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Mr. Wrong Forgets His Facts

I know nothing about teaching. Nothing. But I hear that Michael Gove is terrible. Really terrible. He is possibly the worst Education Secretary that Britain has had since all the others. As far as I can tell, all teachers have been perpetually on strike since I went to school, and their reason for striking is a lot of bad government, as routinely elected by voters who (ahem) learned how to reason when they went to school. Teachers only ever strike because of bad bad bad government, because almost every teacher is a wonderful human being and doing a fine job. So if I remember that some of my teachers were lousy, and that I had to correct the mistakes they made, or had fun by getting different teachers to contradict each other, then we should still be careful not to throw away the bath water because of a few rotten apples etc etc. (Note the use of the word ‘some’ which, as even Sesame Street will tell us, is not the same as ‘none’ or ‘all’. This is an important distinction that some teachers may struggle with.) Now, because I know nothing about teaching, but I keep hearing how terrible Michael Gove is, I have been itching to find a pithy test case of Gove’s rightness and wrongness. And, by extraordinary good fortune, thanks to Gove’s entertaining and sometimes neo-Clarksonesque way of expressing himself, an example came along…

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.

If I may quote – “The following steps are a useful framework: Brainstorm the key people involved (Hitler, Hindenburg, Goering, Van der Lubbe, Rohm…). Discuss their personalities / actions in relation to the topic. Bring up a picture of the Mr Men characters on the board. Discuss which characters are the best match.”

I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves’ work but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Anti-Semitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat.

But I am familiar with the superb historical account Richard J Evans gives of the rise, rule and ruin of the Third Reich and I cannot believe he could possibly be happy with reducing the history of Germany’s darkest years to a falling out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy.

Now, on the face of it, describing the rise of Hitler by using Mr. Men characters would seem to be a bad idea. And easy to mock. And rightly deserving of being mocked. But I claim no expertise on this subject (neither teaching, nor the rising of Hitler). I just know how to read, so this little headline-generating example of Goveism at its best/worst (delete according to your own taste) does lend itself to a test case, especially when the author of the Mr. Men ‘rise of Hitler’ teaching resource stepped up to defend himself. So we heard what Gove had to say… what did Russel Tarr, the teacher in question, write in response?

On Thursday of this week I was the subject of an attack by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in what’s being called his “Mr. Men” speech. According to Mr. Gove, my approach to teaching is apparently symptomatic of all that is wrong with UK secondary education in general, and history teaching in particular.

Straight away, alarm bells are ringing. Did Gove really say that the Mr. Men lesson plan was symptomatic of all that is wrong blah blah? Maybe he implied it, though. Let us move on.

The following morning I found the story all over the national newspapers including the front page of The Times. Today, Mr. Gove repeated his criticisms on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.

Mr. Gove focuses on a particular activity on my website in which students are required to produce children’s stories in the style of the well-known ‘Mr. Men’ books to explain the rise of Hitler. For Gove, this provides irrefutable evidence of the ‘infantilisation’ of history teaching and a ‘culture of low expectations’…

Gove did not use language like ‘irrefutable evidence’. On the other hand, I think it would be strange to argue there is no prima facie evidence to support his observations. The reason why Gove’s speech is being quoted is because it does sound infantile to try to explain the rise of Hitler by analogy to Mr. Men.

… (although as AaronStebbings puts it, “I imagine Michael Gove would have a go at George Orwell for using farmyard animals to explain the rise of the Soviet Union”).

So far, so many (low) blows to Michael Gove for things he did not say. Tut tut – can we actually analyse what Gove did say? Or should we get bogged down in straw man arguments about what Gove thinks about Animal Farm (a book which is not very like a Mr. Men story).

Gove and his advisors – either through stupidity or mischievousness – failed to place me, my website, or the lesson into its appropriate context.

Lack of context? Is that really the way Tarr wants to defend himself against Gove’s accusation? Rather than putting Gove’s argument into context, it has been wildly exaggerated so far (‘symptomatic of all that is wrong’, ‘irrefutable’, ‘Gove would have a go at George Orwell’, etc etc). Now seems like an appropriate time to put Tarr’s own arguments into context. Alongside his words, he placed on his website an animated graphic of Michael Gove, in which Gove spouts (in a voice nothing like Michael Gove’s voice) the following words:

Hello, my name is Michael Gove and if, like me, you prefer to have your opinions unfiltered by rational arguments and evidence, then I suggest you read no further into this piece by Russel Tarr of activehistory

Seriously? This is the ‘context’ provided by a man trying to make an intelligent argument about context? Is this an example of the sophisticated reasoning and language skills that teachers encourage in their pupils? But back to what Tarr wrote…

His criticisms betray a lack of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation that would make a GCSE History student blush with shame.

Also Michael Gove is worse than Hitler. Stupider than an ox. Has more ear wax than an earwig. Various other insults. Antichrist. More insults. Snooze… zzzzzz… Sorry, I nodded off. Where were we? Oh yes, we were in the middle of a ‘rational’ argument.

Ironically, given Mr. Gove’s supposed commitment to rigorous academic standards, it appears that much of his research comes from dodgy marketing surveys from Premier Inn and UKTV Gold (I kid you not)!

That seems to be the first genuinely good and accurate point that Tarr has made. Though it is not, strictly speaking, a defence of using the Mr. Men to explain the rise of Hitler.

Moreover, other commentators have inferred that these books address “Nazi Germany” and thereby repackage World War Two and the Genocide into bedtime stories for primary school children. Not so. To clarify, I do not teach the Third Reich – with all its attendant horrors – through children’s storybooks. The actual topic in question is “The Weimar Republic 1918-33” with a focus on why democracy failed in Germany after World War One: in other words the topic does not begin, but instead ends, with the declaration of the Third Reich. This is not a ‘lesson about Hitler’ in that sense and I think this is an important point.

This is an important point, in so far as it relates to flawed criticisms of Tarr. But it is not an important point in response to Gove’s criticism of Tarr. Gove stuck to the facts. Tarr’s intention was to encourage children to use Mr. Men analogies as a way to understand the rise of Hitler.

Tarr’s own point is undermined because he deliberately misquotes himself. The lesson plan that Gove discussed does not cover “The Weimar Republic 1918-33”. The lesson plan covers “The Rise of Hitler”. Here I am using the same words that Tarr uses to describe his own lesson plan. To my ears, it sounds pedantic to insist that a lesson called the “The Rise of Hitler” is not a ‘lesson about Hitler’.

General Points about the website Mr. Gove is attacking, and its author

ActiveHistory is a well-established and highly respected website which has been in continual development for more than 15 years. Its resources and interactive simulations have been praised in the press, used by tens of thousands of teachers all over the world, many of whom have provided glowing testimonials about its effectiveness. It was awarded first prize in the previous Guardian/BECTA Awards as early as 2002 for its innovative Head2Head interviews with historical characters.

I am sure this is all true. On the other hand, it feels odd that a historian is actively encouraging his audience to pretend that there is no such thing as bias in the world. Tarr is well-respected because Tarr says so. Gove is a prat when Tarr says so. Hence we have eliminated any bias? On the contrary, Tarr’s glowing account of himself is so gloriously one-sided that it makes me blush as a reader (and yes, I have a GCSE in History). Gove attacked a lesson plan which involved Mr. Men and Hitler, and Tarr is defending himself by pointing out he helps old ladies to cross the road and he diligently recycles. Why not stick to the point, which is the appropriateness of using Mr. Men to form analogies to German politicians of the 1920s and 30s?

Russel Tarr graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, in 1993 with a 2:1 in Modern History (in a strange quirk of fate, this is also Mr. Gove’s old college – perhaps I knocked over his gin and tonic in the college bar back in the day…). I have been a full-time teacher of History since 1997, mainly in the UK (at Wolverhampton Grammar School) and more recently in France (at the International School of Toulouse). I’ve written plenty of academic articles (e.g. for History Review, the Times Educational Supplement, IB World Magazine) and also authored a textbook for A-Level on Luther and the German Reformation.

Gove once used the words ‘yadda yadda’ to put down an opponent on Question Time. The phrase seems oddly appropriate here. Presumably if somebody attains a 2:1 from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, we should all shut up and stop being critical of anything they do. Following that logic, we would all have been forced to agree with Hitler’s plan for the Third Reich, if only Adolf had earned a 2:1 from Oxford, before embarking on his rise to power.

Particular Points about the “Mr. Men” activity

At long last. Tarr finally gets around to defending himself for doing the thing that Gove actually criticized him for doing. At long long last.

The creation of children’s storybooks is an excellent revision exercise, but not the primary method by which I teach any topic whatsoever.

Oh no. More digression. More feeble straw man antics. Gove’s argument is straightforward: using Mr. Men to learn history is, on the face of it, so daft that it can never be acceptable. He may be wrong. But that is the argument. He was not making an argument about whether this is Tarr’s ‘primary’ method, ‘secondary’ method or even his ‘tertiary’ method.

My students spend six solid weeks, plus homework time, studying the Weimar Republic through an academically rigorous unit of study. They then write a 1000-word, externally moderated coursework essay (without further assistance and during their holidays) analysing the causes for Hitler’s election as German Chancellor in January 1933.

Yadda yadda, I am sorry to say.

Only then do they (and, indeed, can they) consolidate their knowledge as a revision exercise by converting this sophisticated story into a children’s book.

As Gove put it: “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.” So Gove has not taken anything of context. On the contrary, he states a fact, and lets everybody draw their own inference. Not surprisingly, many people draw an inference that Tarr does not like. So Tarr ignores that inference and just bangs on as if Gove said something different to what he actually said.

I totally agree that the ability to read in depth, take effective notes and memorise facts is an essential part of every child’s education. However, I utterly reject the idea that these skills are an end in themselves, and that effective learning should be measured by a teacher’s ability to cram as much information, in as dry a manner as possible, into a student’s head.

Interesting point. Unfortunately, it seems to bear no relationship to what Gove said. I hope teaching has not been reduced to two alternatives, where either teachers insist that ‘the rise of Hitler must be taught using analogies to the Mr. Men’ or else they must ‘cram as much information, in as dry a manner as possible, into a student’s head’. Maybe Tarr thinks those are the only two options. Arguably he is the one who is reluctant to embrace a middle ground, with less dry cramming, and less Mr. Men.

The memorisation of dates, events, people and places is merely the first step in helping students to form valid opinions, make substantiated judgements and to argue a viewpoint effectively. The joy of History is its focus on debate, discussion, interpretation and personal reflection. Any teacher worthy of the title knows that the best learning takes place when students are engaged, interested and stimulated in lessons. It is a terrible mistake to assume that academic rigour and creative teaching are mutually exclusive.

Yadda yadda. False dichotomy. Yadda yadda. This guy has a 2:1 from Oxford, apparently.

The “Mr. Men” approach is highly effective…

Great! Is there where Tarr shows some evidence to defend himself?

… but does not provide a ‘typical’ example of how history lessons are taught in my classroom or anyone else’s.

No. No evidence. Just take it on trust. Mr. Men are highly effective. So highly effective that they are highly atypical of the other highly effective techniques that Tarr advocates.

The whole idea of taking one activity and using this to illustrate how children are taught in general is laughable.

Anyone who has got this far has long stopped laughing. Tarr has made his point, as much as he ever will. Gove was wrong to imply that every lesson involves Mr. Men doing algebra, Mr. Men teaching French and Mr. Men explaining sexual reproduction. But then, Gove did not say that. He just picked a laughable example of one loony teacher who clearly went too far with his creative approach to teaching history. And who is actually undermining himself, because he does not defend what he did. On the contrary, he defends himself by pointing out that how extreme it is to teach about the popularity of Nazism by analogy to the Mr. Men.

My students will use the Mr. Men approach on just two occasions in their seven years with me: once when revising the rise of Hitler, and once when outlining the Causes of World War One.

‘Just two occasions’. Tarr needs a defence lawyer. He is not a good advocate for himself. One the one hand, he is keen to admit that using Mr. Men to teach history is not normal. Phew. We can breathe a sigh a relief, because Tarr must be faintly self-aware. On the other hand, it is not a one-off fluke either. The mind boggles at how the causes of World War One can be related to the Mr. Men. Were the many conflicting ethnic groups in Austro-Hungary personified by the naive Mr. Multiculturalism?

The approach is easily transferable to other subjects such as science, politicians in general and Mr. Gove in particular.

Hitler’s approach to the Jews was transferable to gypsies and disabled. Just because something can be transferred, does not mean it should be transferred.

Outside of this they will have an endless range of other experiences designed to appeal to as broad a range of learning styles as possible, at different ability levels, for the appropriate age range under consideration. It’s a little trick we in the teaching procession call ‘differentiation’, Mr. Gove!

The argument for differentiation, when used like this, could be used to justify anything. Imagine taking one student at random, and gassing them, in order to explain the holocaust. That technique would be ‘different’ but still ‘wrong’.

This exercise is highly challenging and in no way represents the ‘infantilisation’ of students ‘on the verge of university’…

Here comes the good bit, that you have all been waiting for…

These are Year 10 students (14 years old).

This is factually incorrect. Incredibly, in an argument defending his own lesson plan, as published on the internet, Tarr misrepresents his own lesson plan. This is what Gove said:

…targeted at year 11s – 15 and 16 year olds

And this is what Tarr’s lesson plan states:

Pre-activity preparation for Year 11

Prior to this activity, Year 11 students should have finished studying the Rise of Hitler.

Year 10 versus Year 11. This is a simple matter of fact. For a man who wasted so many words lecturing Gove about the importance of context, and a supposed overemphasis of facts, it beggars belief that Tarr misrepresents which age group he wrote the lesson plan for. Gove quotes Tarr correctly: he wrote a plan for year 11s, who are 15 to 16 year olds. Tarr misquotes himself: this is not a plan for year 10s (14 year olds).

For me, an error like this suggests Tarr’s pompous arguments have no credibility whatsoever. He does not respect the most basic facts, and changes them to suit his point of view.

Beyond that important clarification,…

Err… that would be a misclarification. Or we could call it lying. You pick.

it is anything but ‘infantilisation’ to get secondary school students (or indeed adults) of any age to produce an effective children’s storybook on a complex topic.

Tarr is so right. Here is my children’s storybook version of this spat between Gove and Tarr:

The nasty funny clever politician, Mr. Horrible Gove, came along and pointed out silly boy Tarr had pooed his own pants and was smelly. Everybody laughed. Tarr was deeply upset and argued that pooing his own pants was a good thing to do because he only did it twice a year.

But back to Tarr’s never-ending saga…


Sorry. He did not actually write the yaddas, but I lost respect for someone who admires the pithiness of the Mr. Men books, but takes several years to make his own, deeply flawed, arguments. Also, his argument is boring.

Closing Remarks

Yes he really needed to make yet more remarks. They were:

This week has been the strangest YADDA YADDA YADDA YADDA For anyone out there who still doubts the literary power and gravitas of the Hargreaves canon YADDA YADDA YADDA YADDA And just in case you’re reading, Mr. Gove, I’d be more than happy to engage in a direct debate if you are ever interested in shedding your reputation as “Mr. Point”. YADDA YADDA YADDA YADDA

Yes, Tarr wants to engage ‘Mr. Point’ in debate on the merits of using Mr. Men to explain the rise of Hitler. Of course, Gove will not be entering into debate, and the reason why is straightforward. Adolf Hitler was a very evil man. He and his Nazi henchmen were responsible for some of the most terrible crimes in human history. It is distasteful and unhelpful to compare the top Nazis to characters from children’s stories aimed at five year olds. Rather than stimulating children by teaching them how to use metaphor, using the Mr. Men as analogies can only over-simplify the moral and personal flaws of the leading Nazis. As such, this is a deeply mistaken way for children to think about the Nazis and what motivated their rise to power.

I tried to make the argument in simple language, as might be appropriate to a 15 year old. But try telling this argument to a blowhard schoolteacher with a few hundred years experience and a 2:1 from Oxford. When you point out their mistakes, they simply cannot comprehend your criticism. Instead, they remark their own work, giving themselves an A+.

After finding my test case, I discover that I like Michael Gove more than before. He pointed out that citing the Mr. Men was not an appropriate way to teach the rise of Hitler, and the teacher responsible was unable to present a decent counterargument. I am sure there are many experienced educators who would insist my reasoning skills are faulty, because I also reached the ‘wrong’ conclusion, where we determine right and wrong by whether an opinion matches the teacher’s opinion, and not by reference to any objective truth. That makes me wonder if teachers are really suited to the task of developing the reasoning skills of children. Perhaps they should limit themselves to facts.

One Response

  1. ‘with less dry cramming, and fewer Mr. Men’ ?

    I fear my own education was skewed by the principle that one give the man (for that what how s/he was known) what he was looking for.

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