• Sep 102013

The Importance of Mr Gove

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On the 5th of September, Michael Gove delivered a speech on the importance of teaching. This is a our tribute to what we see as the importance of Mr Gove.

If you haven’t heard his speech, you can read it here. In it, Mr Gove outlines what he sees as four attacks on teaching:

    “(the belief that) teaching is a depressing and demotivating activity — and that the profession is suffering reputational decline”
    “a denial that teaching can make any real difference”
    “the sidelining of the teacher from the activity of learning”
    “(the belief that) teachers can’t be trusted — that they need outsiders at every turn to monitor, police and approve their activities”

So far, so laudable. We’d view all those as attacks on the profession too.

Recently we read a post that talked about Mr Gove’s speeches following a particular pattern. Sadly, we can’t locate it now, but this one fits the bill perfectly. It’s his usual blend of phrases no one in their right minds would dream of disagreeing with (see “Above my desk at home there’s a simple slogan — ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher’ And I do”), name-checks to teachers and bloggers who he uses to back up his arguments and a range of well-chosen quotes. As ever, though, we disagree with much of his ideas and if he’d like a philosophical quote or selection of bloggers to back up our ideas, we would happily provide them. One technique that has cropped up before (and does so here again) is his penchant for choosing ostensibly silly-sounding activities to illustrate his points about teaching style. In this case, he is arguing that these activities demonstrate a marginalisation of the art of ‘true teaching’ (standing at the front passing on knowledge from know-er to know-ee). It is worth reading the whole section:

So what happens in classrooms when teaching is marginalised?

The teacher Matthew Hunter records on his blog a series of lessons aimed at history students between the ages of 11 to 16 that he had encountered.

They included studying the battle of Hastings by re-enacting it on a field with softballs, spending 3 lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes, making plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Fuhrer and recreating life on a slave ship by making pupils gather under their desks.

Another teacher records a lesson for A level English students in which they were asked to depict literary characters on a paper plate — drawing a face on the plate — and then asked to use stickers to define the character’s principal traits — pinning the stickers on their clothes and mingling with other students, while they introduce themselves ‘in character’.

Allied to these teaching methods which have nothing to do with passing on knowledge, there has also been an emphasis on teachers having to put their own learning aside so that work is ‘relevant’ to the students. This has resulted in the dumbing of educational material down to the level of the child — with GCSE English papers that ask students about Tinie Tempah, or Simon Cowell — rather than encouraging the child to thirst after the knowledge of the teacher.
I believe that we need to move away from these approaches to education — I would call them pedagogies but they don’t leave much place for the pedagogue — towards an education system which believes, right from the early years, in the importance of teaching.


What were your thoughts when you read that?
Ours were firstly that we’d like to look up those examples to see them in context but, secondly, we could imagine how most of those activities (not 100% confident with the plasticine Fuhrer) could be more beneficial in a lesson than straightforward teacher-talk. Yes, it could have been the case that these were contrived, rubbish activities, but we can envisage situations where they could actually have been instrumental in the passing on of knowledge…

It seems to us that (as well as the obvious differences between teacher talk and student activity), Class B is also about understanding the concepts. It’s about getting students to empathise with what they’re learning about in order to deepen their understanding. Passing on of knowledge is far more than a fact travelling from a higher brain to a lower one. It has to be understood to be assimilated, at least for any length of time.

The sad thing is that what happens when teaching is marginalised is far more subtle than that. There are far more examples of mundane activities that don’t deepen understanding than wacky ones. We’ve been guilty of the pointless photocopiable in our time. Wouldn’t it be good if Mr Gove cited these once in a while and said something like “an over-reliance on worksheets” as being an attack on real teaching? Now that would be a powerful message to send and a challenge to us all. Here’s a rewrite of his speech. It makes equal sense:

So what happens in classrooms when teaching is marginalised?

The teacher A.N. Other records on her blog a series of lessons aimed at students between the ages of 11 and 16 that she encountered.

They included lessons consisting of pupils devising their own photosynthesis wordsearch, completing endless cloze procedure worksheets on Shakespeare and designing a title page for their new Spanish topic.

All far more “respectable” to politicians, but pretty dire in terms of teaching and learning. It would be interesting to hear the Education Secretary challenge these sorts of activities as well as those he deems wacky.

He’d have a field day with our resources. Are we wrong to attempt to teach investigative maths through the medium of game shows? Or try to teach resilience via computer games? Best not show him this, either…


The fact is that interested students learn. Yes, sometimes disinterested students learn too, but they don’t learn better. What Mr Gove fails to realise is that interest can be piqued without any dumbing down of subject matter. Using something relevant to bridge the gap between where your audience is and what you want them to learn isn’t anything “progressive” at all. It’s a method of learning that can be traced all the way back to biblical parables (and no doubt beyond). On the surface, Jesus’ parables were about the things that his listeners would understand — farming, fishing, sheep and weddings — but behind these culturally relevant stories were deeper, more important, truths. Teachers use a similar technique. Taking something your students know about and understand, and then drawing parallels, contrasts etc with the subject you want them to learn about is not a new way of teaching. And, if that’s what was happening in each of Mr Gove’s examples, from Mr Men to Tinie Tempah, then it doesn’t show the marginalisation of true teaching — it’s a celebration of it. Of course, they could be just ridiculous non-learning activities, but surely the likelihood is that most teachers know what they’re doing? For most teachers, the analogy is a valuable tool.

And so on to the importance of our current Education Secretary. Despite the fact we disagree with so much of his philosophy and feel that he really doesn’t understand what teaching entails (dangerously so), speeches like this are so important. We’d rather they didn’t exist and we’d rather we had someone in charge who understood, but there is a positive to be taken from Mr Gove’s beliefs…

They inadvertently have forced us to justify our actions, not do things just to be wacky or without evidence that they work. He’s challenged us to come up with decent reasons why keeping subject matter relevant is important and why it’s not purely about knowledge transferrance. If it was, then as soon as teaching by osmosis gets invented, we’ll be out of a job.

Inasmuch as that’s a reason, that’s the importance of Mr Gove to teachers today. Unwittingly, he’s provoked us. We’re still going to do what we’ve always done, but with renewed zeal. Speaking for Sparky Teaching, as an organisation, he’s made us think about why we do things in the style we do. We’re not just quirky idiots. We firmly believe that students learn best when they’re interested and that the best companies are ones with a semblance of humanity about them. In terms of teaching, as long as they can justify our actions with evidence then teachers will keep doing what they do best — making difficult things more understandable and bringing uninteresting subjects to life with humour and vigour (that’s a ‘v’).

Stand tall, sparky teachers — encouraging empathy, developing understanding, making things relevant and building life skills are not particularly wacky or progressive and our students are all the better for your efforts.

Do let us know if we’ve got this wrong — we’ll happily admit our failings and there are hundreds of teachers out there who could do a better job of saying all this.

But it’s our opinion that Mr Gove could do with watching the video below. Do character-moulding and empathy count for nothing when it comes to encouraging aspiration and deepening learning? This is the sort of teacher who we want to be like and the world needs more Ms. Reifler’s, it really does…


 

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So, what do you think?

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