When education secretary Michael Gove mocked university professors who had criticised his plans to reform the national curriculum, a backlash from the academy was to be expected.
In a speech to headteachers in London on 21 March, Mr Gove said there was “good academia and bad academia”, adding that the 100 academics who had signed a letter criticising his policy were guilty of the latter. (The letter was printed in two national newspapers on 19 March.) Mr Gove also penned an opinion piece for the Mail on Sunday accusing the letter’s signatories of “valuing Marxism” more than learning.
Harry Torrance, Manchester Metropolitan University’s associate dean for research in education, was not among those who signed. However, he used the university’s Education and Social Research Institute Blog to make his feelings known.
“Michael Gove’s hysterical response [in the Mail]…suggests that it’s a lot easier to rattle the cage of powerful politicians than might be realised,” writes Professor Torrance, who is also director of the institute.
“Obviously all is not well in government. Our ‘impact’ narrative is writing itself on an almost daily basis at present,” he continues. “That reasoned criticism, from 100 academics representing a very wide range of views and empirical research on teaching, learning and the curriculum over many years, should be so instantly dismissed as ‘marxist’ is quite extraordinary. It’s also rather quaint and faintly reassuring to find out that ‘reds under the bed’ is still thought to sell newspapers.”
“I feel this comes down to Gove wanting kids to know the right things…while the academics want students who by implication are able to solve problems, think critically and creatively,” he says, going on to point out some of the differences he perceives between the world of Gove and the world of academia.
“If Gove were to design a careers education program, I would guess he would want to focus on concrete facts and understandings,” he writes. “He would want students to have a good grasp of labor market information, to know what recruiters want, to have a CV, to have memorized 10 top tips for interview success, etc. In short, a similar view to what lots of employability work is.
“I would wager that the academics would be less interested in knowing labor market info and be more concerned [about] the [students’] ability to research and appraise knowledge for themselves. Equally, interviews are less about pre-packaged solutions, but [more about] using critical thinking to produce and test their own solutions.”
He ends with a question. “Do you want to be part of an education system that imparts measurable knowledge or one that imparts skills? And do you want to give ‘information’, ‘facts’ and top tips to your students or do you want to give them a set of skills that can transfer across disciplines?” We await Mr Gove’s answer.
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