‘I done a bad thing, George!’

No, not Michael Gove fessing up to the Chancellor, but a quote from an American classic, “Of Mice and Men”. Yep, the latest lunacy from Gove is to lean heavily on the examination boards to delete from their reading lists this and similar examples of American literature and substitute work by British authors.

I personally never tired of teaching ‘Mice and Men’, I think it is a superb piece of writing (so pleased to hear Gove dislikes it intensely) and I also believe ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘The Crucible’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’, staples of GCSE syllabuses, are equally fine. That’s not to say, of course, that there are not other equally good examples of literature that might be accessible to the vast majority of teenagers. Perhaps it’s a good idea to give these old warhorses a rest, freshen up and reinvigorate the teachers.

But that’s not the point. It is no business of the Secretary of State to influence the minutiae of any part of the curriculum because of his own predilections : we’ve seen it before with Gove over history. Exam boards have access to plenty of specialist expert knowledge and should propose for study texts that challenge, offer variety and are likely to catch the imagination of young people.

It is tempting to examine the themes of the books Gove wants effectively to ban and, if you know them,  it’s easy to see why they might not appeal to a neo-con. Other texts may follow, with different excuses for deleting them from the syllabus (what price ‘An Inspector Calls’ with its clear message that we are all responsible for each other?). As for the  ‘let them read Brit’ argument, how many of our favourite authors might fail to qualify? Quite a few Irish : Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Shaw, Beckett; others of dubious heritage: Conrad and Stoppard, for example, both of whom I’ve taught at A level. TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath were American – Churchill was half American, for goodness sake! It is narrow-minded and typical of the Secretary of State.

I wouldn’t go to the stake to defend any of these books or authors in particular but I will join with those who wish to oppose the little dictator at the DfE over his right to meddle in which examples of literature my colleagues choose to present to their children.

History is written by…?

So Michael Gove is about to announce a radical re-drafting of the History National Curriculum in an apparent response to the clamour of criticism his initial proposals received. The political response is to lampoon him for yet another ‘climb-down’ or ‘volt-face’ (I’m sure he’d prefer the Latin version) whereas the sensible response should be to welcome the fact that he appears to be prepared to listen and change his mind. Of course, it’s difficult to be that magnanimous to Gove and, no doubt there are, in any case, other, deeper, underlying reasons for the change of heart.

History is one of those subjects about which we often see fierce debate. I’ve been interested for a long time, going way back to my own A Level experience, which I was recounting to two young people of my acquaintance a couple of days ago. They had just finished their second year A level exams in History and were aghast to discover that, as far as I could recall, I was taught from one text book and, more or less, regurgitated what I had learnt in the exam. Their experience was of being required to comment on sources presented to them, unseen, in an exam and to make comments based on their own knowledge of the subject area. They had also completed a demanding piece of coursework for which they had had to conduct their own research which included finding so-called ‘primary sources’. We all agreed that, far from being ‘dumbed down’, as far as History at least was concerned, I had had the easier ride more than 40 years back.

The essential difference seems to be that History as it is now taught acknowledges that there is not one accepted version of ‘what happened’ and students are encouraged to develop their own understanding based on an analysis of the information available. I know from my own continuing interest in History that interpretations of events shift depending on the information available. For example, my initial understanding of the Second World War was gleaned from listening to what I have to call ‘primary sources’, my mother and grandmother, who lived through it. What they didn’t know about, of course, was Bletchley Park, ‘enigma’ and so on which, when considered, changes one’s view. Something similar will, I think, happen regarding the First World War, starting in 2014 as we begin centenary commemorations. I also recall visiting a museum in Soviet Prague in the 1970s and being shocked by the labels which told me about something called ‘The Great Patriotic War’, the Russian name for WWII and even more shocked to find out how many millions of Russians/Soviet people had been killed. Even the dates were different: for the Czechs, the war began in 1938!

I’d be interested to hear from any current teachers of History out there who would care to offer a more detailed and better informed critique of the pressures on History teachers to ‘teach’ a particular version of ‘what happened’. As Churchill (no longer required teaching on the National Curriculum apparently) said, “History is written by the victors,” although, I’m not sure who they are in the current context!

Mr Gove

Just in case you haven’t seen this amusing little satire on Michael Gove’s attack on history teaching, follow the link below. As usual, instead of engaging with the substance of the many criticisms of his proposed History curriculum, Gove tries to rubbish the practitioners by suggesting they have ‘dumbed down’ the subject by teaching about Hitler via the Mr Men. If this were true, of course, he’d have a point but — you guessed it — it’s not true. The truth, often inconvenient to this as to so many politicians, is that those teaching the relevant module on the iGCSE course will have taught for twelve weeks and had the students write a 1000 word essay. As a means of revising, the students are then asked to use the ‘Mr Men’ to re-teach the ideas and concepts to a much younger group of students.

This technique is very popular and thought by many educationalists to be an excellent way of embedding and testing understanding. A year or two back I heard the education guru Alistair Smith speak and amongst the many good practical suggestions he gave was the idea of the ‘Lazy Teacher’ Day when students take over the teaching. Of course, despite its name, it’s actually more work for the teacher but the kids love it and colleagues report it is a very good way of encouraging understanding as well as promoting self-confidence,  literacy and oracy. Just don’t let Mr Gove know: he’s sure to pick up the title only and use it as one more stick with which to beat a beleaguered teaching profession.