Mr. Gove focuses on a particular activity on my website www.activehistory.co.uk in which students are required to produce children’s stories in the style of the well-known ‘Mr. Men’ books to explain the rise of Hitler. For Gove, this provides irrefutable evidence of the ‘infantilisation’ of history teaching and a ‘culture of low expectations’ (although as Aaron Stebbings puts it, “I imagine Michael Gove would have a go at George Orwell for using farmyard animals to explain the rise of the Soviet Union”).
Gove and his advisors - either through stupidity or mischievousness - failed to place me, my website, or the lesson into its appropriate context. 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 (I kid you not)!
Moreover, other commentators have inferred that these books address “Nazi Germany” and thereby repackage World War Two and the Genocide into bedtime stories for primary school children. Not so. To clarify, I do not teach the Third Reich - with all its attendant horrors - through children’s storybooks. The actual topic in question is “The Weimar Republic 1918-33” with a focus on why democracy failed in Germany after World War One: in other words the topic does not begin, but instead ends, with the declaration of the Third Reich. This is not a ‘lesson about Hitler’ in that sense and I think this is an important point.
The “Mr. Men” approach is highly effective, but does not provide a ‘typical’ example of how history lessons are taught in my classroom or anyone else’s. The whole idea of taking one activity and using this to illustrate how children are taught in general is laughable. My students will use the Mr. Men approach on just two occasions in their seven years with me: once when revising the rise of Hitler, and once when outlining the Causes of World War One.
The approach is easily transferable to other subjects such as science, politicians in general and Mr. Gove in particular. Outside of this they will have an endless range of other experiences designed to appeal to as broad a range of learning styles as possible, at different ability levels, for the appropriate age range under consideration. It’s a little trick we in the teaching procession call ‘differentiation’, Mr. Gove!