Hearken, if you will, unto DfE Minister Nick Gibb:
I would like to see all schools, both primary and secondary, using high quality textbooks in all subjects, bringing us closer to the norm in high performing countries … In this country, textbooks simply do not match up to the best in the world, resulting in poorly designed resources, damaging and undermining good teaching … Ministers need to make the case for more textbooks in schools, particularly primary schools.
At the conference of the Publishers Association (PA) and the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) at which Minister Gibb thus nailed his colours to a rather colourless mast, he did rather more than ‘make the case’ and modestly depart. (Minister Liz Truss had delivered the same message to the same audience a year earlier, to little effect). In the discussion that followed his speech Gibb said that publishers should produce the textbooks that teachers need, not what they want, and that if they don’t do so then DfE may have to introduce state approval or kitemarking of textbooks, as in some other countries.
There’s a lot to unpack and unpick here: the assumption that among PISA top performers it’s textbooks that make the difference (the familiar confusion of association with causality); that what appears to hold for secondary students tested by PISA must therefore hold for their primary school peers; that what works for maths works for all other subjects; that what teachers want for their pupils is not what those pupils need (teachers may wish to count to ten before responding); that PISA is all that matters; and that government has both the right and the competence to act as arbiters of textbook quality and impose its judgements on every teacher and child in the land.
There are also the familiar contradictions. In the same speech, the Minister characterised his government’s ‘new approach to educational policy’ since 2010 as ‘designed to foster the autonomy of the teaching profession and sweep away the prescriptive and ideological national strategies’. The national strategies were indeed prescriptive, but replacing one kind of prescription by another seems a decidedly odd way to foster professional autonomy. In any case, weren’t textbooks, albeit in ring binder form, central to Labour’s national strategies?
Ah, but the difference is that Labour’s policies were ‘ideological’ while the current government’s are dispassionate and objective. But to this helpful separation of the good guys from the bad (for without ministerial guidance how would we possibly tell the difference?) the Minister adds a further semantic tease. For while Labour’s textbooks/ring binders were ideological, the neglect of textbooks in English schools relative to their heavy use in Singapore (the system the Minister wants us to copy) was ideological too. Thus Gibb complains of ‘ideological hostility to the use of textbooks, particularly in primary schools.’
Ideological textbook prescription, ideological opposition to textbooks … Can he have it both ways? Yes indeed, for as used by ministers, ‘ideological’ means merely (of a phenomenon) what the minister doesn’t like, and (of a person) someone who has the audacity to disagree with him. Remember Minister Gibb’s erstwhile DfE colleague Michael Gove? In accordance with established legislative procedure he invited comment on drafts of the new national curriculum, only to lambast those whose comments were less than fulsomely supportive as ‘enemies of promise … Marxists hell-bent on destroying our schools.’ Clearly, such folk misread the DfE invitation. They should have known that ‘comment’ meant, as no doubt it does in North Korea, ‘applaud’. Who then is the Marxist – the respondent to DfE consultations, Kim Jong-un or Comrade Gove?
Rum cove, politics. And with the 2015 general election only a few weeks away there’ll be a lot more of this kind of thing before we’re done. So let’s momentarily escape and consider the substantive issue. Gibb’s PA/BESA speech made its case for textbooks by drawing on a paper by Tim Oates that looked at over 200 textbooks in five PISA high-performing jurisdictions, including Singapore, and compared them with England. Textbook use in England, at least in the crucial sense of textbook dependency and compliance, is indeed much lower: in the 2011 TIMSS survey, 70 per cent of Singapore teachers said they used textbooks as the basis for maths teaching compared with only 10 per cent in England; though here textbooks weren’t, as Gibb claimed, viewed with ‘ideological hostility’ but were used by 64 per cent of teachers ‘as a supplement’, which suggests that resources here are used flexibly rather than unquestioningly. Which also sounds reassuringly like teachers exercising the very professional autonomy that Gibb claims his government has fostered.
Oates shows how the best textbooks are well grounded in learning theory as well as subject content, and how they offer range, coherence and clarity in structuring that content for teaching. In other words, they can be, without question, a valuable resource. Further, he reminds us that high stakes tests have narrowed the curriculum (a post-1997 trend chronicled in the Cambridge Primary Review final report and again, for the period since 2010, in Wynne Harlen’s recent CPRT research review). Interestingly, he suggests that well-structured and ‘expansive’ textbooks ‘could be an antidote to such narrowing’. He adds that ‘in key jurisdictions, high performing teachers are well-disposed and enthusiastic about textbooks.’
All of this underlines Oates’s concern that opposition to textbooks in England confuses the question of textbook quality with unease about central prescription. But that unease, in view of Gibb’s remarks and the still-vivid memory of Labour’s national strategies and their policing by Ofsted, is hardly surprising; for the Minister is clearly saying that government, not the teaching profession, is the arbiter of textbook quality. Which is exactly the line that Labour took when it imposed its national strategies, extending that presumption of omniscience beyond lesson content to teaching methods, pupil grouping and the allocation of time. There’s a corrosive legacy of blatantly politicized intervention in teaching to which both Labour and Conservative need to own up if they wish their proposals to be viewed with other than the deepest suspicion.
Back to Oates. Although he notes that textbook use needs to be embedded in a coherent pedagogy and is just one of a number of ‘control factors’ whereby governments may try to ensure that the curriculum as taught ‘delivers’ the curriculum as prescribed, he does not address the ethical and political questions raised by this notion and its somewhat chilling vocabulary; for teaching is a moral matter, not merely a technical one. Nor, apparently, has he persuaded ministers to recognise that pedagogy is a system of interdependent elements rather than an aggregation of discrete factors that can be cherry-picked to fuel a media headline or score a political point in the way that ministers are currently doing with textbooks and their predecessors did with whole class teaching.
This alternative perspective is fundamental to my own work on pedagogy going back more than 30 years. It is no less fundamental to what is by far the largest, most detailed and most authoritative research study to date of educational practice in Singapore, a system which both Gibb and Oates wish England to emulate. The Core 2 Research Programme was led by David Hogan, who until recently was Principal Research Scientist at Singapore’s National Institute of Education and for nine years has intensively researched Singaporean schooling. He is currently working with his colleagues Dennis Kwek and Peter Renshaw on CPRT’s new research review on effective teaching. The Core 2 research is conspicuously absent from both Oates’s paper and ministers’ consciousness.
Core 2 entailed systematic observation, video-recording, interviews and outcome measures in a large and nationally representative stratified sample of Primary 5 (pupils aged 10-11) and Secondary 3 classrooms (14-15) where the unambiguous focus is examination preparation and success. Through multi-level statistical modelling the research team assessed the relationship between various classroom practices, including the use of textbooks, and student achievement in mathematics and English.
The Core 2 findings on the impact of textbooks, though in certain respects positive, are not as straightforward as our Minister would like. Hogan and his colleagues confirm that in Singapore teacher reliance on textbooks is indeed high in mathematics, though not in English. The effects of textbooks are statistically significant in models of the relationship between traditional instruction, direct instruction and student achievement. Overall, however, textbooks do not have a statistically significant impact in either maths or English; and while they do have a statistically significant indirect impact in maths, this is not the case in English.
This subject variation supports scepticism about the Minister’s blanket commitment to a textbook for every subject. But more important is Hogan’s insistence that it’s essential to look well beyond bivariate relationships of the kind that ministers prefer in order to grasp how textbook use and impact are part of the much larger and more complex business of pedagogy, which in turn is embedded in and shaped by culture, history, values and beliefs relating to teaching, learning, knowledge and the goals of education (issues that I investigated in some detail in my own five-nation Culture and Pedagogy).
Thus, in a recent email exchange, David Hogan told me that
In Singapore textbooks are an integral part of an assessment-driven instructional system that effectively integrates elements of traditional and direct instruction … It [does not focus] on learning for deep understanding through carefully designed and calibrated tasks intended to develop a broad range of skills, understandings and dispositions. Rather, it is a highly efficient and effective pedagogical system driven by a limited and highly instrumental and functionalist set of institutional rules.
Crucially, he added:
In my view it would be a mistake to permit textbooks to drive classroom pedagogy in English primary schools: given the current English assessment regime … it would further enhance the transformation of primary school classrooms into pedagogical facsimiles of secondary school classrooms. This might well improve the performance of English students in TIMSS and PISA, but it will compromise the quality of education they get.
And again, in a recent piece entitled ‘Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West?’ David Hogan warned:
Singapore’s experience and its current efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning do have important, if ironic, implications for systems that hope to emulate its success. This is especially true of those jurisdictions – I have in mind England and Australia especially – where conservative governments have embarked on ideologically driven crusades to demand more direct instruction of (Western) canonical knowledge, demanding more testing and high stakes assessments of students, and imposing more intensive top-down performance regimes on teachers.
In my view, this is profoundly and deeply mistaken. It is also more than a little ironic given the reform direction Singapore has mapped out for itself over the past decade. The essential challenge facing Western jurisdictions is not so much to mimic East Asian instructional regimes, but to develop a more balanced pedagogy that focuses not just on knowledge transmission and exam performance, but on teaching that requires students to engage in subject-specific knowledge building. Knowledge building pedagogies recognise the value of established knowledge, but also insist that students need to be able to do knowledge work as well as learn about established knowledge. Above all, this means students should acquire the ability to recognise, generate, represent, communicate, deliberate, interrogate, validate and apply knowledge claims in light of established norms in key subject domains.
In the long run, this will do far more for individual and national well-being, including supporting development of a vibrant and successful knowledge economy, than a regressive quest for top billing in international assessments.
The distinction arising from the Core 2 research between the pedagogies of performativity (curriculum coverage, knowledge transmission, test preparation and success) and knowledge building (defined in the quote above) is both crucial to our understanding of what goes on in Singaporean schools and highly relevant to the debate about England’s national curriculum and the role of textbooks in its implementation. For Hogan judges that Singapore’s undoubted prowess at performativity has been at the expense of the knowledge-building which is no less essential to social and economic progress and which he believes is one of the strengths of English education. As it happens, he has used these two versions of pedagogy to compare schools in Singapore and London, and on knowledge-building the London schools do well.
There’s clearly a discussion to be had about the narrower question of textbooks and other published resources in primary schools, and I hope this blog will encourage that. As a matter of fact, it’s a discussion in which many of us have been involved, via the Expert Subjects Advisory Group (ESAG) and CPRT’s own collaboration with the subject associations and Pearson, since long before Tim Oates presented his thoughts and Nick Gibb dropped his bombshell. Indeed, it was DfE itself that set up ESAG to help teachers locate and evaluate resources for implementing the new national curriculum in line with the new, post-Labour professional freedoms. Perhaps our Minister has forgotten that.
But the more fundamental debate, which is marginalised by ministers’ obsession with international test performance, is about the proper nature and purposes of 21st century education. To adapt the Minister’s comment at the PA/BESA conference: a test-driven curriculum and a textbook-driven pedagogy may be what Nick Gibb wants, but are they what our children need?
Since this blog coincides with the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the man who presided over Singapore’s remarkable economic and social transformation into the international powerhouse that it is today, it’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves of two salient differences mentioned by neither Oates nor Gibb: scale and politics. Singapore is a city state with 5.14 million inhabitants and just 182 primary schools (the corresponding figures for England are 53 million and 16,818). When manageable scale is combined with an authoritarian political regime, government has at its fingertips potent levers for rapid and wholesale systemic reform. As a comparativist I believe that it is essential to learn from others, and this blog reminds us that there is certainly much we can learn from Singapore. But, as David Hogan and the Core 2 research show, wrenching one factor in another system’s success from its cultural, political, historical, demographic and pedagogical roots is neither valid nor viable.
The Guardian obituary for Lee credits him with creating ‘a strong, pervasive role for the state and little patience for dissent.’ Given the current government’s track record on appointing advisers and handling evidence perhaps that’s the lesson from elsewhere that ministers would really prefer us to accept.
Given Nick Gibb’s disarmingly simple claims about textbooks and the much more complex evidence from Singapore it would be extremely helpful to this debate if primary schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted would tell us what part textbooks have played in their schools’ success.
We would also like to hear what teachers think – all teachers, not just those from schools deemed outstanding – about the Minister’s campaign for textbooks in all subjects in the primary phase, and his hint about DfE kitemarking. And of course about the kind of pedagogy that serves the larger purposes of primary education.