Advice from Uncle Ben

“With great power… comes great responsibility.”
misquote from Ben Parker, Marvel Comics.
I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to follow up the recent dispute about Michael Gove’s comments about history teaching. This was spurred by a twitter conversation with @oldandrewuk where it became clear that we disagreed vigorously about Gove’s approach. It seemed to me that I wasn’t explaining myself, something I shall happily blame on trying to fit my thoughts into 140 characters. Of course, this is why I have a blog, 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 it.]  Here we go…
Gove (mis)used some examples of what he saw as poor history teaching and quoted some surveys to make political points, in a speech at Brighton College  and a Daily Mail interview. His comments about the Mr Men revision activity – not used for initial teaching, but to encourage students with a good understanding to rephrase and transform their knowledge for younger classes – have been expertly answered by the resource creator, Russel Tarr. A retired teacher with a Freedom of Information request demonstrated that ‘survey after survey’ was, perhaps, overstating the evidence. Ironically, both suggest that Gove has failed to grasp the importance of context when giving evidence to make a political point.
Power and Responsibility
Let me be clear about something. Gove has every right to have strong opinions about teaching. In fact as the Minister responsible, you could argue that he has an obligation. He has the power to change the education system, subtly or greatly. He can influence funding, celebrate the best of us and condemn the worst. But as Uncle Ben (more or less) said, this power is accompanied by responsibility. And this is a responsibility which is easy to put into words.
What he says must be based on facts.
He doesn’t have to be right every time. He doesn’t have to be popular (which is probably a very good thing). He doesn’t have to be perfect, and to be honest I wouldn’t expect his grammar to be flawless; he’s human after all.
But his opinions are not those of a private citizen when he is speaking or writing about education. He speaks and writes as a government minister, the Secretary of State for Education. Which means he has a responsibility to his government, to his colleagues, to his teachers and most of all to the young people he effectively works for. A responsibility that, by the way, we as teachers share. A responsibility not to spread bullshit.
His Job
Gove’s role is to set policy. It’s to hold us to account. It’s to set national aims, priorities, deadlines. I might disagree with his policies and those of his party, but that’s how politics works. Tell your elected representatives if you don’t like what they’re doing. If you object strongly enough, vote against them next time. If ideas are based on ideology or personal belief, not observable facts, then elected politicians must have the courage and honesty to say so.
His job is not to decide classroom methods, any more than a Health Minister would advise surgeons on the best way to transplant a kidney. The professionals work out the best way to achieve the aims, as defined by the government. If politicians care, they allocate cash for the research to happen. They quote the data – selectively, I’m sure – which supports their opinions and, hopefully, those of their constituents. But they don’t get to make things up. If they over-rule the experts – as is their right to do so, hopefully with a good justification – then they must expect to be challenged.
Gove’s job, and that of every politician, is to find the best people to do all the other jobs. I’d love to think he appreciated my workload through personal experience, but the truth is that doesn’t matter. Instead he needs to know what he doesn’t know, and stay out of it. It would be naive for us not to realise that his speeches and interviews are intended to support the policies he chooses to promote, to encourage validation of his ideas. But if his opinions are intended to justify policy decisions, curriculum changes and funding cuts, then they are government business and so must expect the same scrutiny as formal documents from the Department for Education. Bring facts, Mr Gove, or stay quiet.
What’s concerning with Gove’s curriculum reforms, which seem rushed and ill-considered to many, is that he’s ignoring those people who know what they’re talking about. Last year BERA responded to his wholesale refusal to listen. Subject groups, including the Historical Association and the ASE, have concerns with their specific areas. The related exams review even concerns Ofsted, who called it ‘challenging’ and ‘ambitious’. These are the people who mediate between political hopes and classroom reality. And they’re being ignored or, in many cases, ridiculed.
Sadly Gove has not always responded reasonably to requests for clarification or explanation, let alone to direct challenges. He and his team have even attempted to hide their email conversations from FOI requests, conceal their identities when making political claims (@toryeducation anyone?) and sometimes even let others do their dirty work. Changing this approach would, of course, earn respect from all quarters. Fingers crossed…
Our Job
This isn’t just a political rant, although my apologies if it comes across that way. My frustration is that Gove – like, I’m sure, many other politicians – seeks to move beyond policy (telling us what to do) into professional methods (telling us how to do it). One example I’ve mentioned before is the inclusion of one specific technique, synthetic phonics, in the Code of Practice. Does the Hippocratic Oath specify the one true method to remove an appendix?
Classroom methods are our department – but we equally have a responsibility to base what we do on evidence. We need to use techniques that have been shown, as much as possible, to work. RCTs may not be the only answer but a general aim to improve the quality of evidence can only be a good thing. The next step is to make sure it’s shared much more effectively, something the EFF is hopefully going to make progress with. We need to question our own professional practice and be prepared to defend it when justified. But like Gove, our determination can only be respected if we are prepared to change what doesn’t work.
Anecdotes and value judgements have their place in the classroom, but not at the expense of better evidence. We can use personal stories or topical examples from the media to illustrate our points, but must be prepared to explain why they matter if challenged. For example, using nonsense like BrainGym to justify giving kids water bottles in class devalues us and our professional perspective. Like Gove, we must expect that if we fail to pay attention to details then we will be mocked for our mistakes.
Teachers have great power in the classroom. We are the people tasked with turning children into citizens. We’re certainly the ones who get the blame when it doesn’t work out, despite the wider context! Teaching, like being a parent, is a big job. Our students trust us to tell them the truth, which makes developing scientific models challenging, to say the least. But I hope my students know that I’ll be straight with them, that I won’t use nonsense to back up what I tell them. Because if I did, and they figured it out – which they would – then they’d lose faith in everything else I tell them. Like Gove, we rely on our reputations to have credibility.
With great power comes great responsibility. Politicians have power over government policy, which means they have a responsibility to show they are taking it seriously. Maybe Gove needs to remember that.
PS To those who realised that despite me not changing my avatar to ‘Mr Chalk’ I’ve used this post to reference a different cartoon, well done. 🙂 And before you accuse me of dumbing down, I’d argue that every kind of popular culture (including Shakespeare) has been looked down on by those referencing their own favourites of the past. 🙂

7 Responses to “Advice from Uncle Ben”

  1. 1 peter blenkinsop

    Very sane. And, I believe, very true.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, a very measured response. Thank you.

  3. 3 HeatherF

    I want to agree wholeheartedly but can’t. First, because ignoring evidence on phonics is as bad as supporting brain gym, worse really. If a profession are so ideologically blinkered that they refuse to listen to what amounts to the most conclusive evidence we have within the field of education a SoS is right to ignore the majority voice. It is his duty to care more about the life prospects of children whatever pressure is placed on him by many, like Rosen, that would think systematic phonics teaching is intrinsically wrong, however successful the outcome. When faced with an establishment trained to teach using methods based on theories that are entirely discredited by the scientific community, there is no decent compromise option.
    My second problem is that you suggest Gove misrepresented the Mr Man lesson. I think that because many teachers don’t agree there is anything wrong with the lesson they think Gove must have misrepresented it. However, the fact the lessons were reviewing material makes no difference for those, like Gove, who think there are problems with learning activities which draw parallels between Nazis and Mr Men.There is no misrepresentation, just a chasm between viewpoints. The only possible ‘misrepresentation’ is in suggesting the lesson was a bad idea – which misrepresents the views of many in the teaching profession.
    Gove’s ideas are based on a surprising amount of evidence, it was reading Oate’s analysis of international comparisons of the curriculum (the basis for Gove’s changes) that made me more sympathetic to Gove. I think teachers like to think Gove makes up his ideas but the evidnece actually suggests not.
    However, I do think he is willing to sacrifice balance for soundbites,is needlessly confrontational, alienates those that might support him and has an unhealthy pleasure in confrontation.

    • 4 IanH

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I certainly agree with your last point, which probably explains when many teachers can’t stand Gove.

      Your first point, about phonics, is missing my main objection. I teach secondary not primary, but am concerned about any focus on one technique (which many researchers have less confidence in than you) rather than on ‘best supported method’.

      Secondly, I didn’t try to defend the Mr Man lesson. I left that to the creator, hence the link. Probably some would object to my lesson activities on GM cows for chocolate milk, let alone how Spiderwoman would really make her webs. But Gove didn’t object on moral grounds, instead using it to make his point by quoting out of context. That’s not on.

      Lastly, I think you and many others underestimate how much Gove damages his cause – which he is clearly committed to – when he is selective with evidence, misquotes teachers and refuses to engage with professional researchers. Maybe then he’ll get the benefit of the doubt.

  4. Hi Ian.

    Here is the, as usual excellent, Pod Delusion on the Mr Men episode and the recent historical knowledge surveys: They are clearly critical of Gove and make a few jokes at his expense, but putting that bias to one side, the interview with Russell about his resource and how he used it is excellent. Also good is the very informative discussion on commercial bias in research polls which included the surprising information that an unknown but probably large number of these survey respondents are not necessarily who they claim to be and are doing the survey for a quick buck. More or Less this week was also very good on this point:

    Back to the crux of your post and a response to Heather as well. Gove’s speech clearly stated that he was complaining about the “infantilisation” of history teaching, not the inappropriateness of the juxtaposition of the Nazis and the Mr Men. I can see why people think this might be an inappropriate connection to make in this topic, however my (poor) understanding is that the students were studying the Weimar Republic (which of course includes and leads to the rise of the Nazis) and that (as explained in the podcast above) the task was very specifically designed to make the students deconstruct the ideas into simple metaphorical character traits (hence the Mr Men) so that they could explain the historical significance to much younger children…

    However, as I tweeted this week, I changed my avatar to Mr Impossible, not in defence of the task, but in the defence of Mr T’s right as a professional to use it without being judged unfairly and publicly by Mr Old and then Mr Gove.

    I think this was such a contradictory speech, as just a few minutes after decrying the use of a particular resource, Gove praises (rightly) Sir Michael Wilshaw’s desire that Ofsted judge teachers by evidence that the children are learning, rather than the way the teachers are teaching.
    Some of my tweets :

    Here Gove complains about teacher’s “infantilisation” of their subject then tells them they can teach how they wish.


    Why Mr Impossible? In the same speech as #mrmen: “you are free to teach as you wish – the only thing that matters is that students learn.”

    I was called out that evening suggesting that Gove was stating an opinion that the students couldn’t be learning due to the nature of the task. But I think it is clear from Russell’s testimony, that the task may well have been a valuable learning experience for the students.

    The arrogance of remotely judging the suitability of the task for learning, when neither the students, nor the task was observed, is I think the most disgraceful thing about this whole episode, and I call out everyone who has decided this task is worthless without trying it out themselves or observing the results with students. This includes a number of colleagues on twitter whose opinion I value and respect.

    Which echoes, I think, your main point: by all means critically appraise a piece of work, but only having reviewing it carefully and objectively. And do it fairly.

  5. Forgive my asking (and trying to answer) a couple of big questions. The questions are who is education for and who should run it? Clearly, the main recipient of education will be children and the aims of that a possibly a mixture of teaching essential life skills (literacy, numeracy, basic healthcare), helping young people prepare for employment and independence and a vaguer (but important) consideration of trying to broaden minds and develop interests. There are probably others but, that’ll do for now.
    There are, it seems to me, three beneficiaries. The students themselves, employers and universities and society as a whole, represented by the state. Of these, the least significant (it seems to me) is the state. This has a role in helping to ensure children become reasonable and healthy adults in the interests of all of us. Clearly, children and employers benefit from their (the children) developing skills and children themselves benefit from developing, say, a love of music.
    My point is this, that the state tries to take responsibility for too much and education ministers off all stripes are far too “hands on”. Gove, it seems to me sends mixed messages; he creates the idea of free schools and yet, thinks he should write the history curriculum. Surely, matters like what’s in the history curriculum (or maths or science or fashion) have to be muddled out by a combination of schools, universities, employers and students with the government taking a very quiet back seat.
    I haven’t really worked these ideas out for myself yet properly and they are full of holes, which I suspect you shall quickly reveal. However, I am so tired of education ministers thinking they can sort our schools when they simply cannot. I hated what Blunkett did to A levels and it seems that instead of correcting any obvious(?) flaws he believes he is superman. It will all end in tears.

  1. 1 Frontline Friday 24th May 2013: Our favourite frontline blogs this week

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