Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Textbook

When reading the reports from the primary bloggers who went to the DfE and met Liz Truss a while back, I was not the only one who was struck by her attachment to the textbook. Then when she made a speech later referencing textbooks I felt I wanted to write a blog post about textbooks.

I am not against textbooks. However, I rarely use them. Throughout my career I have used them less and less. As I write this I have spent two days surrounded by the textbooks on offer for the new key stage 3 science scheme of work. I was hoping to look into them and find contexts, activities and ideas that would inspire the next, much improved, iteration of the schemes of work I have been using over the years. But I find them hopelessly lacking.

I wonder if Liz Truss is genuinely looking for a way to reduce teacher workload and see the textbook as a possible answer. She sees teachers making and copying worksheets and thinks 'why can't they just get students to work through a book?' I can understand that, but she's not in touch. 

Part of me wonders if it us teachers that should expect more?

I want to think about my key stage 3 and GCSE teaching separately from my A-level teaching. I do use textbooks more in my A-level teaching, and I do go into that later.

After some research I found a speech in December 2013 when she said:

Textbooks less popular in England
So it’s odd that almost uniquely in the developed world, in England, textbooks have fallen out of fashion. ....
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%.

I am still wondering who the 8% are (and how we know this).

She seems to associate not using a textbook with progressive education. I don't think I am particularly modern in the way that I teach. I spend a lot of time delivering information and handing out worksheets for the students to practice what they have learned,  ironically at A-level I do this by (illegally) photocopying pages from textbooks! (although I have bought some second hand copies of those books now, and I will come to A-level later). 

 She says that 

In that view, textbooks were - and are - seen as regimented, old-fashioned, as stifling creativity.
This is certainly not the reason I have reduced the amount of time I spend using textbooks. 

I can understand the sentiments she goes onto express in her speech. The usefulness of a textbook to accurately cover the key concepts and ideas (they aren't always accurate). She expressed that a textbook should structure knowledge and build on ideas as a student progresses through the book.

She highlights examples of textbooks that were used in the 70s and 80s. I used the Nuffield science textbooks when I was at school. We worked through the chemistry one from beginning to end, and it was possible to see that our teacher was certainly using the biology one, although not always that closely. Physics, however did not match the book in a way I could work out. I remember struggling to use it to revise from too. (Although I did OK!)

I believe that "Physics for You" is a fantastic book, and the first place I look when considering how to explain a topic in a clear succinct way. I have used both the GCSE and A-level versions of the book extensively throughout my career. It isn't a new book. 

Of course teachers should be using the best methods and materials in line with evidence and experience. But to have such a low rate of usage of a technology the rest of the world relies on should at the very least be questioned.
I can't disagree with this sentiment from Liz Truss. Who has it right? Does it make a difference? If there is a difference who is it to? A good textbook may help to reduce teacher planning time, this cannot be a bad thing. 

In her speech on April 10 2014 Liz Truss says just that: 

I’ve said before that there has been an ‘anti-textbook orthodoxy’ in this country. In TIMSS, an international study of maths and science teaching, an average of 75% of teachers in countries studied use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 10-year-olds.
In England - it’s 10%.
This doesn’t make sense to me: surely a well written and designed book or online course means that teachers can spend more time on subject knowledge development or working with children, rather than photocopying worksheets.
I am one of the 90% who don't use textbooks. All my students are assigned a textbook at the start of the Year. Key stage 3 get 'Scientifica' from Nelson Thornes. It seems you can buy it from amazon, but Nelson Thornes (OUP now) don't seem to have copies to sell (if I wanted them). They aren't what I want from a textbook. They do ask the students questions, but if you don't follow the scheme to the letter they aren't much use and the information can only be described as 'thin'. An amazon review describes the Year 7 book as "the book is looking exciting but it only is giving enough information if you have extra support from school. It does not give a clear overview of the subjects." 

At GCSE we give all the students a copy of the Collins OCR Gateway book. I don't use these in class either. They give the basics of what the students need, and on the whole are accurate, but they don't help the students understand or think for themselves. They don't help them make connections, and there are no where near enough activities. Their structure of dividing the information into low/medium/high demand is great for clarity on the students' working level, but I still prefer to give more succinct notes myself. The students who prefer not to make notes bring their revision guides to class and check what I write or present against what is written in the CGP guides. (I really don't like them either, but at £3.50, you can't argue with the cost).

At A-level my students don't use the book recommended by the exam board either:
Instead the girls have spent £37 each to buy advanced physics for you. The book gives clearer explanations, has many more worked examples, lot of simpler end of chapter questions and several examples of exam questions. And 'Advanced Physics for You' gives the answers! 

But, "Advanced Physics for You" does not have the information in the order for the specification I follow. Even "Advanced Physics for You" would benefit from even more example questions. Practice makes perfect. So I supplement the physics textbooks with more physics textbooks. I have the Collins book, the Heinman book, (I don't have Muncaster, but aim to get a copy), Calculations for A-level Physics, Practice in A-level Physics, Breithaupt etc etc. I can't afford to buy each of these books for all my students and to ask them to do it would cost a lot. 

So (forgive me) but I photocopy pages from these books as practice questions and activities for my students. This is what I want from my textbooks: questions and activities. This is what I don't get.

We chose to buy the red Edexcel book following the content-led approach and I do regret that. I have copies of the concept-led approach and find the resources, practical ideas, tasks and information much more informative. There is a lot to select from and this is something that I would prefer. The blue concept-led book is £5 more expensive than the red ones I have. 

So why not use books that do have lots of examples? 

One reason is cost. Physics for You (the GCSE version) is £21.99, the Collins book is £14.99, what would you choose if you had to buy 50 or 100 or more? (15 per classroom could be 155 copies, and that means 1 between 2, I worked with a geography teacher who couldn't believe we made students share in science - that is because we have 11 classes on at once, not 2).  Yes, there are ways you can get the cost down, only have the physics books in the classroom you teach physics, order textbook sets from the technician etc. 

Another reason is content. Exams require students to use technical terms in a specific way. Buying the book from the endorsed publisher means that book will contain those words in the right order as expected by the exam board. Shoot me, I am teaching to the test. 

I am afraid even though I consider the 'Physics for You' books as the best, they are simply not a viable option. (A personal reason for me is that we give the girls books and carrying a biology chemistry and physics book is too much for their bags, I hope that Nelson Thornes/OUP will consider an online-version 

Lastly, as a science as a science teacher I want a worksheet, especially when I am doing practical. An editable one that I can add details specific to my circumstance and equipment. My data loggers may need a greater level of explanation to allow the students to understand them. I might choose to give my class 50cm rulers instead of 1m rulers, I might want to use sulphuric acid instead of hydrochloric acid (although probably not!). I might want to give out a sheet so that I don't need to worry about a book taking up space in the working area. I might want my class to have photographs of the electrical equipment rather than a technical drawing. The platform on my microscopes may move instead of the lenses. I might not want my students to do the experiment in the book, they may have done it before in primary school, I might be pressed for time, I might want to develop a different skill so I need another activity.

My favourite ever textbook was Thinking Through Science Book 1.
As the name suggests there are thinking activities and it does exactly what Liz Truss suggests, building up the concepts and ideas. However, I have never had a class set or the teacher book. I still covet that. And, unfortunately book 2 and 3 were not of the same quality (although book 2 is still pretty good). I have (ah-hem) copied many of the activities from this book to use with my classes on worksheets because no school I have worked at ever had a class set. 

In a lot of ways I am glad that Liz Truss has challenged the publishers. She says that:
So for children, parents and teachers - a good textbook is far from restrictive.
It’s liberating.
 The issue is I haven't come across this liberating textbook (yet). I would love to see it. I would challenge Liz Truss to find me this book for less than £15 per student at KS3 and £20 at KS4.

Liz Truss talked about the possibility technology brings. I am exited by this. However, I think it will take me further from the textbook. (Another blog post I believe).

I find it ironic, that the most 'liberating' scheme of work I have used: Upd8 Segue is the most worksheet heavy (laminating, coloured worksheets, the works) scheme I use!

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