Education minister Liz Truss made a speech today which included the following defence of textbooks:
I want to start, though, with a defence of the textbook. Not just because I’m currying favour with publishers. Nor because I’m nostalgic about my dog-eared copy of ‘Tricolore’. But because the humble textbook represents something quite powerful. A textbook is a map, a guide. It’s a single thing you can pick, that starts off with basics and builds more and more on top, giving you what you need to know. That’s a beautiful idea – knowledge and understanding, there for the taking.
And think about how we use the word ‘textbook’. Call something textbook and you’re saying it’s the right way to do something. A textbook cricket shot. A textbook driving manoeuvre. One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions is ‘exemplary; accurate’ or ‘instructively typical’. There’s an entire social meaning around the word ‘textbook’.
So it’s odd that almost uniquely in the developed world, in England, textbooks have fallen out of fashion. Buried deep in the 2011 TIMSS study – an international comparison of maths and science teaching – is an analysis of use of materials. Seventy-five per cent of teachers in countries studied use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 10-year-olds [fourth grade in TIMSS]. In Germany, it’s 86%. Poland – 78%. Sweden – 89%. Korea – 99%. In England – it’s 10%. We are an outlier. And in science, across the world, on average 74% of teachers use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 14-year-olds [eighth grade]. In Korea, it’s 88%. Hong Kong – 87%. Malaysia – 83%. Chinese Taipei – 92%. In England – it’s 8%.
Why is this? Why are textbooks unloved in England? I think it’s partly progressive education philosophy – exemplified by the Plowden report of 1967 – with its concept of child centred learning, and idea there’s no best way to teach.
I am sympathetic to this, but it misses the reality on the ground. The reason we are scared to use textbooks might relate to progressive ideology, but owes more to how it is enforced than its intellectual influence. In particular, like most things in education it comes down to the actions of OFSTED. I’ve tried using a textbook exercise in front of an OFSTED inspector, they do not like it. In their pro-groupwork phase working from a textbook would have been a mortal sin. If they have moved on from that, they now seem to want evidence that work is tailored to individual needs, so using the same textbook for a whole class seems to be right out. Mike Cameron on Twitter nailed this exactly by doing a search for the phrase “much over-reliance on textbooks” on the OFSTED website.
Here are some examples:
While teaching is mostly good there are times when it loses ‘crispness’ and clarity and tasks are not challenging enough. Despite their willingness to complete their tasks, pupils do not always achieve as much as they could do. Sometimes an over-reliance on textbooks and commercial worksheets limits pupils’ own responses.
St David’s Primary School (Ministry of Defence), July 2013
Year 11 mathematics lesson seen by inspectors, teachers use whiteboards effectively to illustrate and focus on teaching points. Conversely, in some lessons, there is too much reliance on worksheets, textbooks and uninspiring resources
Institute of Islamic Education, independent school, September 2011
Teaching in the academic subjects is not as effective as in the performing arts. This is because teachers are not adapting lessons enough to extend the understanding and skills of all pupils, especially more -able pupils. In some subjects, there is an over-reliance on textbooks.
Barbara Speake Stage School, June 2013
Almost all students have a very positive attitude to mathematics and are keen to do well. They respond best when given opportunities to discuss their mathematics and be more actively involved in lessons. This does not happen in all lessons and students report that they sometimes spend too long working from textbooks and worksheets emulating the methods and
techniques they have been shown by their teacher…
An over-reliance on textbook-based approaches sometimes results in students’ fragmented experience of the mathematics curriculum…
Too great a reliance is placed on pathways through textbook schemes to meet the needs of different groups of students.
The King David High School, Ofsted 2012–13 subject survey inspection programme: mathematics
An improvement in the teaching is teachers’ reduced reliance on textbooks and worksheets. A recently acquired textbook-based scheme of work still forms the basis of teachers’ planning but is being adapted more readily to suit pupils’ needs. The school has rightly identified that Key Stage 2 pupils would benefit from more opportunities to learn and practise skills in exciting, real-life contexts.
Holy Trinity CofE Primary School, Ofsted 2010–11 subject survey inspection programme: mathematics
Martin Fitzgerald, mathematics coordinator, is responsible for the work of the team of 12 teachers. He works closely with Derek. He emphasises that the department ‘… now works at the opposite end of the spectrum from “text-book lessons”. The danger with that approach was that pupils seemed to be making secure progress because they became adept at answering the questions, but they were seldom able to make that all-important massive jump when asked to apply their learning in real situations. An over-reliance on textbooks kills any hope of realising high expectations because it leads to pupils becoming dependent on the teacher. We knew we had to move on from that.’
OFSTED good practice report, Allenbourn Middle School, January 2012.
I could go on.
Added to this, of course, the government has also been keen to increase the power of headteachers to remove teachers they disapprove of, and, with performance-related pay, reward those they do approve of. How many headteachers are going to be rewarding teachers who rely on OFSTED unfriendly methods of teaching like using textbooks? How many would rather remove teachers who insist on using textbooks rather than entertaining the kids? The government, once more, seems keen on sabotaging its own objectives. Until they are willing to take on OFSTED they might as well refrain from expressing views about teaching. OFSTED, and not OFSTED at its best but the fear of the worst possible inspector, determines how we are meant to teach, and that isn’t through using textbooks.