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Middlemarch, Misrepresentation and Mr Men – another Gove speech

What would most impress you as a parent? That your daughter read Twilight or Middlemarch? Or that your son used his laptop to play Angry Birds or coding? These questions kicked off the Education Secretary’s latest speech.

Leave aside the gendered stereotype – girls read while boys use computers – Gove’s questions raise false dichotomies. It’s either one or the other. There’s no room for both and no suggestion that one could lead to the other.

Reading Eliot should be motivated by curiosity not because it might impress. Literature isn’t for intellectual one-upmanship. And today’s gaming geek can be tomorrow’s game designer.

Gove confuses reading books and studying books. For Gove, the latter doesn’t include studying anything outside the Great Literature canon especially if it’s pre-20th century. He bemoans the fact that exam candidates prefer Of Mice and Men to Pride and Prejudice. But it’s the quality of engagement with a book that’s important not the perceived quality of the book. Orwell wrote just as elegantly about boys’ weeklies as he did about Tolstoy and King Lear. The former essay isn’t weaker than the latter just because it discusses popular comics. And a discriminating reading of Twilight could lead to Gothic classics.

Gove applies the same logic to computer gaming. Angry Birds, implies Gove, is a low-level activity in which children “while away hours flinging electronic fowl at virtual pigs”. But, according to Harvard Business Review, gamers are “bottom line-orientated; understand the power of diversity; thrive on change; see learning as fun; and explore radical alternatives and innovative strategies. Gamers learn constantly.” Those electronic fowl can lead to higher thinking:

“Let’s redesign Angry Birds Friends into a good game. Take literally ten seconds and think to yourself, ‘What sort of multiplayer game works (and sells) really well on mobile devices?’ If the answer is not forthcoming, ask yourself, ‘What type of game do I really like to play with friends?'”

Arent’t these the kind of questions a coder needs to ask before starting coding?  Coding without purpose would be like allowing monkeys to bash computer keys.

Gove reels off authors which he says are studied in the academies he heaps with praise. But there’s nothing exceptional in his list. The same or similar authors appear in thousands of schools in a smorgasbord of fiction, non-fiction, biographies, diaries, reportage, travel writing and short stories. And that’s just prose. Although quite why Gove included Malcolm Gladwell in his list of great authors for secondary pupils is unclear.

History teaching takes another knock although he avoids mentioning “survey after survey”. Instead he misrepresents lesson plans from the Historical Association and a revision activity about the rise of Hitler. The latter attracted particular opprobrium because it asked pupils to produce a book in a simplified Mr Man format suitable for reading to younger pupils. But Mr Gove forgot to mention the purpose of the lesson plan (consolidation), the target of the books (younger children) or that the latter would be fully-briefed beforehand. Instead, he focussed his attack on the Mr Men element. In any case, it’s not outrageous to use comic strips to portray history. Persepolis and Maus attest to that.

Gove similarly misrepresents Michael Rosen. Rosen wrote that Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Tests might not be the best way to teach grammar and grammar rules aren’t fixed but change over time. Gove misinterprets this as showing that Rosen thinks correct grammar doesn’t exist and he with other “progressive” thinkers want to prevent the majority of children from being taught how to communicate.

Finally, Gove said 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English were “the minimum level of literacy and numeracy required for future employability.” But the Office of National Statistics makes it clear that Level One qualifications (GCSE D-G) allow entry to elementary jobs such as customer service and basic administration.

So, after Middlemarch, Mr Men and Misrepresentation we have another M – Misleading information. But it wouldn’t be a Gove speech without some of that.


A longer critique of Gove’s speech is here.

A satirical piece featuring a new Mr Man character is here.


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Comments, replies and queries

  1. Roger Titcombe says:

    Janet – ‘ today’s gaming geek can be tomorrow’s game designer’.

    We have an example in our own family. I have a comprehensive school educated nephew who was a ‘gaming geek’ as a childhood/adolescent/university student. He is now a top Microsoft software project engineer. Obviously he wasn’t JUST a gaming geek, but a normal kid allowed to indulge his interests and lucky enough to have avoided his growing up and future career being wrecked by Gove.

  2. A Cooper says:

    When interviewed on today’s Andrew Marr show he articulated that in his position as Minister for Education he has every right to prescribe what children should be doing in their free time. You can only feel pity for his own children, who must be smuggling copies of Twilight into the Gove home in brown paper bags.

    • Roger Titcombe says:

      I didn’t see this interview but if this is what he said it is astounding. The Minister of Education has the right to prescribe what children do in their free time!

      George Orwell. how could you have been so prescient?

      • Guest says:

        Perhaps you would be advised to watch on iplayer before commenting. You may wish to listen to what he says rather than assume above poster is accurate.

        • Guest – a link would have been helpful. However, here’s the exchange from the transcript (linked below);

          JAMES LANDALE: I mean what right do you as Secretary of State have to tell people what to read?

          MICHAEL GOVE: I have every right, I think, to argue that we should higher standards. And I know that when I make that argument that I’m responding to what parents tell me. I personally believe that if children are reading anything, that’s a good thing, but we shouldn’t settle for children reading merely fiction that assumes to be relevant to them today or easy to access. We should demand higher standards of every child.

          End of transcript.

          Gove neatly dodges the question. He couches his answer in terms of “higher standards” which, he says, are what parents want. Parents may indeed want “higher standards” in schools but it doesn’t follow that they want to be told which reading matter should most “impress” them as Gove said in his Brighton College speech. The idea that parents’ desire for higher standards in schools should lead to them persuading their children to read Middlemarch, one of the most difficult novels in English literature, before they wish to is risible. It’s likely to put them off forever which rather defeats Gove’s point about the benefits of reading great literature.

  3. Russel Tarr, author of which suggested the revision exercise attacked by Gove, told Huffington Post:

    “His criticisms betray a lack of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation that would make a GCSE History student blush with shame. 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. Gove and his advisors – either through stupidity or mischievousness – failed to place me, my website, or the lesson into its appropriate context. ”

  4. Russel Tarr’s full comment about Gove’s misrepresentation of his revision exerciise is below. The consolidation exercise was not “about Hitler” or Nazi Germany as many commentators said. It concerned the Weimar republic 1918-33 “with a focus on why democracy failed in Germany after World War One”.

    Tarr quotes Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    In other words, asking pupils to explain the Weimar Republic in simple terms so they could explain it to younger pupils, is doing exactly what Einstein believes is a demonstration of understanding.

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