In defence of Mr Brainy
Last week, Michael Gove made a wide-ranging and passionate speech at Brighton College addressing what it means to be an educated person.
Unfortunately, the media reaction focused upon a single reference to a GCSE history lesson teaching the Third Reich through Mr Men characters. The education community are up in arms, but their response is paradoxical. Some have defended the merits of such teaching methods, others have argued such teaching methods are not widespread.
The latter argument is the easiest to dismiss. The Mr Men example was taken from the website activehistory.co.uk. It promotes ‘active’ teaching methods for learning about the past, and is arguably the most popular online resource amongst British history teachers. It contains many other examples of infantilising, anachronistic approaches to history teaching. To dispel the illusion that the Mr Men example was some unfair aberration from the otherwise quite sensible teaching of history in British schools, here is list of the top ten inane history lessons I have encountered in two years as a history teacher. I may add, these were all pitched at pupils between the ages of 11 and 16:
- Study the Battle of Hastings through re-enacting it on a field with softballs.
- Study the Doomsday Book through completing a survey of pupils’ possessions in the classroom.
- Study King John through composing a song defending his kingship, in response to ‘The Phoney King of England’, a song from a Disney cartoon.
- Spend three lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes.
- Study Henry VII by asking ‘Was Henry Tudor a Gangster?’.
- Study the marriages of Henry VIII by role-playing an episode of Blind Date.
- Make pupils gather under their desks in order to experience life on a slave ship.
- Study the Industrial Revolution by acting out pitching inventions on Dragon’s Den.
- Create a facebook page for Adolf Hitler, circa. 1921.
- Make plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Führer.
My indignation at such teaching methods may lead you to dismiss me as a blimpish killjoy. However, in my experience pupils are equally indignant at being so patronised. For the most part, pupils want to be taken seriously. Many commentators have defended the validity of ‘active’ teaching methods. According to the child-centred orthodoxy, such learning activities engage pupils, and enhance their learning. In reality they are time-consuming and superficial, and rarely hold a candle to confronting a topic head on.
One of the best critiques I have read of ‘active’ teaching methods comes from Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia. He writes that all lesson planning should take into account the following cognitive principle – “memory is the residue of thought”. According to this principle, Willingham criticises an American history lesson about slaves escaping via the underground railway, in which pupils bake the sorts of biscuits eaten by fugitive slaves during their journey north. He writes, “[the] students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railway, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, missing shortening, and so on.” Active teaching methods such as designing Mr Men characters from the Third Reich are meant to engage pupils with the past: in reality, they distract them from it.
Aside from their ineffectiveness, what is most disheartening about active teaching methods is that they imply history is insufficiently interesting to be taught in its own right. Many teachers seem to believe that without, games, activities, and contrived ‘contemporary relevance’ history is boring. How can the unfolding story of mankind possibly be boring? A good history teacher makes the story of mankind interesting in and of itself. Those who resort to creating facebook pages, making models, dressing up, cookery classes and Mr Men – and in doing so betray the integrity of their subject – are quite simply cheating.