Mr Gove and Mr Rush

Have you seen the story of the dumbed-down history resource? Mr Gove, UK’s education secretary, pokes fun at a teaching resource that suggests likening the main characters in the rise of Hitler to Mr Men, in a speech entitled “What does it mean to be an educated person?” 

Now I read that speech before I saw the web erupt with indignation over this article, so have been following the discussion with interest. But unlike, I suspect, most of the population, I’ve taken the time to explore the argument further. You see, Mr Gove was taking a headline statement without looking into it properly. The history resource in question was not only created by an independent school teacher for an IGCSE qualification (those are the ones that Mr Gove says are much more rigorous and that many schools are choosing to use instead of standard GCSEs because being international they’re not so subject to changing on a whim), but the purpose of the exercise is to revise the topic by reworking it into a form to teach to year 6 students. The year 11 students are encouraged to explore the topic by allegory and analogy, in order to help younger students to understand.

Now I’m a great fan of the teddy bear school of learning – this is one that says if you want to really understand something, teach it to someone else, your teddy bear if necessary. As you search for the words and concepts to get the topic across, you deepen your own understanding. In this case, in groups striving to create resources that the younger children will understand in order to get an important point across, students will be forced to pick out the more important issues and figure out a way to get them across. This means they will need to have a deep understanding of the topic in the first place and their reworking of the topic will fix it further in their minds.

The trouble with Mr Gove’s speech headline, however, is that the majority of people won’t explore the topic enough to understand the full story. Instead, just like in a Mr Men story they’ll pick out the main characteristics and exaggerate them. Mr Men plus history project = dumb teaching.

You see, I agree with a lot of what Mr Gove says. I do feel it is important that our children are taught rigorously and grow up with a deeper understanding of the world around them. I do think that sometimes we make excuses for the children, or allow them to make excuses. But declaring everything from the past few years a waste of time and trying to rebuild things completely and instantly is wrong. You can’t change attitudes overnight and you can’t fix education overnight.

We need to get across that everyone should be expected to learn and understand. This means that everyone in school and out should support every area of learning. No more “Yeah, I could never get it either”, no more acceptance of poor standards, no more admiring celebrities who suggest that the way to success and earning lots of money is simply to win a talent contest, but instead celebrating success in all its forms, including academic, and showing the sheer pleasure of a good education in helping people to understand the world around them and how it works.

To be able to notice problems in the world around you? That’s one of the rewards of a good education.

To be able to drill down to the heart of the problem, understand the best way to fix it and then do so sensitively and positively? That’s the mark of a great education secretary. Sadly, I feel Mr Gove is in too much of a rush to improve education to consider carefully how to move from where we are now to where we want to be, and what sort of timescale it might take. Instead he blunders in, upsetting everyone by failing to listen to them,  seems to be working towards some sort of ideal that might work for some but not for the majority, and then expects the anger he stirs up to produce positive results.

Part of the challenge of education in all its forms is to figure out how to move from where you are now to where you want to be. You can’t just throw some insults, wave a magic wand and have everything exactly as it should be.




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