Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove’s 2013 Reading List

Michael Gove has been hiding lately. Could it be that he has run out of steam and is looking for another job? Or perhaps he is out back reading a few more books? This time last year he was busy telling the Spectator all about his desire that working-class children read 70+ books a year. In last week’s Education Select Committee, MPs were hard-pressed to get him to answer anything let alone reel out his new favourite classics.

All of which is me teeing up to say that writing this year’s Govian 2013 Reading List has been harder than last. But, never fear! I have mined the archives and I think I know what he’s been carrying around in his bag. Or, at least, pretending to.

Here are my guesses for Gove’s 2013 Top Reads:

1. Daisy Christodoulou – Seven Myths About Education
Mentioned about a million times by Gove in his speeches this year, Christodoulou’s remarkable kindle-only book soared to the top of the education charts as knowledge-buffs fawned over themselves and claimed her as the new Messiah. An in-depth and very well-written piece, Christodoulou’s book put paid to fluffy notions such as the idea that kids can “just Google it” and drew on the lessons of American educationalist, ED Hirsch, to argue for a more precise curriculum in England. As with any new saviour, not everyone was happy. In a post engaging with the content, Debra Kidd – one of the year’s new and most outspoken bloggers – outlined some of her disagreements. However, the book was well-received by some pretty big names, including Dough Lemov and Steven Pinker, and Gove has remained resolutely on the side of Team Daisy. One can expect to see t-shirts appearing next year.

2. Amanda Ripley – The Smartest Kids In The World…And How They Got That Way
Gove used to be big into foreigners. When first taking office, every other sentence involved Sweden, America or Finland. Quickly, the vocabulary shifted to Singapore and Hong Kong (once people pointed out that Finland & America don’t really do exams or accountability). Those earlier countries have now been dumped as this year’s PISA results saw them tumble in the league. The new thing now is bellowing about Estonia, and Poland, AND PLACES THAT LIKES MATH. To keep abreast of this I wonder if Gove has been dipping into Ripley’s latest where, in part-travel writing, part-edu writing, style she takes the reader round these top nations and asks “how did their kids get that smart?” Spoiler: It doesn’t involve academies.

3. Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma
Ah, The Blob. In March, Gove wrote a bizarre newspaper article calling everyone in educational research “blobby”. Marxist and feminists were particularly derided, and in their place Gove asked that RCTers rise up. (RCTers being those who evangelise about”randomised control trials” –  a way of testing educational ideas similar to the way they are tested in medicine, by randomly metering activities out to kids and measuring who learns most). Gove was led to the idea by Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Pharma”. We know this because Gove said so, and he then asked Goldacre to write a paper explaining how RCTs might work in education (despite Goldacre’s total naivety about schools, and teaching). Reaction was fierce. Some loved the idea. (To be fair, it was a well-written report). Others were more sceptical. But either way it gave Gove great headlines and enabled him to use the phrase “enemies of promise” at least 53 more times. Happy days for him.

4. Doug Lemov – Teach Like A Champion
If our Secretary of State hasn’t read this yet, he ought to. Lemov spent years observing the best teachers and documenting their micro-techniques. Simple things: the phrasing of instructions, the use of hand gestures, how best to give out worksheets. Compared to discussions of academy conversion and teacher pension reform these may seem unimportant, but they’re actually vital to learning. Also, though few have cottoned on to this, Lemov’s book really matters for Gove’s policy of shifting teacher training from universities and into the classroom. To do that, you need to have techniques available that teachers can use for behaviour, for questioning, etc without having to go through a bunch of theory first. Enter Lemov. If you believe that by following his manual you can become a good teacher (my own thoughts on this have changed) then Gove’s policy makes more sense. Do people believe it? Hmmm…

5. Roger Hargreaves – My Complete Collection of Mr Men
Gove loves Mr Men. Honest he does.

And a few books that Gove probably didn’t read this year (buts lots of others raved about)

John Hattie – Visible Learning For Teachers
Hattie’s first book on learning was one of the most quoted in recent years. Having synthesised thousands of pieces of research about teaching techniques, Hattie reduced “what works in learning” to a few digits. Homework? 0.43 – not that useful. Team teaching? 0.06 – don’t bother. Giving quality feedback? 1.13 – DO THIS! But what the original book didn’t say was how to do these things. Cue “Visible Learning for Teachers” which outlines the most effective forms of planning, teaching and assessing. Will Gove care? Probably not, after all, it’s about actual teaching (not his forte), but should the rest of us read it? Absolutely.

Mick Waters – Thinking Allowed
I’m going to admit straight up that I didn’t read this book. (Gasp! Horror! THROW THINGS AT HER!). But everyone keeps telling me I should. Waters is the former head of the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority and led the 2007 Curriculum Reforms. These are the same reforms which Daisy aggressively attacks in her 7 myths book. I’m agnostic. To me, it’s likely the 2007 curriculum wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t a disaster. [Really, I taught from it, it was meh]. The reason I avoided this book initially is that I didn’t want it to be the sort of book that spends all its time defending past policy decisions. Whatever else they are, they’re gone. However, I hear that I am wrong.  Not only did the book sell ridiculously well but apparently it is about the future, and lots of new policy ideas. In particular Waters recommends a National Council of Schooling to run the curriculum independent of political parties. (An idea I have some sympathy with). So, it’s a book I should probably read, and arguably so should you.

Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence
Finally, in Gove’s last Education Select Committee appearance of the year he repeatedly used the word “excellence”. His team is excellent. The questions asked were excellent. He wanted excellence on toast. But what, exactly, does excellent mean? That’s the question this book gets into, and when it is mentioned by two of your favourite bloggers you know it must be good. Also, it has a cool title. Harry Fletcher-Wood used it to plan ways that his students might improve their writing. Tom Sherringto,n (headguruteacher),  showed how Berger’s idea of students repeating work makes it so much better. Gove has spent several years now tinkering at his policies. He thinks they are excellent. But have they really been crafted as thoughtfully as he reckons? It is worth reading Berger to find out.

Categories: Randoms

2 replies

  1. Teach Like a Champion was on my Christmas reading list too – I’m about 2/3rds of the way through at the moment. It’s terrific in many ways and I am in fundamental agreement with the idea of providing trainees and new teachers with concrete advice about what to do. At the moment, I think teacher training in the UK is about halfway between a very theoretical model (like I experienced) leaving nearly all the practical techniques to be picked up in school (either by observation, or trial and error), and the level of this book which is largely theory-free. I think that’s quite a good place for ITT to be but the clarity of the Lemov advice is way ahead of the mixed-bag current trainees in this country get. And if there are some UK providers offering the focused practice you observed in NYC I’m not aware of them. However, I can’t help feeling that Lemov’s list is a whole lot less rigourous than the immense meta-analysis Hattie is responsible for. A lot of the same champion teachers recur, the range of schools seems very limited, and there is no evidence that each and every technique is having the claimed effect – some could even be counter-productive.

    I have also read Visible Learning for Teachers. This is totally the opposite of Lemov; it’s a hefty read with barely a single piece of concrete practical advice for the classroom. I understand that Hattie feels that it’s up to teachers to decide how to implement the research findings but this book doesn’t even explain many of the items on the list of effect sizes. For example, top of the list is ‘self-reported grades’ but try looking that up in the index! Visible Learning is a heavy-weight academic tome. Had Hattie kept the effect-sizes, described the essence of the interventions, teased out some of the nuances, and thus provided teachers with something to work with, this would have been a brilliant book. As it stands, it’s more Hattie’s view of what an education system should look like. As such, it’s not much use to me and Gove doesn’t need to read it – he already knows what an education system should look like, doesn’t he?

    But despite my whinging, Teach like a Champion, and the original Visible Learning have a lot to offer. What we need now is a Hattie doing a Lemov, or a Lemov doing a Hattie. Maybe then even Gove will need to read it.

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