Editorial: Teaching by the book is no miracle cure

21st November 2014 at 00:00

I'm all for rigour - I can't get enough of it - and for Tim Oates, the man who led the government's national curriculum review and who sounds uncannily like Bill Nighy. But less convincing is Oates' promulgation of the textbook to provide structure to lessons and enable pupil progression.

His argument can be broadly summarised thus: teachers in Finland and Singapore make greater use of textbooks and they're pretty good at maths, so if we had some half-decent ones we would be too.

Not surprisingly, like his predecessor Liz Truss, schools minister Nick Gibb has seized on this. In the foreword to Oates' policy document he writes: "The fact that in England only 10 per cent of students' teachers use maths textbooks as the basis for their teaching compared to 70 per cent in Singapore and 95 per cent in Finland is a contributory factor in England's poor performance in maths compared to those countries."

There is, Gibb says, an anti-textbook ideology prevalent among teachers, particularly in primary schools, and as a country we have picked up some bad habits. He cites worksheets and the "hundreds of thousands of bespoke written lesson plans" that have "added to teacher workload, detracted from coherence and impacted on standards".

So there you have it. That workload problem? You caused it yourselves by trying to create imaginative and inspiring lessons and differentiating for the children in your class when all you needed was a few textbooks.

Unfortunately this solution isn't that great either, because, according to Oates, our textbooks are not up to scratch, having a "myopic focus" on exams and lacking in quality when compared to those of other countries. Publishers, of course, disagree.

The paper also suggests state approval of textbooks, although Oates sensibly advocates a proper accountability system, perhaps only too aware of recent problems in Russia. There, the list of approved textbooks was slashed in half for the beginning of the new school year, leaving teachers, publishers and parents puzzled and angry, The New York Times reported. One publishing house alone remained almost untouched - its chairman just happened to be a member of President Putin's inner circle.

Textbooks per se are not the problem here but prescription and the threat to autonomy. Teachers are regulated and controlled to within an inch of their lives. Planning is one area where they have freedom of choice. Although textbooks can provide a good basis to a lesson, overemphasising them is unnecessarily restrictive.

As Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union and herself a textbook author, says: "Teachers need to exercise their professional judgement about the resources they use."

Oates insists that reducing the complexity of lesson preparation leaves teachers with more time to refine and polish lessons - that is, take away the important, enjoyable and creative part and leave only the finishing touches.

The big fat pachyderm in the classroom is trust. Is rigour possible only if it is imposed from the top? Or can we trust teachers to choose wisely, think creatively and do what they think is right for their pupils? Rigour is not, and should never be, synonymous with rigid.



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