Nothing illustrates the dangers of letting politicians lead our education system more than their fascination with textbooks.
It’s a common weakness of politicians, businesses and lobbyists to conflate primary with secondary teaching. When you’ve done neither job it’s understandable that you might think the two are quite similar. That mistake is the explains the weakness of the foundations on which Schools Minister Nick Gibb has built his campaign for a widespread return to textbook use – one he claims is teacher-led.
Read his speech to the British Educational Suppliers Association and the Publisher’s Council in 2014 or his recent speech to the Policy Exchange think tank, and his focus on primary teaching, as well as on the teaching of maths, is self-evident. While I have a lot of sympathy with what he says about maths and primary teaching in those speeches, it is a leap of faith of gravity-free proportions to extend that thinking to secondary teaching and to textbooks.
The reason? Any secondary school teacher worth employing is a subject expert above anything else. Most will tell you what took them into the profession was a passion not for party politics or social change, but for their subject. They are mathematicians, geographers, chemists and linguists. It’s precisely when they are not these things that they do a poor job.
These teachers own the curriculum because they know their subject, which is one reason why only the weakest or poorly trained, rely wholly on a textbook, slavishly working their way through it from cover to cover and suffocating any interest their students’ may have had in the subject in the process. The best will almost certainly dip in and out of them, they may indeed find useful and valuable lesson material inside them, but they will always adapt, edit or reshape what they find there to meet their specific lesson circumstances. That’s part of what it means to act like a professional teacher.
But the real reason so many textbooks produced after the introduction of the national curriculum have had such a short shelf life – and been so poorly valued by so many professional teachers – is because they were written not by subject scholars, but by curriculum experts.
Driven by a tech industry that, like Mr Gibb conflates primary with secondary teaching, both digital and conventional publishers tend to commission material that was primarily “mapped to the national curriculum.” That “mapping” exercise put everything else on the backburner. They did this not because it was going to improve the quality of textbooks, or because it reflected high-quality teaching, but because too many business people assume teachers are lazy idlers who will only buy a textbook if it does their job for them.
Take a look at the subject guidelines produced by the Publishers Association and BESA, keenly supported by Mr Gibb, to see how deeply entrenched curriculum mapping is. Those for English have 54 separate principles an author is supposed to follow. But here are two that illustrate my point perfectly:
- Aligns with appropriate national guidelines, the National Curriculum, National Curriculum tests, GCSE and A-level subject content/criteria.
- Includes, where appropriate, clear learning objectives at the beginning of each chapter or unit, summaries at the end and opportunities for reflection and self-assessment.
These forget that, as a teacher, the intimate nature of the relationship between you and the material you choose, design or create yourself to build lessons around is absolutely central to your efficacy as a professional. No English teacher uses a poem they hate unless they have an ulterior and clever reason they know will make it effective. No skilled science teacher repeats an experiment they know a class will find numbingly dull. That is why all policy initiatives and business models that commission then deliver “content” to teachers, can only ever deliver at best, mediocre results in the classroom. That reductive little noun “content,” is illustrative of the low opinion of teachers too many businesses still cling to.
Teachers don’t “produce content” in the way teams of employees working on a production line produce frozen chips or even silicon chips. They pass on as much as possible of the passion they have for their subject to a new generation of children, so that they can think and act for themselves and hopefully lead richer lives as a result.
Some of them even pass exams on the way.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue