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.

Mr HappyUnfortunately, 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:

  1. Study the Battle of Hastings through re-enacting it on a field with softballs.
  2. Study the Doomsday Book through completing a survey of pupils’ possessions in the classroom.
  3. Study King John through composing a song defending his kingship, in response to ‘The Phoney King of England’, a song from a Disney cartoon.
  4. Spend three lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes.
  5. Study Henry VII by asking ‘Was Henry Tudor a Gangster?’.
  6. Study the marriages of Henry VIII by role-playing an episode of Blind Date.
  7. Make pupils gather under their desks in order to experience life on a slave ship.
  8. Study the Industrial Revolution by acting out pitching inventions on Dragon’s Den.
  9. Create a facebook page for Adolf Hitler, circa. 1921.
  10. 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.

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~ by goodbyemisterhunter on May 16, 2013.

13 Responses to “In defence of Mr Brainy”

  1. Reblogged this on Scenes From The Battleground and commented:
    And this response to the issue, also by a history teacher, clarifies exactly why the lesson (while extreme and memorable) illustrates a broader concern.

  2. But all of these sound like great lesson plans. I’m sure they could be badly executed, but the concepts are fabulous.

    Study the Battle of Hastings through re-enacting it on a field with softballs.
    – I have no idea how mediaeval battles actually worked. How did they decide who won? Did all the soldiers get killed? What does a charge look like? What were your chances of dying during any given part of the battle?

    Study the Doomsday Book through completing a survey of pupils’ possessions in the classroom.
    – The Domesday Book is an extraordinary document in format. Working out the relationship between possessions (now) and taxes (ongoing), as well as starting to delineate ownership (does that chair “belong” to that child?). Definitely worth thinking about.

    Study King John through composing a song defending his kingship, in response to ‘The Phoney King of England’, a song from a Disney cartoon.
    – Er, OK, this one sounds rubbish.

    Spend three lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes.
    – Would depend on whether you took time to talk about thickness of walls, why the towers and crenellations were there, point of the moat and problems with stagnant water, etc.

    Study Henry VII by asking ‘Was Henry Tudor a Gangster?’.
    – If you must learn kings and queens, at least put them in context. HT was a gangster, just one who became king. That connection is very much worth learning.

    Study the marriages of Henry VIII by role-playing an episode of Blind Date.
    – Yeah, that sound rubbish.

    Make pupils gather under their desks in order to experience life on a slave ship.
    – Did they have to stay there for months?

    Study the Industrial Revolution by acting out pitching inventions on Dragon’s Den.
    – This would be amazing. Most inventions were loss-making at first, or dependent entirely on colonial plunder to be effective. Talking about that – why the inventions stuck, whether economic efficiency is the most important thing – would be great.

    Create a facebook page for Adolf Hitler, circa. 1921.
    – How do political movements actually happen?

    Make plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Führer.
    – Albert Speer, at all? The Third Reich is famous for making its ideals concrete in the form of monumental architecture. Seriously, do you not see how this links in with very serious historical thought? Or building models of the slaughterhouses: execution chambers slightly away from the work spaces, just in case the Jews started to get scared and rebelled…

    Like I say, I can see how any of these lessons might be done badly. But chalk n talk lessons are often done badly as well. You seem to be saying that the concepts behind these lessons are bad, and most of them just aren’t. Most of them are very current, very mainstream historical thinking. If you don’t know how to teach them, then don’t. You can teach other stuff. But other teachers may be much more attuned to the particular historical concepts that these lessons represent. Having a go at those teachers seems a bit silly.

    • The only problem with your argument is that you assume teenagers will approach the activities as you, an educated adult, have. Except for perhaps the brightest pupils, few will be thinking seriously about medieval warfare; they will be thinking about throwing and dodging softballs.
      The average pupil’s knowledge of history is insufficient to make the kind of inductions you are describing. Even the student’s contemporary knowledge may be inadequate; how well does a teenager understand what a gangster is, outside the context of gangsta rap?
      As for building castles or concentration camps, how does the physical act of building a death camp teach the children more than showing them a plan and discussing it?
      I’m a chemistry teacher and one would think I would be all for practical, active lessons. However, it’s very often the case that the chemical principle I want the student’s to understand is lost in the bustle of singed lab coats and broken glassware. A lesson watching a short demonstration and then discussing it often results in better conceptual understanding. (Although OFSTED would hate it, because the students were sitting the whole lesson.)

      • Hi, Alexander. I take your points.
        “The average pupil’s knowledge of history is insufficient to make the kind of inductions you are describing.”
        That would have to be up to the individual teacher to judge, surely? I am assuming that each of these lessons would be built into a program: there’d be a build up, explaining what the practical part is about, and then extensive debriefing to make sure they got the point. If that didn’t happen, then yes, I can see that these could end up being wasted time. But again, that’s true of all lessons, isn’t it? A single chemical principle learned in isolation is no use; it only makes sense if you put it into a course, build up to it and build up from it.
        “it’s very often the case that the chemical principle I want the student’s to understand is lost in the bustle of singed lab coats and broken glassware.”
        Sure. But that assumes quite narrow goals for the lesson – the teaching to the test that you have to do. If practical chemistry skills were one of your objectives (or, heaven forbid, more general planning and execution skills not tied to your curriculum but just to prod the children along the road toward maturity), then your practical would be building those, too. I did chemistry GCSE, and we had a practical test. Does that still happen?

      • Phil,
        You’re right; a chemistry practical teaches many things besides a single chemical principle, and yes practical tests still happen. I wonder though what ‘practical’ skills are being learnt during some of the history lessons described. Before anyone corrects me, I fully realize that historical reconstruction (i.e. building a longbow from a yew tree and seeing how many French knights can be brought down,) is an important part of doing history.
        An illustrative anecdote: We had a teacher who, to teach about the Greco-Persian wars, would have his class form a phalanx and march up and down the playing fields with broomsticks as spears. Surprisingly, the pupils did not manage to recreate the precision of a highly trained body of Greek hoplites in the space of a 50 minute lesson. The students had fun, but none of them could explain afterwards why the phalanx was a successful military phenomenon (according to their teacher.) And this was after a full lesson on ancient warfare meant to prepare them.
        I suppose I could be convinced that these were valuable lessons if I could observe a successful one in practice. So far, lessons I have seen of this sort have been exactly as Matthew, and others, have implied: “…full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

  3. […] A great post here: […]

  4. “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.”

    There is the same problem in English. Apparently you cannot teach an entire Shakespeare play to a student under the age of 17 as it’s too boring. And this attitude applies to the entire canon; these books are things you ‘have’ to study, not opportunities to experience and enjoy great literature for its own sake. It’s patronising to the student and reductive of the subject. At the risk of being controversial, however, I do wonder whether in some cases the academic knowledge of some teachers is in itself inadequate for teaching some of these texts – a problem which will only escalate as the current generation grow up.

  5. I am starting to get a little cheesed of with people using a reference to “Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia” to try to add some credibility to their argument.

    I think most people would see that in the Dan Willingham example, making biscuits did not require the students to think about the slaves and the Underground Railway. No focus of attention, no residual memory etc etc.

    However many of the examples you quote do not suffer from that flaw in design. Many of them seem to require the students to think about the detail of the concept/idea being studied. In this respect there will be attention, there can be residual memories and there can be learning.

    You appear to have some sort of downer on “active” learning methods. I have never, and probably will never see any benefit in using such a taxonomy. I tend to use every method that works, and those that work I best I use most frequently.

    To pick one example, I probably would not have 16 year old students making castles (probably) but for KS3 kids making a castle can be a very valuable learning experience.

    To dismiss activities that work simple because you view them as active, and the Underground Railway is an example of an “active learning activity” seems a bit daft to me.

    What sorts of activities would you describe as “brilliant” Matthew?

  6. I support Phil H’s reasoned critique of your post. You list 10 not unusual (as he and you say) ideas for History lessons. I would like to know what ‘confronting a topic head on’ involves, as most of these do exactly that, requiring considerable engagement with factual knowledge and the story of the topic. You then spend a paragraph criticising baking biscuits – can you not see this is *entirely* different to most of your ‘top 10’, in that it is not focussed on the history whereas the others (if taught well) are? Phil’s last paragraph puts it better than I can so I’ll leave my thoughts there.

  7. Shame I don’t teach history anymore, there’s some cracking ideas there. I would love to do the dragons den one.

  8. These comments are so depressing…

  9. KB

    Which comments do you find depressing?

    Why do you find them depressing?

    I think most comments here address the shallow analysis carried out by Gove and others and for that I find them quite uplifting.

  10. In your denunciation of ‘active’ teaching methods you cite, from the work of an American professor, the example of “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”. I agree completely with Willingham’s denunciation of this utterly pointless lesson.

    Worse than that, however, is that you choose to compare this with Active History’s Mr Men activity as one which also “distracts” children from historical understanding. This conclusion can only have been reached through a complete misunderstanding of the activity, deliberately or otherwise.

    As Willingham says “memory is the residue of thought”, is this not exactly what the Mr Men activity will allow the students to achieve? By thinking about the characteristics of protagonists and of the conditions in 1930s Germany, students will be thinking about the rise of Hitler thus helping them to remember the history.

    In addition to this, the students are expected to make the story accessible to younger children. Students will therefore be summarising the key facts and interpretations. Is the ability to summarise and condense a wealth of detail a skill vital to any historian?

    Your denunciation can only be motivated by your own insular views of education and history teaching. Not all students are able to memorise and understand complex historical events through being lectured.

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