That Mr Men Speech and Why Mr Gove Is Not Mr Right

The secret to teaching history is to empower students with a passion for the subject.

Having gone to a comprehensive school in an area of considerable social depravation I can speak for talented teachers who were specially selected for their ability to maintain control and to enthuse their students with imaginative and inspired ideas.

Those students were no less able than their affluent contemporaries but they lacked the opportunities. Teachers were the ones who could make a difference.

On Thursday, another inspired teacher’s ideas came under fire by Education Secretary, Michael Gove both in The Times and on The Andrew Marr show.

This time Gove criticised Russel Tarr’s use of the Mr Men characters in helping Year 10 children (14 year olds) explore a subject about the rise of to power of Hitler. Gove focusses on one particular activity on Tarr’s website in which students are required to produce children’s stories in the style of the well known Mr Men books.

For Gove this was evidence of an ‘infantailisation’ of history teaching and a ‘culture of low expectations’.

Other commentators, who often react to the top line without analysing the context, inferred that the books that the students create as part of the topic addresses ‘Nazi Germany’ and thereby repackages World War Two and Genocide in to neat little stories. In short trivialising the horrors.

In fact what Tarr, who interestingly graduated from the same Oxford University college as Gove, is helping children to understand is the “Weimar Republic 1918-33” with “a focus on why democracy failed in Germay after World War One”.

His topic in fact, ends with the declaration of the Third Reich – and not the start of it.

The Men Men aspect, which is a revision exercise and not the primary method – is one small part of a thoroughly well thought through approach to teaching a difficult subject with its emotive consequence.

In fact, by producing complicated material in an accessible format Russell Tar’s approach is preparing students for a greater understanding of the devastating consequences and unspeakable horrors of the Second World War.

In addressing the complexities of the subject Tar himself explains “the process of transforming a sophisticated historical phenomenon to its essential elements in a manner that much younger students will understand is no easy feat” and that “it requires a sustained handling of analogy and metaphor that is as challenging as it is stimulating and memorable.”

Having visited schools as an author, and as a Patron of the Children’s University, I can vouch for the tremendous dedication and creative approaches committed teachers are making and it saddens me to see one talented teacher plucked out like this.

Traditional routes are not the only routes. In response to the furore Aaron Stebbings tweeted “I imagine Michael Gove would have a go at George Orwell for using farmyard animals to explain the rise of the Soviet Union.”

We should be thankful for teachers like Russell Tar – each one is a Mr Genius.

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