Another week, another conveniently memorable but utterly misleading Goveite meme. I don’t want to deceive any new readers I might have picked up from last week’s blog into thinking I am either an educationalist or a person who routinely blogs about education policy. But, well, the incessant stream of Goveite nonsense just keeps on coming. This time, Gove himself has tried to appropriate and ruin both one of my favourite subjects and one of my favourite lines of poetry,* and I am angry.
In a speech to independent school leaders (who else?), Gove criticised history teaching that “infantilises” children, citing as Exhibit A a lesson plan encouraging GCSE students to re-tell the rise of Hitler as a Mr Men story. The phrase ‘Mr Men history’ duly appeared in headlines in almost every major paper. You’ve got to hand it to the Goveites: as a soundbite, it’s possibly even better than ‘illiterate academics’. And it’s just as wrong-headed.
The speech was chock-ful of other objectionable rubbish which I don’t have time to dissect here: praising schools for teaching Pullman and Orwell before suggesting in the next breath that twentieth-century literature is somehow inherently unchallenging; accusing a well-loved children’s author, who has introduced literally millions of kids to reading, of promoting “illiteracy”; the breathtakingly offensive implication that teachers who disagree with his reforms don’t “believe in the nobility of their vocation”. Gove laments that “proper history teaching is being crushed under the weight of play-based pedagogy”; personally, I feel like I’m being crushed under the weight of his bullshit. So let’s just stick to the history stuff for now.
First off, let’s get the inevitable tedious misrepresentation out the way. The lesson plan in question was in fact a revision exercise in which students would be asked to use the format of a Mr Men story to explain the rise of Hitler to younger pupils. It was not a tool for teaching them the topic in the first place. In fact, the first sentence of the webpage reads:
“Prior to this activity, Year 11 students should have finished studying the Rise of Hitler.”
Gove’s creativity with the truth was even worse with Exhibit B, in which “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'”. To its credit, the BBC pointed out in its write-up that the reality was almost the diametric opposite of Gove’s implication. Far from suggesting that teachers use Disney films to impart knowledge about medieval history, the article in question was about showing young children that modern-day depictions of historical figures “may not be a true representation of the past".
And of course, that’s what makes this whole thing so dreadfully ironic: Gove is using this insidious rubbish to ridicule teaching that promotes critical thinking, as opposed to the uncritical acceptance of some grandiose narrative of national progress. Worse, he attempts to equate the distinction between the two with the difference between ‘high standards’ and ‘low standards’. When I studied GCSE history ten years ago, it was without question one of the most challenging subject options you could take – because it made you marshal evidence and make arguments with a rigour no other subject did. And I loved history, not just because I loved learning about the past, but because I found the critical and analytical approach so stimulating. Looking back, studying history at GCSE and A level was the single most important contribution my secondary education made to preparing me for an “elite university”. I don’t really give a stuff that it didn’t teach me King Henry IV’s vital statistics, and I don’t think my Cambridge supervisors did either.
Funnily enough, my first ever secondary school history lesson was remarkably similar to another of the exercises that came in for some of Gove’s unedifying scoffing. As he explains it,
“Students are invited to become "history detectives". Which sounds potentially promising. But the lesson plan outlined doesn’t actually involve any real history, just pretend detective work. Students are asked to investigate the death of a fictional “John Green” by drawing up a “cunning plan” which involves asking to study up to three clues.”
All of which spectacularly misses the point. When I did this exercise, the purpose was to introduce us to the idea that the study of history is not just about learning ‘facts’ that exist somewhere out there in the ether, but about using evidence about the past to piece together your own interpretation of what actually happened. As it turns out, I too completely missed the point, and spun an elaborate yarn about a jilted ex-girlfriend born of watching too many episodes of A Touch of Frost. I got my work back with ‘assumption’ written all over it, and learned an important lesson - in fact, a lesson that was probably the foundation for much of my subsequent intellectual development. But it wasn’t a lesson involving a date, so according to Michael Gove it was actually a complete waste of time and couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with ‘real history’ at all.
The point of starting us out with that lesson was that, contrary to Gove’s bizarre assertion that “it is through the accumulation of factual knowledge that the conditions are created for creative and critical thinking”, learning the skills to think critically is a prerequisite for interpreting the facts you are given. And that’s what really worries me about Gove’s agenda for history. Learning history shouldn’t mean being spoonfed a parochial and politicised “narrative of British progress”, replete with “heroes and heroines”, but being taught the skills to construct your own narrative and decide who your own heroes are. The examples Gove has chosen to illustrate the alleged decline of educational standards show a total contempt for those skills. And, frankly, if he is so happy to use misrepresentation and distortions of fact to back up his ideological prejudices about teaching, why should I be at all confident that his new curriculum isn’t going to do the same with history itself?
UPDATE: The creator of the 'Mr Men lesson' has posted this excellent retort. Also in today's news, more evidence that Gove is incapable of using evidence appropriately. Really, the decline of standards inside the DfE is a shocking indictment of the low expectations culture of this government. Maybe we should sack Gove and bring in a super-Secretary of State to turn around his failing department?
* Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, which was emblazoned in block capitals above the opening section of the transcript of Gove’s speech. I am not going to attempt to describe my rage at seeing this lovely line pressed into the service of Gove’s joyless, soul-crushing view of learning.