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Primary Education News
News 'Mr Men' teacher hits back at Michael Gove
Russel Tarr accuses education secretary of a lack of interpretation 'that would make GCSE student blush with shame'
A teacher attacked by Michael Gove for using Mr Men characters to help students understand the rise of Hitler has fought back, accusing the education secretary of betraying a lack of interpretation "that would make a GCSE student blush with shame".
Last week, Gove cited a lesson plan posted by teacher Russel Tarr on his website to illustrate what the minister said was the "culture of low expectations" in English schools. Tarr, who has been a full-time history teacher for 16 years, suggests 15 and 16-year-olds depict the rise of Hitler as a Mr Men story for 10 and 11-year-olds as part of their iGCSE revision.
Tarr, who has taught at the fee-paying Wolverhampton grammar school and the International School of Toulouse, said the activity helped teenagers test their knowledge by sharing what they had learned with younger students.
Gove told teachers at an education conference held at Brighton College last week that too many teachers were treating "young people on the verge of university study as though they have the attention span of infants".
"As long as there are people in education making excuses for failure, cursing future generations with a culture of low expectations, denying children access to the best that has been thought and written, because Nemo and the Mr Men are more relevant, the battle needs to be joined," he said.
"I may be unfamiliar with all of Roger Hargreaves' work [the author of the Mr Men series], but I am not sure he ever got round to producing Mr Antisemitic Dictator, Mr Junker General or Mr Dutch Communist Scapegoat. But I am familiar with the superb historical account Richard J Evans gives of the rise, rule and ruin of the Third Reich and I cannot believe he could possibly be happy with reducing the history of Germany's darkest years to a falling out between Mr Tickle and Mr Topsy-Turvy."
In a blogpost on his Active History website, Tarr has drawn a mock Mr Men book in which Gove is Mr Point. It reads: "Mr Point was too lazy to read anything himself. His friends always missed the point too as they couldn't be bothered to read every word."
Tarr writes: "Gove and his advisers – 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."
He points out: "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 … This is not a 'lesson about Hitler' in that sense and I think this is an important point."
Tarr argues that the Mr Men lesson plan is a revision tool at the end of a six-week course on the rise of Hitler during which pupils would have written an externally moderated 1,000-word essay analysing the causes for Hitler's election as German chancellor in January 1933. "The creation of children's storybooks is an excellent revision exercise, but not the primary method by which I teach any topic whatsoever," Tarr writes. "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."
In any case, Tarr argues, the exercise is "highly challenging and in no way represents the 'infantilisation' of students 'on the verge of university'".
"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: it requires a sustained handling of analogy and metaphor that is as challenging as it is stimulating and memorable."
Tarr argues that the process forces students to engage in issues of historical interpretation. "The activity actually starts with the following discussion point: 'If the Weimar Republic was a Mr Men character, which one would it be and why?' … It produces some interesting answers – for example Mr Worry (inability and unwillingness to take firm action against the Nazis) to Mr Bounce (the dramatic 'recovery' of 1924-28) and Mr Mean (refusing to increase unemployment benefits after 1929 with disastrous results).
"Similarly, those students who regard Hitler's speechmaking skills and charisma as the key to his rise to power will choose a different character to represent the Nazi leader compared to those who focus on his ability to merely capitalise upon the Weimar Republic's weaknesses or those who blame the impact of the Great Depression."
Gove also came under fire on Monday for citing opinion polls commissioned as PR by UKTV Gold and Premier Inn as evidence of teenagers' ignorance of important historical events.