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.
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…
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. 🙂
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Tags: Michael Gove, teaching