Why textbooks matter | Lucy Crehan | CleverLands by Lucy Crehan

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11 Jan 2017

Why textbooks matter

“Conservative politician endorses textbook use in schools”.

It’s hardly news is it? It’s like announcing “Lady Gaga wears an unusual outfit”. But in fact there is information of real value hiding behind the announcement today by English minister Nick Gibb that schools should make more use of textbooks, and we would be missing out if we didn’t look a little deeper into the particular reasons for this.

Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment has just released a paper called ‘Textbooks count’ based on his analysis of over 200 textbooks from a number of education systems, and on his and others’ research into how textbooks are used in each country. It was the conclusion of this paper that prompted Gibb’s announcement; that the use of high quality text books most likely contributes to the success of these ‘top performing’ education systems, and that England has fallen behind the times in this respect. Oates found English textbooks to be highly instrumental and heavily led by the structure of examinations, whereas the highest quality textbooks among those he studied included a series of important features that enabled solid conceptual understanding and encouraged reflection and varied application.

Oates calls for some “self-searching criticism of the status-quo in England, and to concerted effort by publishers, the State, researchers and educationalists in order to align more with emerging international standards of excellence – both in the form of textbooks and the patterns of their use.”

I am convinced by his analysis and conclusion (and learned some new things about the Finnish system along the way), not least because it aligns with my own experiences in Finland, Singapore and Japan. We seem to have given up on textbooks in England (TIMMS data suggest that only 10% of Maths teachers use textbooks as a basis for instruction, compared to 70% in Singapore and 90% in Finland) and I think that this is a mistake, fuelled by an erroneous assumption about what textbook led lessons must look like.

In a word association game played in England, textbook would most likely be followed by ‘chalk’, ‘lecture’ or ‘boredom’. It triggers images of schoolmasters in gowns strolling up and down the classroom with a stern brow while children struggle away at incomprehensible passages. We don’t associate textbooks with engaging lessons and deep learning, because they can and have been used in uninspiring ways. But that isn’t a necessary result of using textbooks, any more than musical fame automatically follows from wearing a dress made from ham. Gaga was famous already. Those teachers were boring already.

Textbook based lessons needn’t be boring

In a word association game played in England, textbook would most likely be followed by ‘chalk’, ‘lecture’ or ‘boredom’. It triggers images of schoolmasters in gowns strolling up and down the classroom with a stern brow while children struggle away at incomprehensible passages. We don’t associate textbooks with engaging lessons and deep learning, because they can and have been used in uninspiring ways. But that isn’t a necessary result of using textbooks, any more than musical fame automatically follows from wearing a dress made from ham. Gaga was famous already. Those teachers were boring already.

On my travels I saw hundreds of lessons involving textbooks, and they were used in all sorts of ways. I saw students asked to tackle questions from the textbook in pairs, encouraging them to talk about the learning. I saw the class going through exercises together on the white board. I saw them playing games using the vocabulary they’d just learnt, and card sorts based on the new scientific concepts from the textbook. I also saw teachers bringing in their own resources and worksheets to supplement the textbooks, and playing video clips and songs that they knew would get the students engaged.

Textbooks can support conceptual understanding

In Tim Oates’ analysis, he found that the best textbooks were based on theory about how children learn, and subject-specific theory about the best order and manner in which to teach concepts. They are designed so that everything a child needs to understand the topic is in there, which safeguards children’s learning from teacher error or omission in their explanation of the topic. They provide opportunities to apply and practice the concepts addressed – not boring repetition, but varied application.

In Singapore each course came with a teachers’ guide, which contained ideas, suggested questions to get the students really thinking, and common misconceptions about that topic. The teachers used these resources skilfully, the lessons were full of talk about the concepts and the children were engaged and excited. The quality of textbooks can make a difference to children’s enjoyment as well as their achievement; in Lucca, Italy, Maths became one class’s favourite subject after the teacher decided to switch to a Finnish text book in Maths, and the class outperformed their peers too.

Textbooks allow for the possibility of private study

I’m a teacher, so I initially came at this topic from a teachers’ perspective (more on this below). But if you aren’t a current student, take on a student’s perspective for a moment, and imagine you have an inexperienced or lazy teacher. They either don’t know how to teach you the concepts effectively, or they’ve not put in the effort to find suitable materials.

You are cognitively stuck – unless your parents can pay for some private tuition, there’s not a lot you can do to advance your understanding. Material you find on the internet will be too advanced, or too simple, and won’t provide you with the opportunity to practice. Revision guides (should you be in an exam year) will cover the content in a shallow way, but not permit a deeper understanding. Only the teacher can introduce you to the understanding that you need; the teacher has all the power.

Now imagine you’re in Japan. School might occasionally be boring. The teacher will probably explain things reasonably well, but with not that much attention given to the engagement of the students, you may fall asleep for a few minutes and miss something (I saw this happen). Luckily, you have a textbook, and a student workbook, so you can go home and read up on what you missed. When exams come round, you have all the materials you need to make sure you have a thorough understanding of that topic. Of course I’m not suggesting we allow our lessons to be boring (as I explained above), but why deny our children the chance to take some responsibility for their own learning?

Here’s a controversial question: Do we as teachers resist textbooks because we want to feel needed?

Text books save teachers time

This is an obvious but important reason that we should make more use of textbooks. You sit down on a Sunday afternoon to plan your lessons. You already have the material explained clearly, in a helpful order, with examples thought up by experienced teachers. You already have exercises or activities for the students to do, questions to stimulate their thinking and extension tasks for those who need them. What would you do with that time?

What teachers in Finland and Singapore do is they spend time thinking about how to make the topic interesting and relevant for their students, and when in school, more time planning with colleagues to ensure that their lessons are the best they can be. There is more time for marking, and more time during lessons (when the students are working on the given tasks) to provide students with individual support.

In conclusion..

In conclusion; what Tim Oates said. We need a “concerted effort by publishers, the State, researchers and educationalists in order to align more with emerging international standards of excellence – both in the form of textbooks and the patterns of their use”. To me this mean an effort to enable the production of a range of top quality text books, to help schools buy them (or make them see why they should spend the money) and to convince teachers to use them where appropriate. And by convince, I don’t mean force – teachers and headteachers need to decide for themselves.

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