michael vs ken

On Thursday 9 May 2013, the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove gave an impassioned speech about his concerns about – and plans for – the UK’s education system. A transcript of the full speech is available at politics.co.uk.

On the surface, much of the speech makes sense. Who doesn’t want to have high expectations of their children such that they might experience “levels of accomplishment they may never have envisaged”? As a teacher, I have very high expectations of the attitudes and work of the students I work with (and for). I think my most important teacher as an undergraduate at Otago University in New Zealand was a Professor who made outrageous demands on our ability to think, work, understand and question.

The problem with Gove’s rhetoric is that beneath the surface he is implying that such (high) expectations should be directed towards the kind of education that worked for him. So much of Gove’s offence and defence is about “what our schools should teach”. In other words, if we can just get the curriculum right (which means Eliot, Byron, Keats, Shelley, i.e. the great canon) by “specifying more content” then we will all be ready to fight the good fight and bring equality, reason and rationality (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to the land.

Now, here’s Ken Robinson in his most recent TED talk, How to escape Education’s Death Valley:

You know, central governments decide or state governments decide they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.

The real role of leadership in education – and I think it’s true at the national level, the state level, at the school level – is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected.

My experience – and this is at higher education level – is simply that students respond to being given responsibility. That the very best thing I can do as a teacher is to avoid being prescriptive about what it is that students should know. That my role is to get out of the way of their learning, and I can only do that if the terms and conditions of the curricula are flexible, local, and able to be adapted to the needs, interests, lives and differences of the students I work with (and for).

This does not mean lowering my expectations, but it does mean acknowledging that at the heart of all teaching and learning[1] is creating the conditions by which young people are able to live empowered autonomous lives filled with thoughtful decisions.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 he puts it like this[2]:

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Michael Gove appears hell-bent on supporting freedom or flexibility in education as long as it only includes his choices.


  1. This is not to suggest that I am succeeding in this, simply that I’m giving it a red-hot go.  ↩
  2. There’s a video-animation version of part of Foster Wallace’s speech flying around the web at the moment. I like it a lot.  ↩
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