing down and that it does a disservice to children.


      • Thanks, Heather. You’re right to say that it works as an example insofar as it is representative of standard practice. But the “soundbite” element – the reason Gove included it in the speech to whip up the media frenzy – is the Mr Men aspect. And that’s not general. Using games and interesting hooks to make history fun? That may be something people disagree on, but many agree with it (obviously! there’s whole websites full of it!). So Gove couldn’t just say that. He had to go and choose an example in dubious taste in order to get his soundbite.

        As I said in my top post, my main issue with this is the lack of respect Gove shows for teachers. Be free to engage your children, teachers – just be aware that when the education secretary wants to score political points, he will mock you for the tabloid press.


        • Most teachers would want to find interesting hooks. The problem with the Mr Man example was not just about lack of taste. It wasted masses of time and distracted the kids from the core learning objective by focusing in the trivial rather than the core material because of the focus on fun. That is a very familiar problem in teaching today. There certainly is a trend in teaching to do this and the Mr Man lesson is a very good illustration of his trend.


          • I think you are saying the Mr Man example was unrepresentative because it is unusual for learning activities to be in bad taste, although given the enormous number of people defending it as a lesson, your argument is weakened.
            However, taste aside, it is also a clear example of ‘infantilisation’. Was it somehow wrong of Gove to pick a clear cut example?Was it poor sportsmanship that he didn’t put his argument on weaker ground by using examples that are easy to quibble over? The example he chose exposed a chasm between different people’s perspectives on what is a reasonable learning activity, suggesting it was a good choice.


    • Eh?
      A group of academics write a letter full of substantive criticisms to Gove’s policy (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-gove-will-bury-pupils-in-facts-and-rules-8540741.html). There are no citations, presumably because it’s a letter to the papers, but they mention curriculum specifics; curriculum scope; prescription vs. teacher freedom; styles of learning; international comparisons.

      I’m afraid you are undermining your own point here.

      A group of ideologically motivated educationalists write a letter full of slogans, caricatures, poor arguments and at least one outstanding error of fact. (Not to mention the poor grammar.) This letter is then cited as authoritative, despite it’s pitifully awful content because the writers are “experts”. Why would you expect anyone to respond in any way other than to identify the authors as part of the problem? Why would Gove, or indeed anyone, have any time for a narrative in which one side gets to be “the experts” whose bizarre arguments should be accepted uncritically and without the need for democratic discourse?

      The UK minister for education responds with literal name-calling: “The Blob”.

      And in the world according to OldAndrew, the problem here is that Twitter is shallow.

      You’ve missed the point badly. Twitter definitely is shallow. But Gove shouldn’t be.

      Should a politician really be expected to provide the intellectual weight in a field where academics and teachers don’t?

      This debate is not just about the arguments (the arguments have been had before; the progressives won),

      As a general rule, if you’ve actually won an argument, you don’t feel the need to go around declaring that to anybody who still disagrees.

      it’s about the people. Not every Tory has the reforming zeal of Michael Gove. It seems fairly clear from the news that a lot of the policy changes are being driven by him personally, not just by general Conservative policy. So the way Gove thinks and his character are relevant. When he makes arguments which are dishonest (like you, I find that he didn’t say one untrue thing in that Mr Man segment; and yet it was still a dishonest argument. Rhetoric is more complex than a SPAG test), that is relevant and important.

      If you don’t understand why a circumstantial ad hominem is not an argument, you are not really in a position to critique anybody else’s argument.

      Just as an example, in the Mail article (link in your piece) he says this: “Last week I was talking to the Democrat Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, about his battle with the teaching unions.” He’s fairly explicitly positioning himself as fighting the teaching profession (he has to do a bit of a rhetorical twist because he also wants to claim that only a “tiny minority” of teachers disagree with him). Is that what you want? What anyone wants? Your minister telling the large readership of the Daily Mail that teachers are bad, and it’s up to him to fight them? It just seems like terrible politics to me, bad for teachers and children alike. And that is a large part of why the 3-year old hive mind of Twitter reacts defensively and snarkily.

      I’m sorry, but even as a keen trade unionist myself, I have no time for the argument that the teaching unions should be beyond criticism.

      Who the hell cares whether Twitter is immature? What pisses me off is that the education secretary is immature.

      PS. Seeing as you seem determined to argue that the Mr Men thing was entirely legit, here’s why it’s not:
      Gove was arguing that there exists in the teaching profession/industry a trend/tendency to dumb down (“the culture of excuses and low aspirations”). He gives lots of examples in his speech of the general state of affairs (“Not a single [Edexcel candidate] studied a pre-20th century novel” “Take the lesson plans outlined in Primary History – the journal of the Historical Association. These are not marginal influences on classroom practice. These are the resources produced by the most influential subject association which speaks for history teachers.”) The entire speech up to that point is all about general practice (the “enacted curriculum”). Then comes the Mr Men example, which does not appear to be a general practice, but Gove treats it in exactly the same way. Careful wording (“spending classroom time” vs teaching) has avoided the explicit lie, but it’s still a misleading segment introduced only for the soundbite.
      I agree that it’s a very minor point, and Twitter’s ire is misdirected. But if you think that Twitter is the place to be having substantive debates, I suspect that your error is greater.

      Sorry but this argument seems to rely on some false claims. The Mr Men thing was neither the first, nor the only, specific example used in that speech.


  8. I was one of the people who engaged with you on Twitter over this. First, the Mr Men idea is crass, stupid and offensive. Gove is right on that. The question of knowledge of history is much more general. I have lamented on here and elsewhere my undergraduate students’ lack of historical knowledge. So I sympathise with the tenor of the complaints, but rather hoped that the solution might be to work out what pupils should know, and what the best way of ensuring they know it might be. Gove’s rhetoric is disingenuous, and so is your response when you say he was just being ‘anecdotal.’ He made specific claims, which turn out to be rubbish. He made them in the pages and on the website of a very popular newspaper, read by millions of parents, who will not be reading the Twitter and blog debate that followed. I proposed that an inquiry into history teaching be set up, which would examine what should be taught, and how. You asked who should convene that enquiry, and I responded that it should be people who are familiar with what happens in the classroom – people like you. You didn’t reply. I still think that the best way forward would be to get historians to examine what schoolchildren should know about history, and what would be the best methods for ensuring they acquire and retain that knowledge. To conduct the debate in the pages of the Daily Mail is cynical popularism.


    • I can’t see how you can think historians are well placed to decide what should be taught in schools. This is because their views would be a reflection of their politics as the Evans/Ferguson debate made entirely clear. Asking the teachers is important but given that most, like me, trained in the skills based orthodoxy you would simply get back an endorsement of that skills based orthodoxy. Given that Gove’s whole mission is to go in a different direction teachers are unlikely to feel happy with his decisions.
      It is no surprise that Gove’s history curriculum is grounded in a conservative view of our national identity and that is right and proper. He is elected to make what is ultimately a political decision because choices in the history curriculum over content are more political than pedagogical.BTW I have no idea how you can claim that it is proven that Gove was talking rubbish.


      • I think the logic goes:

        A) He doesn’t agree with Gove.

        B) What he doesn’t agree with is rubbish.

        C) Therefore Gove talks rubbish.

        D) Goodbye to intellectual enquiry, debate, well-formed arguments, logic, etc etc.


        • I said his *claims* turned out to be rubbish, based as they were on Premier Inn surveys of customers and similar dodgy “evidence.” I also said that my feeling was that historical knowledge was weak, so I actually agree with Gove on that. My point is that we need to look properly at what pupils should know, and how best to teach them. I suggested historians (in schools and elsewhere) might be best placed to lead that inquiry. I can’t see how it helps the debate to travesty what I said in this way.


          • Ah, the rubbish you referred to meant the surveys. Personally, when I saw the term survey I don’t think I thought he meant anything rigorous – surveys aren’t ‘research’ in my mind and his point seemed uncontentious to me. I was also under no illusions about the degree of professionalism in central government generally, Yes Minister still not being far off reality. However, I agree it looks bad.
            I think you are being naive in your suggestions on how to go about writing a history curriculum, for the reasons I have already outlined.


          • OK, then: who do you think are better qualified than history teachers to decide on a history curriculum and the methods by which it’s taught?


          • Did you read my post? I said that the content decision is more political than pedagogical. Teachers should be listened to but the history curriculum is too much of a mirror for views on national identity as well as all the debate over political versus social and how our nation should be presented. If you can’t see these decisions aren’t very pedagogical theres no point me commenting further.
            The curriculum purposefully avoided dictating methods so that is not directly relevant.


    • I’m still struggling to work out what claims were “rubbish”.


  9. What amazes me is that people seem much more interested in turning there avatars into Mr Men and attacking rhetorical anecdote rather than making a substantial case against Hirsch or Willingham or Gove’s interpretation of them. Perhaps it is because this is hard? If I was in UK I would be questioning Gove’s attempts at meddling with structures (PRP, academies). Changing structures ultimately changes very little. Please stop being silly about Mr Men, Angry Birds etc. It makes it all too easy for Gove.


    • And the substantial case is? (Although I think you mean ‘substantive’.)

      The only case I can see is that we shouldn’t have chavs knowing things because a) it’ll stop the public school kids taking all the prizes; and b) it might make them socially mobile and thus less likely to vote Labour in the future.

      As an independent school teacher who has on occasion voted Labour, I can quite see that those would be enough to make Willingham and Hirsch utterly detestable.


  10. Great polemic, AO. Such a shame to see that it’s had absolutely no effect on the closed minds of those who have responded.

    HIghly ironic considering that the premise of the Mr Men books, as I understand them, is that each nobody is capable of more than one type of behaviour which they are doomed to repeat until the end of time, and can never learn or change.

    Perhaps we should rename your opponents Mr Knee-Jerk and Mr Expect-Nothing.


  11. Mr Men, sock puppets, Blind Date and rapping…. as long as it ‘engages’ it’s good practice.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/may/15/learning-angry-birds-mr-men-twilight-michael-gove


    • Dear Lord. Nothing is good practice if it ‘engages’ in the wrong things. All these lesson plans do is to engage people in Mr Men, sock puppets etc, and stop them engaging with real subjects and real thinking. See Willingham passim.


  12. It is an object lesson in how sophistry is used to underpin polemic. Mix that with what was an obvious journalistic ‘hook’ who is surprised by this. I’m not impressed – there are better strategies than fliers like this. It wasn’t very successful was it? He also must have known Russel Tarr would be identified – it would be disingenuous to naysay this – it has a name in journalism – it is called “monstering”.


    • The point is surely, who he was identified by? It wasn’t the critics of his lesson that tried to turn it personal.


      • No that is not the point. It was fairly obvious to anyone who knew the site. It is still “monstering” of the worst possible kind. It is a well known journalistic practice – to amplify one instance out of context and thereby link it to one individual and call into question their professional judgement plus to then link it to “Hitler” and all the associations and cultural “triggers” that will inevitably engender is something I find offensive.

        One, because Michael Gove has the power to amplify anecdote and thereby public opinion coloured by ill-informed anecdote.

        Two, bandying around words like crass, stupid and offensive and suggesting there are some kind of moral absolute around the use of these materials is something I’d take issue with as well. I feel none of the above and I have links to people (still) living and who grew up in the era of the Weimar republic.

        That part of the speech was obviously engineered to create an emotional response and an invidious atmosphere and it was masquerading as concern over use of materials.

        Maybe it should have been more concerned with outcomes.

        At least Russel ‘was’ identifiable and had the courage to stand up and present a stout defence.


        • I’m sorry but “monstering” is attacking individuals not resources. The principle that politicians should never criticise teaching methods was abandoned in the 70s when it was realised that ideologically motivated individuals in the education system would, if left unchecked, deprive children of anything resembling an education.

          As for all your talk of triggers, the only thing the example triggered was an outflowing of common sense from anybody who wasn’t already acclimatised to the insanity of the education system. If you cannot udnerstand why people were outraged then it’s hard to know where to begin, but the idea that there is something wrong with that outrage is one I cannot accept.


          • Your distinction here. You bifurcate something to obfuscate. You wildly extrapolate to the other “givens” all of your own making. I’d suggest cutting out the hyperbole; magnifying your own cause and effect analysis doesn’t progress the argument one jot and it merely looks ludicrous in this light.

            I will stick to my point – he deliberately “monstered” a teacher by association. He knew what he was doing as a professional journalist and, in fact, two professional journalists concurred, on twitter, that he was indeed using a “hook”.

            Outrage is an ineffective means of argument I find. As I said, if the outcomes were explored rather than the “outrage” perhaps we’d get somewhere.

            All I see evidence of is sophistry underpinning polemic to further some unsubstantiated opinion and with a tendency to grandstand and muckrake about education in general and, of course, to monster someone. It doesn’t in the least bit address the debate. Not at all pleasant really.

            That is my analysis I’m afraid.


          • You seem to be just repeating the point. But no matter how many other words you use to dress it up, or how many circumstantial ad hominems you add, criticising a teaching resource which is in the public domain is not “monstering” and there is no good case for saying that teaching resources should be beyond political criticism.


          • Ahh I see you are “qualifying” things at last:

            ‘Circumstantial’ Ad Hominems.

            Teaching resources should be beyond ‘political’ criticism.

            It looks like a case of a coral reef of qualifying statements you are attributing rather than the case.

            Good luck with that.


          • Qualifying? I am just trying to direct you to the question of whether you have any valid arguments about the point under discussion, i.e. arguments about the content of what was said.


  13. I thought I would check out the primary level examples Gove gave courtesy of the Historical Association journal ‘Primary History’. I’d say the King John reference by Gove was unreasonable, looking at the article and I couldn’t find Eddy the Teddy. HOWEVER, what would you say are the key goals in primary history teaching? Check out this list of the most recent articles in ‘Primary History.’
    http://www.history.org.uk/resources/primary_resources_1.html
    One ‘C’ word is repeated so often its actually comical – or perhaps tragic.


  14. As you will no doubt remember from our previous conversations I am in now way a fan of the current government, especially the education secretary. However, this post sums up exactly my thoughts on the twitter furore following Gove’s speech!


  15. Just in case anyone still cares about the Mr Men question, here’s a final explanation of the bait-and-switch that Gove was playing.

    1) Bait the press. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10046694/Michael-Gove-pupils-taught-about-Hitler-using-Mr-Men-characters.html
    You see the Telegraph headline that Gove’s comments elicited. As OldAndrew has pointed out, Gove himself did not say anything untrue in his speech. But the newspapers do not appreciate the difference between “spend classroom time on” and “teaching”, so many papers ran with the same incorrect headline as the Telegraph.
    If you think that Gove didn’t know that was going to happen – if you think that Gove wasn’t playing to the press – then your naivety has gone a little too far. He knew what he was doing.

    2) The hook
    As I was saying to Heather above, the juicy hook in this story is the Mr Men. Imagine if it hadn’t been the Mr Men: “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 cartoon.”
    OldAndrew may well still disagree with that as a lesson plan, but many teachers would accept it. And I think a lot of the public would be open to it as well – many people believe that school should not be all essays and lectures. So phrased this way, it’s not press bait.
    The Mr Men is the element that makes this example worth putting in a speech (and the newspapers) – but use of the Mr Men is not widespread. It’s not representative of general practice. *Perhaps* the use of cartoons is representative of what happens in history classes. But that’s not reprehensible – merely slightly controversial among conservative educators.

    I’m not sure that any explanations will help, because responses to this seem to be fixed on ideological lines, rather than on the merits of the speech itself.
    But on the off chance that anyone is still undecided: this section of the speech was dodgy. It was red meat for the press, at the expense of accuracy or fairness towards teachers.
    And, much more than other sections of the speech, the Mr Men section was an attack on teachers. Gove seems to feel very comfortable telling teachers that they are doing a bad job. And that’s not a good thing.


    • Sorry, but this seems just to repeat the same thing I was complaining about. You have come up with all some distinctions to make, but it is absolutely baffling trying to discern any actual difference they make to the thrust of Gove’s argument.


  16. The headline seems entirely accurate to me…. Not sure if I appreciate the difference between ‘spend classroom time on’ and ‘teaching’ either.


  17. […] cannot do so without being accused of being a Secretary of State in disguise? Like Andrew Old* says here, it seems to be almost impossible to actually discuss educational policy with some folk. The ilk I […]


  18. […] I told Andrew I’d blog my point of view and look forward to reading his perspective. [EDIT: his post has been up for a few days – clearly much more efficient than I am – but I've yet to comment on […]


  19. […] so I told Andrew I’d blog my point of view and look forward to reading his perspective. [EDIT: his post has been up for a few days – clearly much more efficient than I am – but I've yet to comment on […]



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